On a recent Monday morning, a young woman took a seat before the Seattle City Council, opened her PowerPoint slides, and cheerfully introduced herself to the elected officials.
“My name is Montrai Williams,” she told the council, flashing a photograph of herself in pigtails at the age of four. “I go by Trai.”
She spoke with the calm and confidence of a seasoned political veteran. Yet Trai is far from typical in the halls of government—one reason why she is such an effective advocate for preventing and ending youth homelessness in King County.
“I became homeless when I was 13 or 14,” she said. “My dad just showed me a lot of neglect and rejection. And it got worse when he found out I was gay.”
Now 24 and a year removed from her last stint of homelessness, Trai is a member of Youth Advocates Ending Homelessness (YAEH). The program was created and run by The Mockingbird Society to ensure that current and former homeless youth have a voice in the civic and policy discussions that affect them.
Begun in 2013 as a pilot project, YAEH was officially launched in January 2014 as part of a grant from the Raikes Foundation to The Mockingbird Society. The goal: to support a range of advocacy efforts to prevent and end youth homelessness.
The grant is an important component of the Raikes Foundation’s strategy. The foundation partners with a broad coalition of private and public funders, service providers and community leaders to make system-wide improvements to reduce youth and young adult homelessness in King County. The goal of the strategy is to make youth homelessness a rare occurrence, and if a young person does become homeless, to ensure it is a brief and one-time experience.
In addition to direct advocacy work, representatives of YAEH connect with other young people in a wide variety of organizations across King County to brainstorm and bring their ideas and input to the table.
As part of its training, Mockingbird helps YAEH participants like Trai hone their public speaking skills. They advise them that it’s important to dress up for a presentation. They show them how to tie a tie. They transport them to the places they need to be.
Though YAEH is a relatively new program, the idea of developing and leveraging youth voices took root at The Mockingbird Society more than 13 years ago. Driven to overhaul the foster care system, Mockingbird decided to bring the voices of youth to the attention of policymakers.
“It’s about going to the table with decision makers and giving them a recipe for how to move this issue forward,” explains Jim Theofelis, Mockingbird’s founder and executive director. “It’s about helping decision makers go deeper so young people can exit the streets.”
Theofelis can tell story after story about the power of hearing these youths’ voices.
“Decision makers sometimes ask: ‘Why would a young person not go to school if they’re homeless?’”
“A youth advocate has the answer: ‘I’m preoccupied with surviving.’
“There are things adults might not even think about that young people think about every day,” Theofelis says.
Youth advocates also put a human face on issues that can easily become abstractions and budget exercises for policy makers. Through their voices, what had once been a remote issue suddenly becomes someone’s real-life experience.
“There was one man who said he didn’t have any of those kids in his district so Mockingbird sent some young people to him,” Theofolis says. “And later the man said, ‘That kid reminded me of my grandson.’
“It’s empathy building. It’s public education. It’s countering the stereotypes that kids choose to be homeless.”
The way Mockingbird sees it, policymakers, funders and even service providers often get in a conference room and design programs and make funding decisions without feedback from their customers. Yes, Theofelis uses that word: “Customers. The youth are customers.
“If Safeway or Starbucks created a model and it worked like some of the ways we care for our children, they would have no returning customers,” he says.
In 2013, members of YAEH provided that customer voice throughout development of the “Comprehensive Plan to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in King County by 2020.” The plan is the community’s blueprint for addressing the problem of youth homelessness.
More recently, they have met with the mayor of Seattle and the governing board of the King County Committee to End Homelessness, participated in Youth Advocacy Day at the Washington State Legislature in Olympia, and supported Count Us In, King County’s annual effort to count youth and young adults who are homeless or unstably housed.
As Trai ended her presentation to the Seattle City Council, a councilmember asked how her life has changed since she left homelessness behind.
“My life’s amazing now,” she said. She described how she is holding down two jobs, working toward an associate’s degree, and has a ‘great family behind her’—referring to the staff and other youths participating in YAEH.
Her own experience energizes her to advance the work of YAEH, and to advocate for more stable funding for youth shelter and education and employment programs.
She told councilmembers: “I’m doing this so other youth after me don’t have to go through the same things I did.”