Nostalgia thrives on the Ave.
That’s University Way Northeast to cartographers, a street that pounds with construction and smells of $6.99 Thai lunch specials and bus exhaust.
It’s a two-lane strip of grit, of brooding coffee shops and their patrons, the print newspaper readers, the chess players, the drip drinkers. Off the main drag are the alleys, with their discarded orange syringe tips, and smells of urine-y urban wild, all seemingly a middle finger to the blandness of new Seattle money.
Here, Seattle homeless youth have made their home for decades. Ave rats, they’re called lovingly or derisively, young people who migrate here after a fight with mom, or after aging out of foster care. They sleep at the ROOTS shelter, eat at Teen Feed and smoke pot on the University of Washington campus.
Homelessness in this neighborhood, the University District, increased by 500 percent this year over last – no, not a typo — including teens and young adults. The young people blend in, because here old is 30, and weird is a given. Among them:
Milee Ballweg, 20, the young woman photographed above, who slept on the fourth step of a church, exposed to the rain, until recently, when the man who slept in the alcove moved out, opening a space for her.
Will, who attends Teen Feed and scrounges on weekends.
And Mariah, a self-described queen who lives in transitional housing on the Eastside but who returns to the Ave for friends and a fix.
Below are photos of Milee, Will and Mariah and other youth who recently shared their stories with KUOW.
Will was born in Germany. He came to the United States when he was six years old.
Will said the weekends are the hardest part about living on the streets. During the week there are services open during the day, but on the weekend the services are basically limited to dinner and shelter. He says he often doesn’t have breakfast or lunch on the weekend.
The highlight is teen feed, a meal program for young people that runs every day.
“Throughout the day, everybody is spread out,” Will said. “But like, during teen feed, everybody is there. It’s one of those things that you see everyone and you’re like ‘hey, hey, hey’. It’s our community.”
Milee Ballweg said she became homeless after some altercations with her family. She sleeps on the steps of a church in Seattle’s University District.
“In a way, the world becomes your house and you’ve just got to explore all of its rooms and get to know your neighbors, because more than likely you’ll see all these faces around more than once.”
Until she finds a way out, she said she’s just got to keep going.
“You have to. Otherwise, if you’re stuck in yesterday you can’t live today, and you can’t even look forward to tomorrow.”
Chance has been without a home since January. He is one of the many young people that stay at ROOTS Young Adult shelter, a stone's throw from the University of Washington's manicured lawns.
They make their beds for the night on blue mats lined up neatly on the floor, each with two tiles between them for personal space.
A young woman who goes by Mariah sings in doorways and on street corners, holding her phone as a mic.
“When I come down to the U-District I’m like, ‘Your queen’s here, honey,’” she says. Mariah became homeless at the age of 18 after a fight with her mom. She’s now 21, and she recently moved into temporary housing on the Eastside.
But her friends and the lure of drugs keep her coming back to the U-District most days.
“I don’t feel like bringing old behaviors down to a new place, so I come back down here,” Mariah said. “I kind of describe it like getting kicked out of a bar. It sucks because then your party crowd don’t want to hang with you no more because you’re like, never there.
"You don’t have to worry about where you’re going to put your belongings, you don’t have to carry things, you don’t have to be in constant survival mode. Because out here, honey, you’ve got to be in survival mode.”
Lacade Karty – his street name – is one of roughly 45 young people who tumble out of the ROOTS young adult shelter in a back alley every morning.
Lacade Karty has been homeless on and off for years. He moved to Washington state in his teens after his mom died. He typically stays at ROOTS Young Adult shelter.
“It sucks when you walk around here at night and you still don’t have a place to sleep,” he said.
According to King County data, Karty is in the minority: Only a quarter of homeless young people in the county are sheltered on any given night.
Historically, the University District has been a haven for street youth; here they blend in, and as long as they don’t have too many bags, they can often pass for students.
Will and Karty, along with friends, typically spend some of their time on campus either smoking weed or playing FIFA at the Husky Union Building.
Data shows that about 90 percent of homeless young people in King County use some sort of service, especially free meals, transitional housing and day centers.
The City of Seattle is spending more than $3.5 million on services for homeless youth and young adults in 2018. ROOTS Young Adult shelter is one organization receiving city funding.
Domestic strife is just one of the many ways young people end up on the street. About a third of homeless youth have been through foster care, some aging out onto the streets.
About half have been incarcerated.
And domestic violence is common. That’s according to the county’s annual one-night count surveys.
The path out of homelessness looks different for different people. But wanting to get housing doesn’t mean wanting to leave street friends behind. For Lacade Karty, he says they’re like family.
They met at shelters and through other people.
“We stuck around even throughout the winter. We hang like that, you know, we’re pretty much all a squad. We take care of each other when it comes down to like going out and doing things that we’ve got to go do.”