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OAK HARBOR, Wash. — Nicole Sorensen wouldn’t settle for a home without two spare bedrooms.
When she and her husband Ben moved back to Washington in 2015, the young couple knew they’d have to find a place to support a growing household.
Nicole Sorensen (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
But Sorensen, 23, wasn’t planning for the day she’d start her own family.
She was more worried about the homeless youth and young adults in her Whidbey Island community who don't have a safe place to sleep at night.
Local communities are grappling with the best way to end youth and young adult homelessness. At least 13,000 young people in Washington state don’t have a stable place to call home, according to a 2016 estimate from the Washington Department of Commerce Office of Homeless Youth.
Yet, experts said the price tag to open and maintain a youth shelter in some small communities is too high, leaving homeless youth in those areas with few options. Even in some large urban areas shelter staff have to turn away hundreds of young people seeking shelter each year because there aren't enough beds.
Sorensen knows what it feels like to be turned away. For much of her childhood, she was homeless, too. She bounced around from couch to couch to escape alcohol addiction at her family home.
So now that she owns her own home, she’s decided to share it and become a part of a little-known, low-cost solution to expanding housing for homeless and vulnerable youth.
Nicole Sorensen (right) plays cards with Miya Springer, 19, and Roman Jiles, 20. Sorensen has taken in the two homeless young adults at her Oak Harbor home. (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
“If every community embraces this idea as an option to help their homeless youth, I think that we can get more and more homeless youth off the streets and get them more into stable living situations so that they can focus on their school work,” said Lori Cavender, executive director of Ryan's House for Youth in Coupeville.
The arrangement is called a “host home.” It puts community members in charge of providing shelter, mentorship and stability for young people who don’t have anywhere else to go. In many cases, those youth also get access to advocates and other resources to help them succeed after their stay.
“Shelters are necessary, but often times have an institutional feel. A host home recognizes that systems can’t do everything. The community needs to respond,” said Ryan Berg, who manages one of the nation’s oldest host home programs in Minneapolis.
There are currently just a handful of host home programs across Washington state — in cities like Tacoma, Coupeville and Seattle — but homeless advocates are pushing for the programs to expand locally and nationwide.
“There’s this overflow problem (at shelters)," said Cavender, who started a host home program to serve unaccompanied 12- to 24-year-olds who need a place to stay on Whidbey Island.
"You’re still trying to tell someone there’s no room for them that night. You’re still getting the young person that’s crying on your doorstep that they don’t want to sleep outside. So why not create host families?”
Host home programs are difficult to start in some states, but Washington lawmakers passed a bill last spring that reduced barriers facing local homeless advocates. The law allows host home programs to operate outside of the state's foster care system, despite earlier resistance from state Department of Social and Health Services officials who thought the host families should be licensed to house youth under the age of 18.
Sorensen said she and her husband have hosted eight homeless young adults — ranging from 17 to 22 years old — at their Oak Harbor home since 2015. The couple is one of 38 families who’ve taken in homeless youth through the Ryan's House program since 2011.
“For me, it’s healing. You get to watch these youth come out of their shells with their big brick walls protecting them and watch them transform and be successful adults,” Sorensen said.
‘I Don’t Feel Homeless Living Here'
Every host home program is different, but in most cases the homeless youth and young adults get to choose the families they live with, and the families have a say, too.
“We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘This seems like foster care to me.’ But this is different. When a young person organically finds someone who could be a host home provider, it’s more like a mentor,” said Paula Carvalo, youth programs manager at the Mockingbird Society, an advocacy group for Washington's foster care children. “There’s less structure than foster care and it’s more supportive than a group home.”
Some host home programs, like Shared Housing Services in Tacoma, are designed to look like roommate situations. The goal is to help young persons build good rental history so they can get back on their feet.
In other programs, the relationships can go deeper. The youth become a part of a family, often with an all-access pass to the fridge, the shower and — in Sorensen’s case — a “big sister” who picks them up from football practice, takes them to a doctor appointment and shares a meal. It’s a taste of a healthy family lifestyle many homeless youth have never seen.
