The homelessness crisis continues to rage throughout the Puget Sound region and while the homeless struggle to obtain vital attention for their situation, one demographic is particularly vulnerable.
Young adults leaving the foster care system are often unprepared to live on their own. Previously, the state gave these 18-year-olds a check and a pamphlet with tips on how to live alone and a list of homeless shelters.
This was before Friends of Youth stepped in.
“There was almost an expectation that when you leave the foster care system, you might need a shelter from time to time,” said Bill Savoy, Friends of Youth board chair, “It’s really kind of a low set of expectations.”
Friends of Youth is a nonprofit, founded in 1951, that works with children, young adults and families to help kids in challenging circumstances overcome their situations and fulfill their potential.
Friends of Youth was a main advocate for and now operates extended foster care programs in Washington, which allows young people to stay in the system until they’re 21.
According to Savoy, these young adults have jobs and must have a plan while Friends of Youth gives them shelter.
ONE OF THOSE KIDS
Savoy has dedicated much of his time and money to these youths and Friends of Youth since 1999 when the CEO at the time introduced him to some of the organization’s clients.
“I was certain that they were joking that they knew my story or that I could easily have been one of those kids. I could’ve been,” Savoy said. “I realized that I found the thing that was going to connect with me.”
Savoy worked under Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, from 1988 to 2003, just as the company skyrocketed, and was able to begin a “mission of check-writing.”
This eventually led to Savoy’s involvement with the Friends of Youth board and a house dedication in Kirkland named for Jim and MaryAnn Orrison, a couple who helped him during a difficult time in his youth.
Savoy grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family and said he left as soon as he was able.
“It was not a healthy situation by any means,” he said.
As a 17-year-old in Massachusetts, Savoy lived out of his car and in a barn while finishing-up high school and working on a farm.
“I figured I could do this for a couple years and then I’ll figure a way to do something else,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have a job.”
Two faculty members at his school, the Orrisons, found out and ended up gaining legal guardianship over Savoy.
“They kicked up their heels and embarrassed my real mother and father enough that my mother and father signed me away. Like, ‘Okay, you have him.’”
Savoy lived with the Orrisons for a year before they lost their jobs and had to move away. Savoy was set to go to college at that point.
“It was the most transformative year in a person’s life,” he said. “I thanked them as much as a 20-year-old kid can, for what they did for me, but I was staying in Massachusetts.”
A VULNERABLE POPULATION
This experience led to Savoy’s passion to support Friends of Youth and help youths who come from challenging homes and those who aren’t ready to live on their own.
“If they’re not ready at 18 they shouldn’t be dumped out on the street,” Savoy said, “You should never exit a kid to homelessness.”
These foster care, youth and family services are only two branches of Friends of Youth. The organization also has a shelter for 18-24-year-olds in Redmond, which is constantly at capacity according to Savoy.
Homeless youth are particularly victimized by human trafficking and Friends of Youth has programs and resources for young people who’ve been trafficked or prostituted.
Runaway and homeless youth are also highly vulnerable to significant health risks, including survival sex, sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse, depression and suicide, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Friends of Youth provides low-barrier shelter that intentionally take in youth regardless of their issues because it is more difficult for them to overcome their problems without shelter.
“It used to be, for example, if some 20-year-old kid showed up on your doorstep, homeless, you’d say, ‘I can help you if you are clean and sober.’” Savoy said. “And the kid says, ‘Well then I’m going to stay on the streets because I have no mechanism to get clean and sober, what I’m looking for is a roof over my head.’”
Shelter is the most important tool to help someone deal with their life problems, according to Savoy.
Friends of Youth often struggles with how to expand its programs and homelessness is a problem that would, ideally, fade into nonexistence through organizations like it.
“It’s ironic, the strategic plan for the agency should be to go out of business.” Savoy said. “We shouldn’t need this service. This is not progress…I’d love it for the thing to be in a slow decline to zero, but it doesn’t seem like that’s gonna happen.”
Terry Pottmeyer, CEO of Friends of Youth, said she wishes the company would never have to grow in the future, adding that the organization is an extension of her purpose in life: To support children and young people.
“We work with children who are experiencing great challenges in their lives and I would like to envision a future where children did not experience those challenges,” she said.
Savoy and Pottmeyer have similar ideas on how Friends of Youth should operate and Savoy fully supports her as the board chair.
LEAVING A LEGACY
Currently, the agency wants to grow its board with more community participation and dedicate more houses and plaques similar to how they dedicated the Orrison house.
“All of my support for Friends of Youth was because of the thing that Jim and his wife had done for me,” Savoy said.
The Orrison’s and Savoy had been out of contact for about 25 years when they contacted him in April with news that Jim Orrison, Savoy’s foster father, was dying of brain cancer.
Savoy then requested that they dedicate one of their residential care facilities to the Orrisons, which Pottmeyer and the board eagerly approved.
“It’s such a pleasure to be able to acknowledge them because through their support of him during a time when he needed it, he’s been able to turn around as an adult and really support Friends of Youth and the youth we serve,” Pottmeyer said.
Friends of Youth dedicated the house last month and had a Friends of Youth night at a Seattle Mariners game at which 500 kids, youth and staff had free seats and MaryAnn Orrison threw the first pitch of the game.
Pottmeyer and Savoy said they both hope to tell more of these stories about foster parents doing what they do.
“I would not be sitting here today if it wasn’t for Jim and MaryAnn Orrison,” Savoy said. “The return on whatever food they put in my mouth and sheltered me, payed off hundreds of millions fold for the benefit of the kids in the future…In my mind, that’s the amazing part of the story, it wasn’t a bear hug, it wasn’t an intervention, it was a ‘Hey, the kid needs a helping hand, let’s do what we can right now and it’ll all work out.’ That’s kind of why I support Friends of Youth, because I know that I’ll never know the end of the story.”