Homeless in the Harbor
Issue is present despite lack of appearance
By Colin Anderson
Photo Courtesy of Harbor Hope Center
While Gig Harbor is often looked upon as a beautiful community with financially stable residents, there are those who see people struggling that might not otherwise be seen. “We sort of live in a bubble here, and we don’t really see what is out there. A lot of our teens are struggling in silence,” said Melissa Starmer.
Melissa is one of the founding members of the Harbor Hope Center and currently serves as administration coordinator and board secretary. A recent survey done by the Peninsula School District identified nearly 150 homeless students within the district. This number doesn’t take into account students who are couch surfing or who have dropped out of school, so the number is actually higher.
When the Harbor Hope Center is made aware of one of these students, its process begins. “The number one thing we hear in the initial interview is, ‘My parents are good people, and they are trying,’” said Executive Director Daniel Johnson. “Our goal is to help these teens while maintaining dignity and to treat each other humanely.”
Harbor Hope Center works directly with high school-aged homeless students in Gig Harbor. Students begin at either the boys’ or girls’ fully staffed care homes, which provides transitional housing and a safe environment. There is a resident advisor in each home along with three to four additional staff members in order to keep the homes staffed 24/7. The goal is for each student to spend up to 90 days here, adjusting to being away from their parents, before being transitioned into a home hosted by a local family. During this time students meet with volunteer mentors and are also provided counseling through various agencies, depending on each individual’s needs.
“People have this vision that homeless teens are just couch surfing and staying with friends, but what we are really seeing the need for is crisis management,” said Daniel. Teens found here are often subject to drug/alcohol abuse, poor economic conditions and mental health issues during their upbringing. Harbor Hope Center brings in emotional well-being and substance abuse counselors and has partnered with organizations that include New Hope Recovery, Peninsula Mental Health and Communities in Schools, to name a few.
A challenge for the organization currently is recruiting host home families. Taking on a teenager who could be with you for several years is no simple decision, however, Harbor Hope Center believes it can be an incredibly impactful and rewarding one. Initially both student and family are vetted to make sure it’s a match that will work. Families go through a questionnaire and list of requirements. The family and student then meet several times before deciding if the fit is right for both parties. Though the program has only been operating for a few years, evidence of its positive effect is already beginning to show. “Two young ladies recently graduated high school and are employed and attending college,” said Melissa. “Although they’ve moved on they are still very close with their host families.”
While being the host family is the biggest commitment, there are many other volunteers whose seemingly simple tasks can have a great impact on a local young person. There are currently 20 adult mentors in the program who meet weekly with teens. Having a role model and an adult who cares about them can greatly increase the self-worth of a homeless teen. Transportation is also something homeless teens struggle with. Local volunteers are set up to drive teens to appointments and therapy sessions, after-school jobs or activities, or mentor sessions. Another pillar of the program is making sure teens are well fed. A partnership with the Fish Food Bank and other regional organizations makes sure healthy foods are available to each student and also helps lessen the expense for host families through donations.
One of the biggest confidence boosters might surprise people: new clothing. Kids will recognize if their peers are wearing the same shoes and clothes to school each week, and bullying can follow. Working with the local Kiwanis, teens in the program are provided $250 each to help spruce up their wardrobe. “It gives them great confidence, they are excited, and I’ve even heard a student say, ‘Now when I go to school I won’t be bullied,’” said Melissa.
Harbor Hope Center has already hired eight additional workers this year as they realize more and more help is needed. The organization wants to expand and broaden its relationships with local churches, businesses, elected officials and organizations in order to create a model that addresses community issues that lead to homelessness before another teen comes to them in crisis. Another goal is to open an additional home to house single parents.
As with other area nonprofits, the pandemic wiped out the Harbor Hope Center’s in-person annual fundraiser, but there are still ways you can help. At the girls’ home, donors can purchase a brick with their name or other personalized message that will be placed on the walkway. There is also a Donate tab on the homepage of Harbor Hope Center’s website. For volunteer opportunities or additional information, you are encouraged to visit HarborHopeCenter.org.