Inside Look: How the YMCA’s Host Homes Program Is Helping Young People Who Are at Risk of Homelessness

Since being matched with a homeowner, one young Seattle woman has found a job and is pursuing a college degree

By Erica C. Barnett

"Early morning sun highlights the front of a hillside of houses in Seattle, Washington."

September 12, 2018

Chalaia Smith was running out of options.

At 24, she had spent years bouncing from one relative’s house to another, sleeping on couches and in spare rooms for as long as she felt comfortable, then moving on. Eventually, she says, “I ran out of relatives.” Minimum-wage jobs didn’t pay enough for her to come up with first and last month’s rent and a deposit on a Seattle-area apartment. “It was becoming a burden on my family.”

That’s when she turned to the YMCA Accelerator’s Host Home program, which links homeowners (or even renters) whose homes have space to spare with young adults who need a place to live and are either homeless or at risk of falling into homelessness.

The goal of the program is to provide temporary housing and mentorship to young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 who need a little extra support while they finish school, look for a job, or work to save money to put down a deposit on an apartment.

“I was hoping for a stable place to live and somewhere where I’d feel comfortable enough to start saving money and go back to school and start reaching my goals,” Smith says.

Through the program, Smith was connected to Diane Hilmo, a Wedgwood homeowner and civil engineer who got interested in hosting a young adult when she read about a program started by community volunteers on Whidbey Island.  “I thought, ‘I have a perfectly nice guest room and two bathrooms, and it’s a waste for it to just sit there except for a couple of visits [from friends and family] a year,” Hilmo says.

After signing up for the program, going through the mandatory training, and filling out a survey about her interests, Hilmo waited about six months before getting the call. As soon as she met Smith, though, Hilmo says she knew it would be a good fit. “I met Chalaia, I said, ‘Sure, move on in,’ and I think it was about three days later that she did,” Hilmo says.

Host Home coordinator Scott Schubert says the program tries to link people with similar interests. For Hilmo and Smith, it was their mutual fondness for animals; Smith wants to become a veterinarian and work with farm animals, and Hilmo is an animal lover who has two cats.

“All the matches [between hosts and young adult guests] have moved forward, because I think we do a great job of vetting both parties beforehand,” Schubert says. “We make sure we understand who that the host is and who the young adult is.”

Smith’s goal was to go back to school and get a job that pays more than the minimum-wage retail jobs she had been doing. So far, she’s checked one item off that list: Within about a week of moving in to Hilmo’s spare bedroom, Smith had scored a job at a kennel in Bothell, which gives her the opportunity to work with animals. Hilmo drove Smith to her interview—an example, Smith says, of the kind of assistance most stably housed young adults take for granted.

“People don’t realize how much help they get from their parents,” Hilmo says. “I’ve been around a lot of parents who just are helicopter parents, but a little of that is good. They’re checking out stuff, they’re making contacts for people. You might not realize all the benefits you got from that stuff.”

“Diane and I are really a good powerhouse team,” Smith chimes in. “She’s really good at finding resources and really good at pushing me to get into school, which is where I want to be.”

Smith, who was raised by her grandmother (she declined to elaborate on why her parents were not in the picture), says having a place to stay has also helped her relationship with her family, including her brothers, who live in the Seattle area. “Not having to ask, ‘Can I sleep on your couch tonight?’ just really alleviates the tension. It’s nice being able to just have a social relationship with my family, and not a dependent relationship—like being their child that they never asked for.”

Although the Host Home program technically lasts up to six months, many hosts invite young adults to stay for longer. Hilmo says she thinks six months isn’t long enough for a young person to get on their feet and save up enough money to find an apartment in the pricey Seattle market.

Smith hopes to start college in September; Hilmo says she’s determined to help her get there. “I told her, ‘Don’t worry about leaving. You worry about getting into school.’ … I think that energy that is spent on trying to find a place to live is energy that isn’t spent on whatever else they should be doing.”

Smith says having a stable place to stay, one where she doesn’t have to worry about “the basic things, like whether it’s going to rain on your head or … whether you can afford your next dinner,” has given her the ability to focus on her own future in a way she couldn’t when she was bouncing from couch to couch.

“The stress just impacts you so tremendously,” she says. “Having that boulder of stress taken off by just having a room—it’s tremendous.”

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