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Anna Mikkelborg

Final paper
March 18, 2014


ROOTS Young Adult Shelter: A Safety Net for Those Who Fall Through the Cracks

This quarter, I volunteered as a dinner crew member at ROOTS Young Adult
Shelter in the University District. ROOTS, an acronym for Rising Out of the Shadows, is
part of a care network in the neighborhood called the University District Service
Provider Alliance. Organizations in the UDSPA collaborate to provide comprehensive
aid to vulnerable populations in the U District. ROOTSs specific mission statement is
as follows: ROOTS provides shelter and other essential services to homeless young
adults. We build community, advocate for social justice, and foster dignity among low-
income people (ROOTS website).
My time at ROOTS was an invaluable complement to the course material of
Geography 331; in my time volunteering there I witnessed the effects of neoliberalism
and residual poverty discourse firsthand, confronted my own privileged status, and
learned how ROOTS is working to change structures that have systematically
impoverished young adults in Seattle as well as providing care to individuals on the
street. In this paper, I will contextualize ROOTSs work on both the local and national
scales, provide a historical background for the population it serves, and analyze
scholarly discussion of this population. Then, I will evaluate ROOTSs philosophy of
service through the lens of care ethics and speak to how my time at ROOTS has
impacted my own philosophy.
ROOTSs Mission
ROOTS opened in 2000 as a nonprofit organization operating out of the
basement of University Temple United Methodist Church. The shelter receives funding
through the City of Seattle both from the municipal budget and from federal block
grants to the city. However, grants from individual donors and the donation of
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volunteer hours are necessary to keep the shelter up and running. These alternative
sources of funding also give ROOTS some flexibility in what services it provides and
how it provides them; when city mandates conflict with the practical demands of care
work, ROOTS administrators are often able to negotiate a policy compromise
(Cunningham, 2014). In addition to addressing the citys immediate goal of moving
homeless young adults off the streets, ROOTS makes it its mission to provide
resources for pursuing sustainable and independent living, including job search
support, psychological counseling, and LGBTQ-specific resources. ROOTS also
emphasizes providing humanizing contact for its clients, who are often treated as
invisible or less-than in their lives on the streets. At ROOTS, young adults find a place
where they can think past meeting their day-to-day needs and start planning out their
future in a supportive environment.
Systemic Causes of Young Adult Homelessness
The need for ROOTSs services is overwhelming; with 45 beds, ROOTS is the
largest of three young adult-specific shelters in King County, where the population of
homeless young adults is estimated at about 600 at any given time. The broad social
issue of urban homelessness arises from a wide array of political, cultural, and
economic factors, and the specific population of homeless young adults experience
these factors in unique ways.
Stagnating wages in low-paying jobs have compounded with neoliberal policies
adopted in the US in the past three decades to create a working class population more
vulnerable than ever to poverty and its associated problems, including homelessness.
As the country has become wealthier, its poorest people have remained just as poor,
creating a demographic that is excluded from economic progress (Lowrey, 2014).
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Combined with the gentrification and revitalization of urban areas, this growing
income disparity has forced members of the working class out of their homes in
America's cities. Consequently, the alarming reality is that even people who work full
time sometimes cannot afford to stay housed (Lawson, 2014).
Even as economic patterns have created this vulnerable population, policy and
culture shifts have contributed to a reduction of the social safety net. Informed by
theories of neoliberalism, America's economy relies on unregulated markets to
produce progress at the expense of protecting the working class. However, the cultural
ideal of the "self-made man" places the responsibility for economic success on the
individual, justifying deep cuts to welfare programs. Thus, neoliberalism allows an
exploitative structure to perpetuate a negative perception of the impoverished
population it creates and fails to aid (Harvey, 2005). This combination of economic
oppression and social stigma contribute to what Goode and Maskovsky call the "regime
of disappearance" of the poor, under which those disadvantaged under neoliberalism
have little political agency (Goode and Maskovsky, 2001, 12). Simultaneously, the
middle class, which benefits under neoliberal policy, has constructed the binaries of
poor/nonpoor and homeless/domiciled in order to distance itself from the
demographic on whose backs their way of life is built and to protect its sense of
rightful privilege (Lawson, 2011). In summation, with the rise of neoliberalism America
has seen deteriorating conditions in the lower income brackets and a shrinking social
safety net even as GDP grows.