“You get to have a home. You get to invite your friends to come and hang out with you — in your home. Not in your shelter,” Sorensen said.
Miya Springer, 19, and Roman Jiles, 20, sit on the front steps of their host home in Oak Harbor. (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
About two years before Miya Springer moved into Sorensen’s house in February, the then 17-year-old said she spent most nights sleeping on a park bench in Langley.
She slept next to her backpack, stuffed with the uniform she had to wear to her shift at a local grocery store.
“It was so cold at night,” Springer said. “It’s really scary thinking about it.
But the hardest part, she said, was her daily search for a better option.
“I’d go to work, and I’d think about who I could ask to stay at who’s house that night. Where could I go? What can I give them in exchange for letting me stay at their house? Could I bring some food to their house? Could I clean for them? What could I do?” she said.
Now 19, Springer said she is homeless for the second time due to a drug addiction that she said she's trying to curb. Sorensen recently gave Springer a room at her home while the teenager waits to get into a drug treatment center.
But Springer has gained more than a bed.
“I don’t feel homeless living here. I feel like this is my home, too. She makes it feel like my home,” she said.
Miya Springer (left) plays a game of Go Fish with Nicole Sorensen (right). (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
That’s a big deal for this teen, who says she spent the past few months fending off the knife-wielding people she stayed with. Now, Springer spends her days playing cards and watching Netflix with her host family.
“I can just walk into the fridge and get breakfast. If I’m hungry, I can get a snack. It beats living on a park bench by far,” she said.
It’s a slice of normalcy Springer said she hasn’t felt in years. Experts say that "normal" feeling drives the success of host home programs.
“When you feel like you’re a part of that family, you feel like you can do things that you are needing to do to be successful because you don’t have to worry about ‘Where is my food coming from?’ or ‘Where is my safety going to be?' or 'Where am I going to sleep tonight?” said Nicole Guiberteaux, who runs the host home program at the YMCA of Greater Seattle.
But homeless advocates agree the arrangements aren’t the right solution for everyone.
"For some youth who have lived on their own for a long period of time, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling to all of a sudden have to check in to tell someone where you’ve been. Some of these youth didn’t even do that with their own biological families, and they don’t understand what it’s like to live with family. That’s when a shelter would be a better option for them,” Cavender said.
An Inexpensive Answer For Small Communities
When Cavender founded Ryan’s House in 2008, there were no shelters on Whidbey Island for homeless youth.
She drove around a fully-stocked van to pass out toiletries, clothing, sleeping bags and water to the vulnerable young people she encountered daily. Eventually, she opened a drop-in center in Coupeville to give them a safe space to shower and have a meal.
The entrance of the drop-in center at Ryan’s House For Youth in Coupeville, Washington. (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
But that wasn’t enough to help the dozens of unaccompanied 12- to 24-years-olds who needed to escape the woods, chicken coops and sheds that doubled as homes.
“It’s hard to say to a young person, 'Sorry, we don’t have a bed for you tonight, and we have to close the doors of the drop-in center. We can give you a shower, wash your clothes, give you a hot meal but at 7 o'clock, you have to be out on the streets or find another place to go.' It's hard to watch an 18-, 19-year-old young man sobbing because he doesn’t want to go back outside,” she said.
Cavender knew they needed beds. So she tried to open a homeless youth shelter, but learned quickly the community couldn’t afford it.
Lori Cavender (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
"There was no funding to build one. It was going to be about $500,000 to build one per licensing requirements, and it was going to be another $500,000 a year to run it for the first year. Because we're in a small community and because our local planning department doesn’t have shelters on the books, we would have only been able to put 10 to 12 youth in a shelter at a time,” she said.
That’s when she stumbled on a cheaper option — and really, the only option Island County residents had: calling on local community members to help.
