It has been a short life, but already too many demons have knocked on Mackenzie’s door. When she was 5 years old, a police officer entered her Puyallup home to confront her mom, who was high. The pounding is what she remembers most.
“Loud noises for kids, it’s fucking scary,” Mackenzie said, “Next thing I know, I’m being ripped from my mother.”
In the years that followed, she jumped around the foster care system, living in dozens of different homes. Then, at age 7, sitting on the edge of a therapist’s couch, she learned of her mom’s suicide. It was too much for the young girl.
“Something snapped in my brain,” she said. “I was so batshit. I was lost.”
Mackenzie, who asked that her last name not be used, is now 19 and one of the first residents at Phoenix Rising, a new independent housing program in Auburn for young adults. A project of behavioral health clinic Valley Cities, the campus will eventually house up to 24 individuals in single, dorm-like apartments and provide residents with job training and access to mental health services at an adjacent clinic. All residents were previously homeless or unstably housed.
Residents hold Section 8 vouchers — housing vouchers that allow people to rent market-rate housing with a government subsidy — and will pay a third of their income on rent. If they have no income, they don’t pay. Guided by a housing-first philosophy, each tenant at Phoenix Rising is expected to work with the program’s peer counselor, Jimmecia Douglas, to create a series of goals, though the program has few specific requirements.
Education and jobs are on the forefront of some residents’ minds, but Phoenix Rising was designed to be wide open, even “vague,” Valley Cities CEO Ken Taylor said. The idea is to help residents find a path to stability, independence and confidence that works best for them. That, Douglas said, will take time and patience.
“Having a place to call a home provides foundation for people moving forward in their lives, and a place to heal,” said Wendy Tanner, service director at Phoenix Rising.
For those who have been living outside and in between shelters for the last year — in some cases much longer — that starts with a load of laundry and a nap on a clean bed in a brand new, fully-furnished room.
The program opened in Auburn at a time when experts and youth advocates across King County are pushing for a more comprehensive approach to supporting young people on the streets. The experiences, as well as the specific health conditions, of homeless and unstably housed 18- to 25-year-olds are vast and diverse, not conducive to one-size-fits-all solutions.
Jim Theofelis, director of youth and young adult programs at Partners for Our Children, welcomed the new program. “Any time we are going to add capacity to our system, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Phoenix Rising receives referrals through a “coordinated entry” system that helps case managers connect people on the streets to housing. An assessment rates an individual’s vulnerability based on answers to questions about length of time without shelter, available community support, mental health status and so on. Phoenix Rising houses youth with a medium to high vulnerability score, and potential tenants are disqualified only if they have been convicted of arson or producing meth, or if they are a registered sex offender.
“We have some people with a criminal history,” Tanner said. “Our goal is to work with those people with those barriers to try and develop a good rental history for when, and if, they go out on their own.”
A criminal record is just one piece of the puzzle for some of the residents here. One young man said he had been using meth on and off over the last year. “It was just everywhere around me,” he said. And Mackenzie said she suffers from anxiety, a panic disorder and bipolar disorder.
In other words, the needs of the residents are complex. Theofelis, in his capacity at Partners for Our Children, labors over the question of how best to serve highly vulnerable youth.
“The challenge is in serving very high needs young people with the adequate level of support for them and the staff who serve them,” he said. “When it boils down to it, these programs need even more resources for youth to reach their full potential.”
Right now, Douglas is Phoenix Rising’s sole peer counselor, and she is responsible for working with all residents and connecting them to various services. She has support from her supervisor, as well as two housing operations staff, both of whom help manage the housing complex and are familiar with the residents. Additionally, a “crisis response network” will be set up to respond to incidents after hours and on weekends. Tanner, the director, said Phoenix Rising is also in the process of securing a case manager. A decision on a candidate is expected soon. “We have struggled with funding,” Tanner wrote in an email. “Of course, we did not get all the funding we requested for the type of services and level of support we believed were needed for this population.”
But, she added, Phoenix Rising is staffed at a higher level than a grant from King County allows, and they are using other funding sources for the remaining costs. Theofelis said that securing adequate funding for homeless youth services remains a challenge across the country.
The darkness in Mackenzie’s life subsided for a moment. She grew close to one woman in the foster system who made her feel supported and loved. But soon a familiar chaos returned. She was taken from her foster mother, presumed to be an alcoholic, and adopted by someone else. The fit wasn’t right. Her new family included six boys and two girls.
“I’m not a people person,” she said. “I need my space.”
Mackenzie and her adopted mom frequently clashed. Mackenzie found meaning in secular pursuits, while her new guardian turned to scripture for the final word.
At 17, she left and moved in with her boyfriend’s family. It was the best year of her life.
“Everything was so blissful to me,” she said. “I had just escaped an abusive home and I felt free.”
But housing complications arose. They had to leave the home where they were living, and the young couple moved into an RV owned by her boyfriend’s dad. It was too cramped. They went “coo-coo,” she said.
She started couch surfing. She spent a few nights in a tent. Finally, Mackenzie reconnected with her former foster mother, who tipped her on to Phoenix Rising.
Now, when Mackenzie strolls the short halls of her new apartment complex, she passes corkboards with job information hanging from pastel-colored walls. She’s anxious to find work, but most of all she seems to be reveling in her newly attained privacy, a space to call her own, where she can think, scribble in her journal and, eventually, write.
“Novels, short stories, screenplays, anything, you name it,” Mackenzie said, referring to what she likes to write. “Whenever I’m freaking out in my brain, I go to the paper.”
Asked if she was excited about her new space, she looked down and said softly, “Of course.”
Other residents at Phoenix Rising share the sentiment. Jacob Ashton, a 21-year-old who grew up in Massachusetts’ foster care system, said it was “the best program that I’ve been in ever.”
“And that’s saying something,” said Ashton, who had been living under a bridge in Eastlake before moving to Auburn. “I’ve been in a lot of them.”
He said he values the independence, that he gets “to be an adult.”
At some point, when construction is complete, residents here will be able to utilize an on-site cafe to gain barista experience, obtain a food handler’s permit and learn other customer service skills. Whether it will be a popular resource is difficult to say. Only 11 residents have moved in. Some could be gone by the time the cafe is ready for use.
Douglas said success is going to vary from person to person, and forcing services like job training and mental health care on residents is not the point. Success will be unique for each individual: maybe one moves on to her own housing, graduates, receives certification for a job. Or, Douglas said, a resident achieves a sense of self-clarity.
That of course looks different for everyone. But, she added: “All progress is good progress.”