Literature Review
When the public sphere fails to provide care, social groups who require the
most care are the most vulnerable. Young adults transitioning from childhood to
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independent living find themselves in an especially uncertain position. I have focused
my research on the gaps between available care and young adults' needs that
contribute specifically to the creation of a homeless young adult population. Scholarly
discourse around the root cause of young adult homelessness is universally relational;
further consensus extends to the sets of structural disadvantages and specific risk
factors which determine outcomes for individuals within the broader group of
vulnerable young adults.
Broadly, researchers have determined that factors of the postindustrial
neoliberal economy including a decrease in manufacturing jobs, gentrification of urban
areas, and changes to the welfare system create new obstacles for the youngest
generation of workers while simultaneously thinning their social safety net (Mares et
al., 2012; Lee et al., 2010; Shlay and Rossi, 1992). These structural hurdles to success
create a disadvantaged population from the subset of the new generation that is least
prepared to jump over them.
Overwhelmingly, the differentiating factor in determining individual outcomes
is the quality of family care; researchers stress the significance of childhood security
and stability as well as continued family support as young adults transition to
independent living (Ferguson et al,. 2011). Youth and young adults without reliable
access to family-based care have few alternative resources. Scholarly evaluations of the
foster care and juvenile detention systems, two institutions into which youth without
family support are often funneled, highlight the inadequacy of the care they provide
and points to the high rates of homelessness as young adults age out (Courtney and
Dworsky, 2006; Dworsky et al., 2013; Park et al., 2004; Lee et al., 2010). State programs
fail to ensure youth receive the life skills education they need to be able to live
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independently and often fall away completely when they come of age, whereas youth
in the care of their families receive benefits such as continued access to health care
and auto insurance plans well into adulthood (Ferguson et al., 2011). Youth and young
adults who run away from home to escape intractable family situations have even
more limited opportunities, a disadvantage that often compounds with a high rate of
social skill deficiencies stemming from dysfunctional home lives (Simons and
Whitbeck, 1991, 226). Research on a broad spectrum of contributors to the risk of
young adult homelessness reveals that it is a population produced largely by factors
outside of individuals control and directly linked to social institutions failure to
provide alternatives to the unreliable care of the traditional family.
Researchers also agree that the dearth of support for young adults once they
are on the streets exacerbates individuals preexisting challenges and diminishes the
opportunities available for them to attain housing and financial stability. Multiple
scholars have commented on the reciprocal relationship between the violence of the
streets and issues of mental and social health; young adults face a high risk of
developing depression and PTSD as well as trust issues and violent behaviors as a
result of the insecurity of homeless life (Kipke et al., 1997; Hodgson et al., 2013; Fowler
et al., 2009). The lack of structure runaways and young people without families deal
with impedes the development of supportive relationships with others outside the
homeless community (Simons and Whitbeck, 1991). Compounding with the risk of
psychological trauma and difficulty of finding stable sources of support is the set of
challenges Ferguson, et al. describe as inherent to homeless culture, including lack
of housing, personal hygiene issues, stigma, food insecurity, criminal records, limited
education, and poor job skills (Ferguson et al., 2011, 405). Studies have shown that
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these practical concerns limit young adults potential employability, housing eligibility,
and even access to government aid (Pecora et al., 2006; Ferguson et al., 2011; Lee et al.,
2010; Courtney and Dworsky, 2006; Osgood et al., 2010).
While the academic world is generally in agreement on the causes of young
adult homelessness and systems that perpetuate it, considerable division of scholarly
opinion exists on the issue of what should be done to aid this population. Opinion can
be divided into two camps: those advocating structural reform and those protesting
institutional solutions to what they see as a problem of individual disadvantages these
structures have caused.
