About a month ago, as I was walking by Safeway one morning on my way to work, I passed by this well-dressed young man leaning up against the building. I stopped, because he looked very familiar. I looked closer. It was Luther.
Actually, I’m not sure that’s his name. It’s probably not. The fact is that even though I volunteer at the ROOTS youth shelter every Saturday night, I cannot remember every guest’s name. There are up to 45 young people who spend the night at ROOTS, and the cast of characters can change regularly, so I’ve probably come into contact with at least 100 different young people during my 18 months volunteering at the shelter. Since I’m not very good with names to begin with, I frequently blank the names of both staff/volunteers and guests. No disrespect intended (the kids are pretty cool about this). But I’ll call him Luther here, just for the sake of identification.
I definitely recognized Luther as a regular ROOTS guest. He’s a pretty quiet guy (one reason I couldn’t remember his name – you tend to remember the ones with outsized personalities who will talk your ear off). He kept mostly to himself. I never heard anything of his story – and every young person that finds themselves sleeping on a mat on a hard church basement floor has a complicated story of some kind. If you’re lucky, they might tell it to you, but most don’t. At ROOTS, all we ask is that a guest have a legal ID, be between ages 18 and 25, and follow the standard rules for shelter behavior. They are the keepers of their story, just as every one of us is.
So I stopped to chat with Luther. I mentioned ROOTS. He said that it was his birthday, and that he was turning 26. “I aged out,” he said softly.
ROOTS provides a safe place to sleep for hundreds of young people every year who have nowhere else to go. But it can’t serve everyone. On many nights (but not all) there are more people seeking shelter at ROOTS then there are spaces available (45 is the max), and a lottery is held to determine who gets in that night. (The rest are referred to other youth shelters in Seattle, given blankets and/or bus tickets, and sent out into the night.)
In January, the annual One Night Count was performed to tally up the number of people sleeping unsheltered in King County. This year, just over 4.500 people were counted. Their ages are not recorded, but obviously a certain percentage of those people are going to be between the ages of 18 and 25. The need – the problem – is staggering.
But ROOTS serves young people, and it has to have limits. So if you are 17, you can’t stay at ROOTS (no doubt because of legal issues surrounding minors). And no matter how long you have been at ROOTS, whether you have somewhere else to stay or not, the day you turn 26 you can’t stay at ROOTS anymore.
During my 18 months at ROOTS, I’ve come to know several of the guests pretty well. They are great people — bright, friendly, fun. I recently found out that three of these young men are 25 years old. One of my favorites is a guy who calls himself Blue, probably for his favorite color and not his mood, as he is as lively an individual you are likely to meet. Last Saturday, one of the staff said that Blue was having his 26th birthday in a few days… so I wouldn’t be seeing him again in shelter.
We’ve bumped into each other before around the U-District, however, so when I said goodbye and gave him a hug he said, “Oh, I see you all the time.” That made me feel good, that maybe it wasn’t really goodbye, that I would see him again. But hopefully he will find housing somewhere, so if I don’t, I’ll choose to think it’s for that reason.
I know that when a guest at ROOTS turns 26, they always give them a birthday cake as a going-away “celebration.” So there’s that. Still, I find it sad that in this case, the birthday is probably not a really happy occasion. Coincidentally, my daughter will turn 26 this year. For her, however, it won’t mean that she loses access to a welcoming place that offered her food, shelter, friends, respect… even love. She’ll still have shelter that night.
So, anyway… on this particular morning, I complimented Luther on his coat and wished him a happy birthday. Then I walked away. I haven’t seen him since.