Jen Russo discovered she was pregnant when she was 19. When she went to Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS) soon after, she'd found the only drop-in center in Seattle for homeless youth that does not enforce an age cap for services. "I was a pretty bad drug addict," she says.
For two years as a teen, she had migrated from the Ave. in the U-District to the streets of Capitol Hill with her boyfriend. "Honestly, it was when I was [looking at] being a single mom that I thought it was time to get it together."
The lack of an age cap at PSKS proved invaluable to Russo. The drop-in center supported her not only at 19, but as a young adult of 23 -- as well her daughter, Jada -- until mother and child were ready to be off the streets for good.
PSKS's GED program, Re-Inventing Steps to Knowledge (RISK), offered Russo the chance to complete her high school degree. Their child-friendly center (one of only two youth drop-in programs allowing young parents to bring children with them to get services) was there to "help wherever it was needed," Russo says. She admits she slipped in and out of old habits at times in those first years and wasn't always eager to come in. The no-pressure system of the drop-in center made it easy.
By 22, Russo's vision for her life, and for her daughter's, had changed. She that realized not only did she need a GED, but a job, childcare and a place to live. Jeff Corey, PSKS case manager for 21- to 26-year-olds, took her on and helped her with employment and permanent housing support.
"I just love PSKS because they accept you, they don't care. They keep [their] doors open if you've aged out, let you bring your kids," says Russo.
Not all of her friends seeking to transition were so for tunate. The waiting list for help at PSKS and other youth employment programs is far longer than the caseload of 45 people Corey can see each year. And beyond PSKS, options for youth past their 21st birthday are slim.
"People, when they are [beyond 21], that's just when they're starting to realize party-time's over and we need to get on our feet," says Russo. "You start to realize there's more to life than living on the street and really want to pursue what's going to better your life." At most places, she adds, "that's just when they cut us off."
"I think there's a missing link between youth services and adult services," says Corey. He acknowledges that PSKS is one of the only places that provide case management and employment training for that 21 - 26 age group that isn't a large adult service agency downtown.
"For the most part it's 18 and under -- 18 to 21 -- and then everything above that is its own group," Corey says. "Twenty-two to 65 seems like a pretty huge age group to cover. Kids on the Hill, even at age 24, identify much closer with peers who are 19 than guys who are 45."
Without the support of a youth-oriented drop-in center, the imposing nature of the largely dispersed "adult" services deters a lot of young adults from going to shelters or seeking resources. Those who do go find a far longer wait for DSHS services, including rehab and employment training, than they would ever expect to see at a drop-in.
Some young people also find it hard to leave their street family. PSKS addresses this with Step Beyond, a program specifically for young adults over 21 who are ready to move forward without losing the identity and friendships created while on the street. Blue McKeon, 22, attests to its success. "[Step Beyond] saved my ass!" he says.
Since age 16 he had been on and off the streets. "I didn't really stay in any shelters [when I became homeless]. I heard so many horror stories," he says. "And you don't want to go first to a youth program, then a young adult, then adult. You don't wanna tell your story to so many people in a week."
At Step Beyond, he found he didn't have to keep telling his story: He could be himself. "It's nice to have a group with people who have all been in similar situations, to relate to, to say, 'I hate payin' bills.' The raunchiness of our days on the street comes right back. Ah, man, it's like a family."
With his case manager's help, McKeon found full-time employment at the Plymouth Housing Group and rents an apartment of his own. But PSKS remains his greatest support network. "You get so tight," he says. "I hang with the crowd I'd be homeless with, but [Step Beyond] keeps you safe"
Russo will be joining Step Beyond's women's group this year, while other young adults are still on the waiting list. "I definitely think there should be more drop-in centers that help [older young adults] get on their feet," Russo says. "In Seattle, there are a ton of [youth centers], but once you age out, there's one."
PSKS has made the difference for Russo. She starts college this fall, in a culinary arts and baking program. Through the center, she was able to find a house and get her daughter into pre-school. But many of her still-homeless friends face frustration.
"PSKS, they can only take so much," she continues. "There's so many of us that some get left out."