Scholars examining structural failures in out-of-home care systems
overwhelmingly support reforms to these institutions in order to improve outcomes
for participants. Policy recommendations in these fields include strengthening care
systems for youth to better prepare them for the transition to adulthood, extending
foster care and alternative housing services into legal adulthood, and shifting the
focus of the foster care system to repairing dysfunctional family dynamics (Pecora et
al., 2006; Dworsky et al., 2013; Osgood et al., 2010). Along these lines, Fowler et al. call
for intensive case management to provide individualized care to young people
struggling to transition to independent living (2009, 1457). Other scholars recommend
even broader structural changes to address the obstacles already-homeless young
adults face. These include increased accessibility to welfare (Piliavin et al., 1996);
general youth-oriented support including more comprehensive community college
programs, universal healthcare, and a higher minimum wage (Osgood et al., 2010); and
a shift in city government responses to homelessness from an emergency care focus
toward permanent housing policies (Lee et al., 2010). These scholars respond to the
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structural flaws that create young adult homelessness by targeting the structures
Response against sweeping structural reform stems from the recognition of
diverse individual experience within the larger demographic of homeless young people.
Shier et al. contend that broad reforms are too general and miss the fact that many
people experience difficulty not only because of inequality in the political and
economic environment but also because of sociocultural factors that are rooted at the
individual [and] community levels, for example, racial discrimination(Shier et al.,
2011, 369). Shlay and Rossi voice concerns that transitional programs move the
homeless off the streets, but institutionalize them and make them invisible rather than
providing sustainable, empowering solutions (1992). The consensus among these
thinkers is that no single solution exists to help all homeless young adults make the
transition to domiciled independence. Other objections to a structural approach point
to the lack of cohesion between would-be care providers, including the governments
tendency to ignore the work of outside agencies (Shier et al., 2011) and the jumbled
nature of government aid programs themselves (Osgood et al., 2010). These scholars
advocate a network of specialized care organizations supported by the government,
rather than centralized, sweeping reforms, as the template for approaching the
reduction of homelessness.
As the body of scholarly research shows, the root source of young adult-specific
homelessness is often the dearth of care when families cannot provide support for
children. Our society relies on the family as a political, economic, and care-giving unit
and the fail safes the government provides are inadequate. Evaluated through Joan
Trontos framework of care ethics, the care Americas neoliberal government provides
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is sorely lacking. Government programs fail to fully recognize young adults needs.
Consequently, the government does not take responsibility for or action to solve the
problems stemming from the scarcity of care for at-risk individuals that results from
its own weaknesses. The weak care ethics of the public sphere both create need and
limit the resources the government provides to groups seeking to address this need
(Tronto, 1993).
My interpretation of the difference in academic opinion on how to solve this
problem is that some scholars are looking at moving the current young adult homeless
population off the streets, while others focus on stopping the cycles that create it in
the first place. ROOTSs mentality aligns with the position that only systemic changes
will solve the problem permanently. While recognition of diverse needs is crucial to
progressive system reform, sustainable progress in the provision of care for young
adults must be rooted in the social, political, and economic institutions central to our
How ROOTS Cares
While ROOTSs philosophy places the responsibility for creating need on social
institutions, its primary work as an organization is to provide immediate remedies to
those needs. To that end, the shelter provides dinner and breakfast, case management,
showers, clothing, laundry, and phone and computer access as well as a safe place to
sleep for its clients. The objective in providing these day-to-day needs is to foster
growth in the individuals who use the shelter by giving them the security to think past
immediate concerns to pursue education or employment as means to long-term
success and independence. ROOTSs volunteer manual stresses the importance of
acknowledging the delicate tension between the young person as they exist in the
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current moment and the fullest potential they embody. The manual proceeds to lay
out ROOTSs philosophy of engagement:
Young people need the following:
1. To be respected and accepted as fellow humans, not just clients.
2. To know that their thoughts, aspirations, and feelings have value.
3. To connect with a community larger than their immediate street
4. To be acknowledged as independent and in charge of their future
and the consequences of their actions.

