UW News

November 27, 2017

UW’s Doorway Project kicks off services for homeless youth

UW News

The University District includes a significant portion of King County's homeless youth population. A new effort by the University of Washington aims to help homeless young people become more self-sufficient.

The University District includes a significant portion of King County’s homeless youth population.


Seattle’s homeless crisis isn’t confined to one part of town – nor does it hinge on one solution.

The University District community includes as much as one-third of King County’s homeless youth over any given year. It’s a neighborhood where a food bank and youth shelter are available, and where young people on the streets can blend in.

But more needs to be done in the U District and beyond to help homeless young adults become self-sufficient over the long term.

Now the University of Washington, in a partnership among faculty, student and community service agencies – and with $1 million in state funding over two years – is launching The Doorway Project, an effort to establish a neighborhood hub and navigation center specifically for homeless young people. The Doorway Project will bring youth in the U District together with UW faculty and students to develop plans for a hub starting with a pop-up café on Dec. 3 in the parking lot of the University Heights Community Center – the first of four such events that organizers hope will lead to plans for permanent site next year.

“A public university has a mandate to have a larger impact on these kinds of problems,” said Josephine Ensign, a professor in the UW School of Nursing and coordinator of The Doorway Project. “But it shouldn’t be an ivory tower, think-tank solution; it needs to involve public scholarship, informed by the public and impacting the public.”

The café event, scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 3, marks the first step in a three-pronged University initiative to tackle homelessness. With pay-as-you-can food trucks, live music, social-service agency representatives and access to indoor restrooms and warming space, The Doorway Project aims to connect with homeless youth while including the University District neighborhood as a whole.

“We wanted it to be youth-friendly, but not youth-exclusive,” Ensign said.

Homelessness in Seattle has been on the rise. The annual Count Us In report count last January recorded more than 11,000 homeless people in King County, a roughly 10 percent increase over the previous year. Of that number, nearly 1,500 were between the ages of 18 and 24, living alone or with a family member.

In the University District, several agencies within a few blocks of campus, such as the University District Food Bank, Roots Young Adult Shelter and YouthCare’s University District Youth Center, are trying to meet some of the need. But the population exceeds the available resources and, in many cases, young people are reluctant to take advantage of existing services, Ensign said.

A part of Urban@UW, an interdisciplinary effort to tackle city issues through research, teaching, and community collaboration, The Doorway Project emerged from a 2016 faculty summit, which Urban@UW director Thaisa Way convened to brainstorm how the university could help alleviate homelessness around all three of its campuses. From that summit, Urban@UW embarked on its Homelessness Research Initiative: to develop a multidisciplinary social change curriculum; to identify and serve housing- and food-insecure UW students; and to establish a safe community hub for social services.

“If the existing system just scales up what it’s doing, it’s still not going to be enough to meet the growing homeless population,” said Way, a professor of landscape architecture who chairs the UW Faculty Senate. “Can we think about offering services in a different framework with faculty, staff and students at the table; with community agencies, the city and the state at the table? We can do something together that none of us could have done alone.”

With the support of Washington Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D – Seattle), a longtime advocate of housing and social services, the UW received $1 million from the state over two years. The $500,000 this year will be split between the University and YouthCare to launch The Doorway Project.

Chopp said The Doorway Project represents a unique partnership between the University and service providers.

“Youth homelessness is on the rise in our community, and that’s a trend we must reverse,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for the UW to fully utilize its resources and academic expertise, and to engage faculty and students to address this growing crisis.”

 The Doorway Project pop-up events are intended to test different ways of connecting homeless youth with services in order to inform design of a permanent location next year. Ensign, who has worked with homeless youth for more than 30 years, leads the project for the UW. She drew upon her time working with the street population in Auckland, New Zealand, where the Merge Café has long provided a variety of homeless services within the walls of an otherwise typical community restaurant, and began envisioning a similar, service-oriented neighborhood café in the University District.

The concept of a neighborhood café is meant to both reach out and draw in, said Charlotte Sanders, a teaching associate in the School of Social Work and a leader of The Doorway Project, along with Ensign and Lisa Kelly, a professor in the UW School of Law.

“The whole idea of being homeless is very labeling on a young person. Young people generally do not want to be identified as being homeless,” she said. “This is an effort not about being homeless but inviting the community in. If a person is homeless, or on the brink of being homeless, or simply presents a need, we’d be able to respond to those needs in some way. At the same time, maybe there are other people from the neighborhood who would come in and see the needs and want to help.”

The research component is critical, Ensign said, because it involves asking homeless youth what they want – mapping where they go and what services they turn to now, and how that system could be enhanced.

Kelly said this approach sets the effort on a path forward. “Understanding these reasons can move us forward on multiple fronts,” Kelly said. “By listening in a way that recognizes the expertise of the youth themselves, we can design a place that meets their needs in a user-friendly way.  Through listening, we will also hear about the barriers to access that exist right now, and we may be able to identify the larger structural challenges baked into the laws and policies that govern how services are offered.”

YouthCare, which has worked with homeless youth in Seattle for more than 40 years, will coordinate café operations and the availability of resources and information from various social services. At the UW, the School of Nursing and the Carlson Leadership & Public Service Center will conduct community-based data collection and the planning and design of the café.

“We know what works to stabilize young people and help them develop their potential,” said YouthCare CEO and President Melinda Giovengo. “One thing we’ve found that works extremely well is to engage young people who are experiencing homelessness, treat them as the rightful experts on their experience, and give them a voice in solutions going forward. We’re really proud to be part of the Doorway Project, because it’s a new way of addressing youth homelessness in the University District—asking youth to be part of the conversation.”


For more information, contact Ensign at 206-890-0679 or bjensign@uw.edu; Way at 206-685-2523 or tway@uw.edu; or Brittny Nielsen at YouthCare, 206-204-1411 or Brittny.Nielsen@youthcare.org.