It was 1995 when Zackary Tutwiler, a 15-year-old homeless kid surviving in Seattle, took his first step into the world of activism.
Tutwiler, now a Real Change vendor, would go from overnight shelter to the Orion Center, a drop-in day center for young people, and back again. It was an endless cycle, and there was precious little hope of breaking it.
At the time, Tutwiler didn’t know the power of his own voice. He, like so many vulnerable youth, wasn’t listened to.
The youth couldn’t communicate what they needed from adults and the system because the adults in the system were not listening.
“We all wanted peace for the living situations that we were in and around us, so we could get the services we needed at the time,” Tutwiler said.
With that shared vision as a lodestar, Tutwiler and his peers — along with a teacher named Elaine Simons — created Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, an advocacy organization better known by its initials, PSKS.
That experience, and the years of work that came after it, opened Tutwiler’s eyes to what he was capable of, to what was possible for him.
“Working with Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets gave me a vision of true activism,” Tutwiler said.
At the end of this year, PSKS will end. It sank under the weight of high costs and too little funding. Its closure is ripping through the PSKS alumni community and splitting open old wounds from the dramatic 2012 ouster of Simons, the former executive director.
It also means 25 fewer beds for one of the most vulnerable populations of homeless people in the city, a deficit that city leaders hope they will be able to close before PSKS shuts its doors forever.
Lack of investment leaves no clear path
Click through any link to the PSKS website, and the first thing you see is a message from the group’s board of directors.
“Dear Supportive Community,” the note begins, before spelling out the rest of the organization’s short future.
After two years trying to chart a better course with a new nonprofit partner, the board of directors decided that there was no clear path forward for the small youth shelter and service center. In 2018, the group accepted a contract worth $333,306 from the city of Seattle to support its Homeless Youth for Peace and Empowerment (HYPE) program, which offered meals, a chance to grab a shower, clean clothes and recreation, among other services. Around the same time, they upgraded their basic shelter services to an “enhanced” shelter model, meaning that the 25 youth who stayed there could count on a bed to sleep in and storage for their stuff each night.
But the new money from the city didn’t cover the costs, and fundraising was down, said Sylvia Fuerstenberg, interim executive director of PSKS.
“We’re all sort of struggling with that, as nonprofits and government entities with whom we have contracts are not increasing their reimbursement, even though the cost of doing business in Seattle is rising astronomically,” Fuerstenberg said.
Leadership looked for opportunities to consolidate PSKS under the umbrella of another, larger organization with deeper pockets, but board members wanted at least three years of bridge funding to make the merger attractive, and only one of the major funders in the area stepped up. It wasn’t enough.
The root problem is a lack of investment from entities with money, Fuerstenberg said.
“Our major funders are buying a discounted service,” Fuerstenberg said. “They’re buying 50 cents of the dollar we need. We don’t have money to spend on databases, employee benefits. What we’re paying our staff is well below what’s being paid in the region, and is not acceptable, so we have really high turnover.”
Losing 25 beds is a blow in a system that doesn’t have nearly enough for the estimated 1,089 youth and young adults counted in King County’s annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness.
Losing them in the middle of winter is especially hard. Shelters that serve this population are already at capacity, Fuerstenberg said.
Saved from the brink once before
PSKS isn’t new to money troubles. The organization nearly folded in 2012, but Simons, the executive director and co-founder, appealed to the community for support. Real Change reported at the time that donors poured $200,000 into PSKS to save it, including $20,000 from the city of Seattle.
Even so, in a process that enraged Simons’ supporters, the board of directors forced her out of the nonprofit that she had painstakingly built through outreach, organization and engagement with young people.
Now, Simons is sidelined, watching PSKS break down.
She isn’t happy about it.
“I was the co-founder and executive director for 17 years,” Simons said. “I would never have done that.”
When Simons co-founded the organization with young people, including Tutwiler, it was a very different beast than the PSKS of today. The youth learned how to organize — how to make demands of lawmakers to improve conditions that affected them.
They fought against “Becca’s law,” which required the institutionalization of runaway or truant youth, among other things, that the Washington state legislature passed in 1995. They threw a concert attended by then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Gov. Gary Locke.
PSKS also wasn’t exclusively for young people.
Mama Sara is 66 years old. More than 20 years ago, she was drug addicted and found PSKS kids in Reservoir Park reading bills by candlelight to prepare for a lobbying trip to Olympia.
She was impressed and intrigued.
“I was 45 when I ran into PSKS, and wanting to make a change and ha[d] no fucking idea how,” Mama Sara said.
PSKS and Simons gave her that “how,” involving her in their work and bringing her into the family.
“One day I looked up, and I was so busy that I hadn’t gotten high in a week,” Mama Sara said.
She thought she had grieved the death of PSKS in 2012. She didn’t expect the closure news would hurt as much as it did.
“Since I found out about PSKS closing, I felt abandoned, adrift, rootless,” Mama Sara said. “The place was supposed to be like grandma’s house — it was always supposed to be there.”
The heart will go on
Mama Sara’s loss was echoed by several former participants who Simons directed to Real Change. Katie Rockwell broke into tears talking about the impact the place had on her deceased son, whose street name was Cisco. Rellik, a more recent PSKS participant and volunteer who ran game nights on Fridays, said the attitude toward youth there was singular among drop-in shelters.
“You had it hard already. Let’s not make it harder,” he said, describing the feel of the place.
But even with PSKS gone, its legacy lives on through the people whose lives it touched, and whose lives it saved.
“It hurts me that they’re going to shut that down. No matter what, the vision of PSKS will stick within my heart because it was an organization that I helped put together,” Tutwiler said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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