In focusing on meeting individual needs with a philosophy that places those
needs in a much broader context, ROOTS applies a relational perspective on poverty on
a different scale than the one in which we examined it in class. At face value, ROOTSs
programs appear to ask individuals to take responsibility for their own lack and to
earn their way out of poverty. However, the exchanges with clients the program fosters
serve primarily to offer the care and support other institutions like the traditional
family and foster care failed to provide. ROOTS is a small organization, and although it
sends lobbyists to Olympia to speak with policymakers on young adult homelessness,
its ability to act as a catalyst for large-scale change is limited. Rather, it aims to create
a supportive structure of its own to fill the void of care, liberating clients from the
circumstances of lack that have resulted from their disadvantaged backgrounds.
This work by necessity strikes a balance between caring and controlling, since
ROOTSs ability to provide aid is limited by funding and accessibility. For example,
although the shelter emphasizes that clients should be able to come as they are to
get help, individuals who act out repeatedly are asked to leave for the night. No one is
allowed to leave the shelter and come back during the night. If a client fails to follow
shower protocol and leaves a mess, everyone loses shower privileges that night. These
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measures exist to preserve the physical safety of all clients, volunteers, and staff at the
shelter, so although they compromise the organizations ability to care for especially
troubled people and turn access to basic amenities into privileges, these effects are
necessary evils. Thus, ROOTS must place some responsibility on individuals for
negative outcomes, but even those who are asked to leave the shelter are sent away
with a takeout box full of food.
From a personal perspective, ROOTSs approach to care seems perplexing at
first. Its easy to look at economic trends and political rhetoric and determine that our
society has created a group of young people who are systematically disadvantaged, but
when I first started interacting with clients at the shelter, their individual traits
provided much more immediate explanations for their problems: some suffer from
social anxiety and cant speak to other people above a whisper, some are rude and
belligerent, and some just dont seem to want to engage with anyone around them. I
found myself thinking that if society was creating vulnerability, it made sense that
these people would be the vulnerable ones. I wasnt the only one at a volunteer
workshop I attended, another participant who had previously been homeless herself
unabashedly voiced the opinion that some people deserve to be on the streets because
they were just bad seeds. The workshop facilitator quickly and politely
deemphasized her point and changed the subject. Out of this awkward moment,
however, I developed an understanding of ROOTSs philosophy on individual
challenges. This young woman was speaking from experience. She had developed her
residualistic perspective firsthand through her interactions with dangerous people she
met on the street. She was not intrinsically selfish or judgmental; she had had to
develop this opinion of other homeless people to protect herself. In the same way,
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many of the challenges ROOTSs clients face are products of their histories of
disadvantage. ROOTS cannot rewrite these histories, but with compassion and
competent care, shelter workers can begin to construct futures that overcome them.
A Discussion of Care Ethics
Throughout my experience volunteering with ROOTS, I have been amazed at the
strength of the organizations commitment to promoting a relational perspective. In
evaluating ROOTS through the lens of Trontos four phases of ethical care, I have
found that in each respect, this philosophy forms a solid foundation for sustainable,
effective work. However, ROOTSs capability to care well is limited as a consequence of
the broader socioeconomic and sociopolitical landscape in which it functions.
Founded in the belief that homelessness is a concern of the entire community,
not just those in need, in its very definition ROOTS cares about and takes
responsibility for caring for young adults on the streets (Tronto, 1993). Its capacity to
respond to the needs of this population, however, often comes down to issues of
funding, government stipulations, and politics. Due to its small size, ROOTS cannot
serve even 10% of the young adults homeless in King County on any given night. While
it can provide some of its clients immediate needs, the organization lacks the
influence to eliminate the root causes of those needs. Government at the city, state,
and federal levels is concerned with moving people off the streets permanently, and
shelters are often brushed off as warehouses that support chronic homelessness. In
her interview, ROOTS Executive Direction Kristine Cunningham pointed out that few
policymakers actually know much on the issue of young adult homelessness and so do
not understand the crucial role ROOTS plays in helping its clients transition into stable
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housing (Cunningham, 2014). Consequently, ROOTS provides important, competent
care, but at a volume limited by what the government provides.
