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caption: Tamara Guyton (left), with renter Noel Hutton and Cwyn Glenn
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Tamara Guyton (left), with renter Noel Hutton and Cwyn Glenn
Credit: KUOW Photo/Kate Walters

Got a spare room? This program wants to use it to help homeless youth

For about a year, Cwyn Glenn was moving around. She stayed at shelters in Seattle for a few months, and then she moved into a foster home and started at a new high school in Renton.

After about 10 months in foster care, Glenn said she was facing her 18th birthday and the prospect of aging out of the home she was in. She needed to find another place.

“I was looking for a place to live that I wouldn’t have to pay a bunch of rent because I’m still in high school and I just started working my first job a couple of months ago,” Glenn said.

Glenn found what she needed in a quiet neighborhood in southeast Seattle. At the end of October, she moved in to a spare room in Tamara Guyton’s house where she doesn’t have to pay any rent.

The arrangement is part of a program called Host Homes King County.

All over the county there are bedrooms sitting empty, waiting for out-of-town guests or marking the absence of children who have moved out.

Kate Walters discusses the Host Homes program with Angela King

At the same time, thousands of people are sleeping on the streets. The Host Homes program aims to shelter youth who are homeless, or on the brink of homelessness, by pairing them with hosts in the community who have a room to spare and are willing to take them in for up to six months.

On a recent visit to Guyton’s place, Glenn sits at the counter in the bright kitchen. Colorful aprons hang like curtains from the window, pots hang from the ceiling, and dogs pad around looking for idle hands to pet them.

Glenn said she was shy at first, awkward. But there’s an eclectic bunch in Guyton’s house – her teenage daughter also lives there, as do two renters – and Glenn said she spends more time talking to her new roommates these days.

“This house is a lot more like a family than some of the recent ones I’ve been in,” Glenn said. “I feel like I fit in more here than I have anywhere in the past two years.”

It provides some stability, a place to land when she gets home late after school and work.

Glenn said it’s kept her off the streets. "It’s a life changer, honestly."

For Guyton, this is what becoming a host was all about. She said she felt privileged to have a home and wanted to share that.

But on a more personal level, Guyton said she wanted to get involved because she’s seen the impact homelessness can have on people. Her former partner was homeless for a time.

"I’ve always had it in my head, I want to do something about that. I want to honor that experience that she had by trying to make it different for somebody else,” Guyton said.

Guyton said she’s gained a lot from being a host, but it’s not without its challenges. “Sometimes I am unsure of my role. I mean, I’m not Cwyn’s mom. I’m not even her guardian,” Guyton said.

She knows Glenn can take care of herself and Guyton wants to respect her as an adult, but Guyton balks at things like the late-night bus rides home from Renton when Glenn finishes work.

Guyton said that’s not something she’d want her daughter doing, so why is it different for Glenn?

Scott Schubert, director of the Host Homes program, said the program offers support to hosts so they know it's not all on them. He said the role of the host is to be a mentor and a champion.

“Their role is not that they have to be their case manager, which sometimes can feel really overwhelming,” Schubert said.

Hosts get training, a monthly stipend, and the program does background checks. There are also rules. The youth are not allowed to have alcohol, drugs or weapons in the house. They’re also not allowed to have visitors unless it’s been discussed with the host.

Schubert recognizes the program may not work for every young adult; it’s targeted towards people who are on the verge of becoming independent. But he said those who have enrolled have thrived.

When the program was launched in mid-2016 by Accelerator YMCA it focused on people 18-24 years old. Now, with funding from King County and a new partnership with Friends of Youth, the program is being expanded to serve more youth and include kids as young as 12.

Schubert said it’s a quick and cost effective way to help address youth homelessness in the county. King County, along with philanthropic groups, have awarded $320,000 per year to run the program for both young adults over 18 and minors. It's anticipated that 50 youth and young adults will be served over the course of a year.

On any given night, there are more than 1,500 people under the age of 25 who are alone and homeless in King County. A disproportionate number are youth of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Roughly a third have been through foster care.

Of the 21 young people who have been enrolled in the program since it started, nearly 20 percent identified as LGBTQ. Schubert said roughly another 20 percent declined to share that kind of information, so the numbers could be higher.

More than 90 percent of the young adults they’ve worked with have been youth of color, according to Schubert.

On the other hand, most of the program's hosts have been white, according to an evaluation of the program. Schubert said it took them longer than they’d anticipated to launch the program, and one of the biggest challenges has been recruiting enough hosts.

There have been a couple of instances where the matches didn't work out. But overall, Schubert said the program has been very successful, with 85 percent of the young people ending up in permanent housing of their own.

The Host Homes program already exists in other places, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis. King County officials said they invested in the local program because the pilot phase showed promising results.

This is not a program that will solve homelessness in King County. It’s small and it doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness. But Schubert said it makes a difference for the people it serves and it gets the community involved.

“What this program really offers is an opportunity for us to all rally together and say this no longer is about government or about businesses, but this is really about us as a community saying this is our issue and these are our children, these are our youth,” Schubert said.