When Joshua Harris first became homeless, he didn’t know that young adult shelters like Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets existed.

The 24-year-old slept outside. He slept in adult men’s shelters. There were always people doing drugs in those shelters, Harris said, and getting into fights. He didn’t feel like he could relax or sit his stuff down and trust that it would be there when he got back.

So when Harris arrived at the shelter, known as PSKS, in Capitol Hill about a month ago, he found a home for his shoes, one that catered specifically to young people like himself. Because PSKS is an enhanced shelter, with more services than many facilities, Harris was given a permanent bed and no longer had to wait in line for a place to sleep every night. He was given a black, plastic trunk, labeled lucky No. 13, to store his things. A crack in the top of his trunk revealed swatches of colors, pieces of clothing that finally had a place to stay.

However, Harris’ stay at PSKS was short-lived: After nearly 25 years in operation, PSKS closed its doors for good recently.

Harris cleaned out his trunk, packing all that he had into a backpack and some bags. “I travel light,” he said.

Since its founding in 1995, PSKS developed a reputation for having fewer entry requirements, casting a wider net for people to access its resources. It often represented a last hope for many young adults experiencing homelessness. Its closure will reduce Seattle’s capacity to provide emergency shelter services for young people by nearly 20%, leaving 115 beds for homeless young adults in Seattle.

The demand for such shelter remains high, despite a drop in youth homelessness last year. Before PSKS announced its closure last summer, staff members had to turn people away at night, because all 25 beds were full, said shelter staff member Jonathon Witt.

At times this year, there were so many young people looking for a place to sleep that Witt would sometimes find one curled up in the bathroom or sleeping on the couches, hoping that if they looked asleep, he wouldn’t ask them to leave.

More than 1,200 young people in King County, ages 18 to 24, were homeless during last year’s one-night homeless count, a 28% decrease from the year before. More than half of them, however, had no shelter.

“It’s (PSKS) not closing because it isn’t needed,” PSKS board member Andrea Vitalich wrote in an op-ed she published in The Seattle Times in October. PSKS is closing, Vitalich said in a recent interview, due largely to rising costs, insufficient funding and a booming real-estate market too high for them to compete in.

For years, PSKS paid “reasonable” rent, Vitalich said, to Mount Zion Baptist Church, which owned the building that PSKS occupied on the first floor. When the property, located on the corner of Pine Street and 19th Avenue in Capitol Hill, sold to a developer in 2016, every tenant lost its lease, said PSKS Executive Director Gail Wilder.

“PSKS made a bid for that property,” Vitalich said. “The developer outbid us by $100,000.”

Since learning that it would have to relocate, PSKS’ board of directors have sought many options, Vitalich said. On two separate occasions, they looked at what it would take to merge their services with a similar organization in an attempt to try and decrease administrative costs, but they found that many nonprofits, like themselves, are facing similar struggles.

“Between the cost of moving and capital improvements that would have to be made to a new space, coupled with the funding we receive …” Vitalich explained, “it isn’t sufficient to cover the costs of services being provided.”

In addition, Vitalich said, it’s been extremely challenging to hire and pay competitive rates to retain staff with the right skills for meeting the complicated needs of the population they serve. Because PSKS was a low-barrier shelter, it allowed couples, people with pets and people with active addictions to stay there. Unlike some shelters that require a photo ID, PSKS would allow a two-week grace period to try and help the person get a new ID.

Since PSKS announced its closing, slowly its occupancy rate has fallen, from 25 people to six. Some residents, like Samantha Ruiz, used the announcement as their cue to leave the state.

Ruiz started staying at PSKS in August. By mid-December she’d acquired a pile of clothes, old CDs she bought at thrift stores and a pair of red boxing gloves that a resident left behind.

“This place lets you hold things,” Ruiz said. It’s the first shelter she’s ever lived in. They treated her so well, Ruiz said, she ended up staying much longer than she ever expected.

On the day after Christmas, Ruiz bought a bus ticket to New York City. She’d been wanting to go for a long time, and PSKS’ impending closure gave her the final push she needed.

Other people have moved to temporary or permanent housing with the help of PSKS’ staff, Wilder said. For the six remaining residents staying at the shelter on its last night, almost all were hoping to move to one of the other young-adult shelters in Seattle, at least for the short term.

It was nearing midnight when Harris made it to the shelter for the night, after working a late shift.

After signing into the building and joking with staff members, he made his way to the shelter kitchen to eat salmon chowder leftover from earlier. He moved with ease through the space, settling down in the large common room so he could heat up the chowder in the microwave.

“Merry Christmas” he said to resident Hazel Seymour, who sat at a large, round table. “You’ve been gone for a minute, girl.” Seymour spent the last two days visiting some of her family for Christmas.

Harris keeps track of the other residents. For Seymour’s 19th birthday, he took her to the movies and then to Subway for dinner.

People call Harris “the shelter dad.” Some days, he helps the staff members take out the trash. He keeps chocolate on him to give to the others.

The support goes both ways. “This place has been holding me together,” he said.

But experiencing homelessness means there’s always a chance that the feeling of home and familiarity could go away.

This could have been Harris’ last week at the shelter, regardless. He turned 25 recently. The cutoff age for many young-adult shelters is 24. So even if PSKS would have remained open, he technically would have had to leave anyway. He’s been working to apply for rapid housing, but since he can no longer use PSKS’ address on forms, he’s not sure how that’s going to work now.

By the afternoon on the shelter’s last day, Harris still wasn’t sure where he was going to sleep that night.

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©2020 The Seattle Times

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