Within the context of day-to-day operations, however, ROOTS is the model of a
competent care-provider. Even as a dinner crew member with limited direct contact
with clients, I underwent sensitivity and conflict de-escalation training to work at the
shelter. Everyone who works at the shelter is taught ROOTSs philosophy of
engagement, given the tools to follow it, and expected to do so at all times while they
are there. In this manner, ROOTS provides reliable support and compassion to its
clients while utilizing a large pool of volunteer resources.
ROOTS also does an impressive job of constantly reframing its approach to care
to better meet clients needs by evaluating how they receive care. ROOTS uses several
mechanisms to collect feedback from clients and translate it into change. Clients are
rarely shy about voicing resistance to or disapproval of shelter policies, but rather than
shutting down their protests and continuing to enforce the same rules, ROOTS staff
celebrate what they call clients strength of self-advocacy and thank them for their
contribution to improving the shelter. Then, they follow through by looking for ways
to revise the rules to better meet clients wishes. Clients can also ask for changes in a
more structured forum; a board comprised of staff members, volunteers, and clients
meets monthly to discuss shelter policy and evaluate possible changes.
After examining the work ROOTS does through a care ethical framework, the
question of care ethics shifts from whether ROOTS is fulfilling a need ethically to
whether it is fulfilling the right need. Within the limitations set by the broader social
context, ROOTS does very competent work, but the organization does little work to try
to combat these limitations. In its small space in a church basement down a dark alley,
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ROOTS does not raise the visibility of the issue of young adult homelessness or
educate the public about structural injustice. In this sense, this organization could be
doing more to care competently. However, as a small-scale model for programs with
more societal support, ROOTS is an incredibly care-ethical shelter.
Personal Reflection

Perhaps ROOTSs greatest contribution to public awareness as it operates now is
the education it provides for its volunteers, many of whom are University of
Washington students like me. As a high-achieving young adult from a middle class
background, I found that working at ROOTS represented a significant exit from my
comfort zone at first. Serving my peers at their most vulnerable forced me to confront
my own previously unexamined privilege and the entitlements and assumptions that
attend it. Growing up, I was taught to ignore homeless people on the street because,
according to my parents, they could be drunk or mentally unstable. My parents
intention was only to keep me safe, and my service learning and research have
confirmed that substance abuse and mental health issues are rampant problems
among the homeless, but I am not a little girl anymore. Looking into the faces of
people exactly my age made it impossible for me to continue in the belief that
homeless people were on the street because they were broken or inferior, as I had
assumed my parents meant when they said I should give them a wide margin of
sidewalk. My training at ROOTS taught me to maintain a certain professional distance
from clients, partially for my personal safety, but more importantly in order to make
sure that I can provide them with the best care possible. I do not deserve to be
protected from the homeless; much to the contrary, I have come to see that the
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homeless deserve all the compassion and care I can give and more. I have begun to
internalize ROOTSs care ethic of responsibility.
My time at ROOTS has transformed the way I look at my community. When I
walk down the Ave, I recognize clients from the shelter sitting on the sidewalk. After
learning about how the same government that funds my university scholarships has
failed to provide them with basic care, I dont feel superior to them in fact, I have to
admire their resilience. After dishing them plates of spaghetti and ham and hearing
their whispered thanks, I dont feel afraid for my safety through the connection
ROOTS has forged between us, we share mutual trust. Other ROOTS volunteers Ive
talked with have recounted similar experiences. ROOTS has created a place where
homelessness truly is a concern of the entire community, and when care is societys
concern, constructions of impoverished others collapse and there are only people
helping each other. In this sense, on this small scale, ROOTS has succeeded in its
mission to build community, advocate for social justice, and foster dignity among
low-income people. If organizations like ROOTS can expand and increase their
visibility, hopefully someday this community will be much larger and the network of
care will catch all young people before they fall through the cracks.
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