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caption: Milee Ballweg, 20, sits on the steps of a church in the University District where she sleeps just after 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in Seattle. 
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Milee Ballweg, 20, sits on the steps of a church in the University District where she sleeps just after 5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW photo/Megan Farmer

Your queen's here, honey: Young and homeless in Seattle's U-District

Milee Ballweg sleeps on the steps of a church in Seattle’s University District.

She’s 20, her hair is blonde tinged with pink, and she wears ripped jeans and a Pokémon T-shirt. She sleeps wrapped in gray packing blankets that cover her face.

Down the street, a young LGBTQ woman who goes by Mariah sings in doorways and on street corners. She holds her phone as a mic. She’s 21, and she recently moved into temporary housing on the Eastside. But her friends and the lure of drugs keep her coming back to the U-District most days.

“When I come down to the U-District I’m like, ‘Your queen’s here, honey,’” she says.

EDITOR’S NOTE TO READERS: The stories published here for the Seattle Day of Homelessness are a collaboration by five newsrooms – Crosscut, KCTS, KUOW, and The Seattle Times – to spotlight the regional homelessness crisis. The newsrooms shared data but reported stories independently. To see the coverage, visit their websites, follow #seahomeless on Twitter and pick up a Sunday copy of The Seattle Times.

A few blocks on, 24-year-old Lacade Karty – his street name – is one of roughly 45 young people who tumble out of the ROOTS young adult shelter in a back alley every morning. They make their beds for the night on blue mats lined up neatly on the floor, each with two tiles between them for personal space.

These are just a few of Seattle’s unaccompanied homeless youth and young adults. They’re part of a largely invisible tribe of more than 1,500 people under the age of 25 who are homeless on any given night in King County.

Check out other stories from this collaboration

Historically, the University District has been a haven for street youth; here they blend in, and as long as they don’t have too many bags, they can often pass for students. This year’s homeless count showed a 500 percent increase in the overall number of people in this neighborhood. It doesn’t break down the numbers by age but local youth service providers say they are seeing some new faces.

A cluster of services grew up in the neighborhood years ago based on the growing needs of homeless teens and young adults. They include shelters, meal services and drop-in and hygiene centers.

Data show that about 90 percent of homeless young people in King County use some sort of service, especially free meals, transitional housing and day centers.

The City of Seattle is spending more than $3.5 million on services for homeless youth and young adults in 2018.

In the U-District, many sleep at the ROOTS shelter, a stone’s throw from the University of Washington’s manicured lawns.

On a recent morning, Karty was among those leaving the shelter.

“I got some decent sleep,” Karty says. “Woke up with a couple of eye boogers.”

Karty moved to Washington state as a teenager after his mom died. He’s been homeless on and off since.

“It sucks when you walk around here at night and you still don’t have a place to sleep,” he says. His dark curls bounce out from under his baseball hat.

According to King County data, Karty is in the minority: Only a quarter of homeless young people in the county are sheltered on any given night.

“I choose the ROOTS shelter because it’s always a guaranteed spot where I can get in so next day I’m not too tired to be on my hustle,” Karty says.

That hustle starts the same way most mornings. Karty and his friends find a spot to smoke weed together before they start their day.

Some days Karty works. He says he has a few jobs – a sales job he does from his phone and another at a skate shop. He also helps out at the U-District Youth Center. Other days he’ll play video games on the UW campus.

Karty says he wants to get into an apartment with his girlfriend before winter rolls around.

“I’ve been pretty much working, saving up everything I can possibly get because the winter is going to be coming,” he says.

Karty wants to save up six months’ worth of rent before moving in anywhere. He wants to make sure this time he can stay.

The path out of homelessness looks different for different people.

Jody Waits with YouthCare, an organization serving young people who are homeless, says it can take longer to get young people into permanent housing, in part because they need to be given the time to go through the incremental steps that will make them successful.

“Adulting is hard, you know. Figuring out how do I have a bank account, how do I engage with a landlord productively, how do I look for an apartment in this inflated market and maybe not have a rental history and maybe have some really unique challenges financially,” Waits says.

Some young people need to deal with trauma, others may need employment or education help. Or they might just need a place to land while they wait for permanent housing to become available. Service providers say there’s not enough housing for the number of young people who become homeless each year.

Mariah got into temporary housing just a few weeks ago. It’s her third try. The first two times she says she had issues with other tenants and moved out.

She returns to the Ave “because the people down here, they make you feel loved, they, like, care about you and they look after you,” she says. “It’s kind of like a family.”

Mariah has been homeless since she left her mom’s house at 18 after a fight.

Domestic strife is just one of the many ways young people end up on the street.

About a third of homeless youth have been through foster care, some aging out onto the streets. About half have been incarcerated. And domestic violence is common. That’s according to the county’s annual one-night count surveys.

Mariah walks across the street to get her phone – it’s charging at the drop-in center. Draining batteries are a constant battle for street youth.

Young people who are homeless in the U-District part ways throughout the day but often come back together for an evening meal.

The teen feed program operates every night of the year in church basements in the U-District.

The youth line up, issuing ‘pleases and thank yous’ as volunteers dish up food. Friends call out to one another, patting saved seats. They eat with real cutlery on real plates. They clear their tables and then head into the night.

The night looks different for different people.

For Milee Ballweg, it means staying up late, waiting for the crowds to go home.

Being homeless can be exhausting, she says. She’s got a fierce, no-nonsense attitude, and when she gets overwhelmed, “I just put my hair up and light up a cigarette and I deal with it.”

She spends many of her days with a small sign.

“If I need food I’ll just write ‘NEED FOOD’. If I need water, I’ll ask people for water. Or I’ll just do the regular: ‘Spare change. Anything helps. I’m drug free. Seeking employment. Thank you. Smiley face.’”

Ballweg is applying for jobs but believes people discriminate against her. She dreams of being a singer but she’s applying for positions at places like pizza shops and ship yards, anything to get a steady income. She says she’d like to buy a car so she can get off the streets.

Until she finds a way out, she says she’s just got to keep going.

“You have to. Otherwise, if you’re stuck in yesterday you can’t live today, and you can’t even look forward to tomorrow.”

To help young people get off the streets, service providers say a shift to more 24 hour shelters with fewer barriers to entry is needed. Countywide there’s also an effort to intervene in schools, foster care and juvenile justice systems before young people reach the brink of homelessness.

Jody Waits with YouthCare says intervening when someone is young can break the cycle. She says nearly half the homeless population in the county first experienced homelessness when they were under 25.