The homeless population now has an additional resource for health care and other support services, but not all individuals access it — or even know about it.
In January, King County rolled out a second mobile medical van for the homeless to complement the original clinic-on-wheels that has been serving South Seattle since 2008. In 2015, the medical van saw 856 patients who made at least one visit. Now, seven months later, the second van is just starting to staff full-time workers.
“We’re a gateway to engage with patients,” explains Alicia Benish, the mobile medical program manager. “The number-one need we encounter is really related to mental health and substance use.”
In addition to providing on-the-spot medical treatment for ailments, the vans also offer an entry point to other community support resources like mental health counseling, treatment, and housing or shelter, just to name a few. What each patient receives is tailored to their specific needs, according to Benish. However, she contends, it isn’t always easy to get an apprehensive population involved in any type of system again when they frequently have previous experiences that deter them from doing so.
The original Mobile Medical van is funded by a Veterans and Human Services levy; the second is supported by federal grants. Both employ clinicians, medical providers, chemical dependency professionals and mental health specialists.
“We may engage with someone for two months before they’ll ever come into the van,” Benish says.
But that’s not to say people are completely unfamiliar with the vans. In fact, demand for services suggests quite the opposite.
“There are also people who line up,” says Keith Seinfeld, media officer for Seattle and King County Public Health. “Sometimes there are people waiting half an hour before the doors open.”
But both Benish and Seinfeld note that they rarely see homeless youth queue up for the myriad of services the mobile clinic provides. In fact, those most likely to seek services from the mobile clinics typically range in age from 40 to 50, according to the program outreach worker Josh Hoke.
So, where do Seattle’s homeless youth go?
Those who aren’t otherwise tracked by the Homeless Management Information System or public schools tend to either not disclose their status as homeless, live with friends, or sleep in their college libraries at night.
In terms of medical care, there are some programs like YouthCare, a Seattle-based agency that provides a continuum of care and services specifically for homeless youth, which offer perspective.
“I think we could say that while young people receiving services at YouthCare would certainly use a mobile medical van if they needed to, they have weekly opportunities to see medical professionals at YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center,” writes communications specialist Brittny Nelsen in an email. “It’s likely they would avail themselves of these opportunities first, since the Orion Center is a space where they know the staff and feel comfortable.”
YouthCare saw approximately 1,400 youth in 2014, a number Nelsen confirms is equivalent to last year’s numbers. Of those people, 42 percent were ages 18 to 21, and a quarter of them were ages 22 to 24.
How Youth Become Homeless
Crosscut.com reported in March 2015 that the most typical issues leading to youth homelessness stem from domestic violence or conflict arising from arguments over sexual orientation. But being out on the streets doesn’t make things easier. YouthCare reports that 11 percent of the youth they see have reported that they had to trade sex for food, shelter or money to survive.
Homelessness among university/college populations can be even harder to identify and quantify. Evergreen State students reported that the best shot at spotting homeless students comes at nighttime when they can be spotted sleeping in their cars, in libraries, or even in the woods.
The System Only Identifies a Portion of Homeless Youth
The number of homeless children as counted by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has been increasing over the years, nearly doubling from 18,670 to more than 35,500 in eight years.
Compare that count to the Count Us In Survey, which listed 824 homeless youth this year. Why are these numbers so drastically different? In part, it is because the OSPI count includes the entirety of Washington State, whereas Count Us In represents an effort to count youth and young adults (12–25 years of age) who are homeless or “unstably housed” within King County proper. Attempts to understand the true size of the homeless youth population are made more difficult because homeless youth have a tendency to hide in the nooks and crannies of the system and out of general eyesight. You need to know where to look: in open-late cafes, in parked cars, in 24-hour libraries, and on friends’ couches.
The Firsthand Perspective of Homelessness
Though Ash Crew experienced homelessness for over a year (she lived in her car until a month ago), she found it difficult to discover or access available resources to help her situation.
“I’ve aged out of a lot of public services which has created huge roadblocks for me,” says Crew. “Like when I was homeless, I ended up getting raped and I didn’t have healthcare because I couldn’t get it from my employer, and I haven’t been able to see a doctor because of aging out of healthcare public assistance programs.”
Crew further explains how she would seek help from social services, only to be be overwhelmed with a whole packet of resources. However, even after she sifted through them, she would always find that she didn’t qualify for any of the resource options presented to her. For example, there were age eligibility limits or she was making too much money, even though she was homeless and couldn’t find any ways to make rent anywhere.
Crew worked two jobs — she was, and still is, attending Seattle Central College. However, even the college didn’t know how to assist her.
“They didn’t do anything,” Crew says. “They had no information. The information for resources was not out there, even for people who are searching for it.”
The only reason the college student has housing now is because she reached a breaking point.
“I had been driving around for hours looking for a place to be homeless,” she explains, “Because I’m in school and I couldn’t find a location that was open and had wi-fi where I could work on my school work. I totally broke down. I absolutely lost it. I was trying to maintain work and school [while] being homeless.”
* A situation where individuals are unable to maintain their housing situation and are forced to stay with a series of friends and/or extended family members.
Crew ended up calling her mom — who wasn’t exactly around during her childhood — and finally asked for help. The only reason Crew has a place right now is because her mother agreed to help with bills.
“I stick to myself,” Crew shares. “I don’t really go into crowds ... I essentially lived at my school and coffee shops that were open as late as 11:00 p.m., and I also stayed at parks a lot.”
So What’s Available?
As an already transient and nomadic population, homeless youth are particularly elusive — and they want to be. Crew says she prefers to keep to herself, and doesn’t really want to go along with the homeless youth on the street. But just because people like Crew are at a fragile stage, or wish to blend in and still go about their daily lives, that doesn’t mean available resources should be any harder to find.
“I have not been informed about any of this that you just told me,” Crew says of resources around Seattle, and of the medical van. “The medical mobile unit could provide really valuable assistance to many individuals out there who cannot afford health care, and the information about it is, like ... where is it?”
For those in need of help, please access the following websites and phone numbers:
The mobile medical van always has its monthly schedule linked at the bottom of their program page.
Areas to ask about when calling any of the above resources:
Even if you find you don’t fit the qualifications, don't hesitate to call, because one gear of the machine that is resources for homeless youth almost always engages other working parts.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with What’s Good 206. Hamlin attends the University of Washington, majoring in Journalism and Law, Societies & Justice. She completed an internship with The Seattle Times as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is currently interning with South Seattle Emerald as well. See her other work on her website, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.