Volunteers of America youth services director Bridget Cannon hasn't yet told the kids. Ideally, she won't have to. These teens — lugging around backstories that often include abuse, sexual assault, malnourishment, drug addiction and mental illness — have enough uncertainty to deal with. They come here to Crosswalk, a teen drop-in center and homeless shelter in downtown Spokane, because they have few other safe places to go.
"We're trying to present 'Everything's normal, everything's going [fine]' — just like your parents would," Cannon says. But in fact, Crosswalk has been hit with a huge blow.
Volunteers of America found out last month that they hadn't received the $200,000 per-year Basic Center Program grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that had sustained them for the past three years. In a moment, HUD had slashed the budget for Crosswalk by more than a third.
And now the region's longest-running 24/7 shelter for teens is facing a worst-case-scenario possibility of losing its 24/7 status.
"When you're bored, and you have no structure, and you can't get out of the weather, and you don't know where you want to go for a meal, what do you do? You find lots of places to get into trouble," Cannon says. She speaks with a New Jersey accent, her compassion cut with a pragmatic edge. "You're dumpster-diving for your meals. I've had kids come in here sick because the pizza place started pouring bleach over their throwaway pizza."
Here, they can sleep. But this is also the spot where they receive aid from substance abuse counselors and art teachers. They get professional guidance about safe sex and healthy relationships. They get tutoring and job training.
"We close during the day?" Cannon says. "A lot of that goes away."
By contrast, at the House of Charity on the other side of downtown, this week brought a moment of celebration. After a year and a half of work, the city of Spokane and a coalition of nonprofits were finally ready to announce their first major victory in pursuit of the region's 24/7 shelter system: Starting Nov. 1, the House of Charity homeless shelter would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the winter.
Cannon worries, however, that cuts to Crosswalk could undercut the progress made expanding homeless shelters for adults.
"If you're not focusing on youth homelessness, all you're doing is, for every chronically homeless person you house, you've got the next person in line," Cannon says. "You've got to stop the pipeline."
In the past few years, homeless shelters all across the country have faced crises similar to the one that Crosswalk now faces.
It's mostly a consequence of a major philosophical change in how HUD doles out money. Instead of just giving the homeless a temporary spot to crash every night, the federal government now seeks to give them actual homes.
For the permanent-housing side of charities, the shift has brought a time of feast: This year, Catholic Charities opened Buder Haven and Volunteers of America opened the the Marilee — both high-rise apartments aimed to house the homeless. But for the shelter side — the places homeless men and women first land before they can be rehoused — it's been a time of famine.
The first big blow for Volunteers of America came in 2012: They lost their Transitional Living Program grant of 15 years, meaning that Flaherty House, a homeless shelter for young men between ages 18 and 21, had to shut down. It still hasn't reopened. That same year, Crosswalk also lost its Basic Center Program grant.
"Downtown businesses did step up and give us a pretty hefty chunk of money to help us out," Cannon says. Crosswalk didn't cut hours, but had to lay off longtime staff and eliminated fun things like YMCA passes. That may seem minor, but Cannon says that giving kids stuff to do is crucial to keeping them out of trouble.
Volunteers of America got its Basic Center Program grant the next year, then lost it again three years later. Nonprofits like Volunteers of America are used to riding a roller coaster driven by the whims of grants and foundations.
The burden to provide stability has been placed on local communities.
In May, Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart announced $200,000 to shore up funding to prevent House of Charity from slashing hours. But their larger goal is far more ambitious.
The coalition has sought almost $1.4 million in order to keep homeless shelters — including House of Charity, Family Promise, the Salvation Army, and Volunteers of America's Hope House — accessible 24/7. The coalition still needs almost $600,000 more to pull that off. Jonathan Mallahan, the city of Spokane's neighborhood and business services director, says he's an optimist. He believes — or at least hopes — that the city and its partners can pull together a plan this month to pay for the rest.
Amid the clamor of demand for limited city resources, the strain is acute.
"I'm sure the city would like to step up and plug those holes wherever we possibly can, but it's not going to be the reality," City Councilman Mike Fagan says.
Yet the alternative can be deadly.
"Kill me!" a homeless man named Michael Kurtz screams in April. "KILL ME!" He's outside the House of Charity, holding a knife pointed at his own chest, and refuses to drop it, despite pleas from the police. Two police officers shoot Kurtz, killing him.
Later, the local Catholic bishop speculates that, if House of Charity hadn't have been closed during those hours, Kurtz never would have been on the street, the confrontation never would have occurred, and he'd still be alive.
"We want to be a 'city of choice' and we have people suffering on our streets without a roof over their heads?" says Mallahan. "That's crazy."
THE CONSTANT FUNDRAISER
At a Volunteers of America fundraiser at the DoubleTree Hotel last Friday, a kid dubbed "Charlie" speaks, his head blurred and his voice altered.
"If this wasn't here, I'd honestly be dead," he says. "It was hard quitting drinking, most of all."
Volunteers of America is still tallying the checks written and raffle tickets sold, but VOA President Fawn Schott estimates that this fundraiser raised as much as $40,000, a crucial piece of solving the funding challenge.
"What do we need to do to build a model that is more sustainable?" asks Schott. "And not so reliable on federal dollars."
In the meantime, Volunteers of America will seek other ways to bolster funding for Crosswalk, including reapplying next year for the grant it lost. Mallahan also raises a best-case scenario: The community has applied for a highly competitive $1.5 million Youth Demonstration grant from HUD, one that won't go away if Spokane can prove it's effective.
The city of Spokane has chipped in $76,000 to fund Crosswalk until the end of the year.
Crosswalk also has been meeting with businesses and local foundations, asking for money from many of the same groups that gave to help stop the House of Charity cuts just a few months ago.
The Downtown Spokane Partnership has already donated $25,000 to the efforts for the House of Charity, and has promised to match up to $25,000 from local businesses. DSP president Mark Richard says he'd also welcome a call from Schott about funding Crosswalk.
"I'd expect we'd find a way to support her and her mission," Richard says.
Other nonprofits, which invariably face their own funding challenges, have already leaped in to help. Last week, Safety Net, a local organization aiding foster youth, set up a GoFundMe page called "Help us Help Spokane's Kids!" intended to aid Crosswalk. As of Monday night, the page had raised $3,350 from nine donors. The page aims to raise $100,000.
Cannon is grateful for this kind of generosity. For her, Crosswalk is so much more than just a warm place for homeless kids to sleep.
"Crosswalk has always been a model of what good comes out of having a safe place to sleep. But especially for kids? A safe place to grow up," Cannon says. "I mean, that's what we're talkin' about: Growing up doesn't take place when you're sleeping. Growing up takes place when you're awake." ♦