“It doesn’t matter how many blankets and bottles and granolas I handed out,” she said. “The issue was homes. The issue was a place for them to lay their heads that was safe and warm and secure, and not in an abandoned van that doesn’t run when it’s snowing outside.”
At a minimal cost, Cavender launched the host home program that has helped keep nearly 40 children and young adults off the streets since 2011. The host families who participate in Cavender’s program don't receive any money from Ryan's House for Youth. They open their homes and feed their guests for free, and Ryan’s House For Youth supplies toiletries, clothing, and a cell phone.
Homeless experts said host home programs are one of the least expensive ways to expand housing for youth. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the lights on at a shelter and hire 24/7 security, host home programs can run with just a skeleton staff -- especially if the host families are volunteers.
A 13-year-old boy plays a video game after school at the Ryan’s House For Youth drop-in shelter. The boy is waiting for a host home placement. (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5)
Sorensen was one of Cavender’s first volunteers, and today she's joined her staff as the office manager at Ryan's House For Youth. The pair met when Sorensen was in 6th grade — back when she didn’t have a consistent place to stay.
“Lori was there at 2 a.m. if I ever needed somebody. There were days when I felt my world was crashing down, and I could call her,” she said. "She was one of the consistent adults that I had in my life. She invited me to come stay in her house.”
In the Ryan's House host home program, homeless youth stay with their host families anywhere from several days to several years, depending on individual needs, Cavender said. A few times, the arrangements have become permanent.
“We’ve had two youth who were adopted (by their host families) after they turned 18 and so they got forever families out of it,” she said.
Cavender has traveled across the country and in Washington state to help communities that want to try the approach. Recently, she said she’s provided trainings for organizations in Bellevue, Yakima and Longview. Each is preparing to create its own host home program.
Not Enough Beds At Shelters
Unlike Whidbey Island, other communities do have shelters for homeless youth and young adults.
King County, for example, is home to six young adult shelters. But there aren’t enough beds available to serve every person who needs one.
“It’s hard to go to your job when you don’t know whether you are going to get into the shelter that night or whether you’re going to miss your shower turn because there’s too many people,” said Mark Putnam, director of All Home, the agency that coordinates homeless services across King County.
In 2016, young adult shelter staff turned away hundreds of 18- to 24-year-olds who lined up for a bed in King County, according to self-reported data tracked by All Home.
In June, the Accelerator YMCA of Greater Seattle, kicked off one of the state's newest host home programs to fill the void.
“This is a way to expand the housing resources in King County. Period,” said Guiberteaux, who runs the program. "We don’t have time, and we don’t have the funding to be able to build two, three, four shelters if we can ask, two, three, four community members to open up their homes.”
The program serves 18 to 24 year olds in King County, as young adults are harder to place than homeless youth. During the last three months of 2016, 641 young adults were waiting for a housing placement in King County, according to data from the county’s coordinated entry system.
“I think systematically this has always been our focus age group,” said Guiberteaux, who runs the YMCA's host home program. "Yes, their age may say they are an adult but their mentality is not at an adult level right now. We know their brains are not developed until they are 25. They are still kids. They need to be guided and nurtured.”
Back in Oak Harbor, Sorensen and her husband aren’t expecting to have their home to themselves anytime soon.
“I don’t know what to expect to each day. I may have plans to do something one day, and if a youth’s world starts crashing down, well, my plans change. But I knew what I was getting into," Sorensen said.
She recently offered a room to Roman Jiles, a 20-year-old who was stranded in an unsafe situation at 2 a.m.
"She helped me get off the streets because I was lost. I was wondering around Oak Harbor for about five hours," Jiles said.
Roman Jiles (Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
For some who volunteer to take in homeless youth, it's a temporary way to give back to those in need.
For Sorensen, it's more than a temporary calling. It's her life.
"Because of these wonderful people in my life, I am where I am today. I feel like it’s my duty to make sure there’s someone there for these youth," she said. "This is where my heart is. This is where I think my life will be.”
Want to get involved with Washington’s host homes?
The below organizations run local programs.