Trauma-Informed Care, StoryCorps, and Host Homes for Youth: Some Highlights From WLIHA’s Conference on Ending Homelessness

Written by Perry Firth, project coordinator, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness and school psychology graduate student

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Caption: This image captures just how many people attended WLIHA’s Conference on Ending Homelessness. As you can see, we were a big crowd! Image from WLIHA.

 This year I had the pleasure of attending the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s Conference on Ending Homelessness in Tacoma, May 13-14. I was there with over 800 people (the largest turnout yet), all devoted to making homelessness rare, brief and one time.

There were many highlights, including Firesteel’s presentation on StoryCorps and strategic communications, the Project on Family Homelessness’s “Dessert Dash” and StoryCorps workshop, and the sessions on host homes for homeless youth and trauma-informed care.

Firesteel shows how StoryCorps can be a valuable communication tool

I loved Firesteel’s presentation on StoryCorps and strategic communications. As part of the Project on Family Homelessness, I have had the honor of helping the StoryCorps effort reach its full potential. As the Firesteel team and Joaquin of WLIHA discussed StoryCorps’ many uses and the role of strategic communications in ending homelessness, I was reminded of how many lives this project has touched.

This was further emphasized to me when our own team hosted a workshop and “Dessert Dash” with Sherry and Franklin Gilliard—a family whose courage in the face of home loss and homelessness was profiled on NPR’s Friday StoryCorps segment this past November.

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Caption: Franklin and Sherry Gilliard, who lost their home after their business went under during the Great Recession, forcing them and their three children into a shelter. Image from

 During our event, Sherry talked about what it was like for her and her family to participate in StoryCorps, and also about experiencing homelessness. I was disheartened by some of what she said, such as her perception that a few coworkers who heard her story viewed her negatively afterward. However her own unmitigated enthusiasm for StoryCorps and the power of storytelling to change the world reduced my concerns that her participation in the project had been detrimental. That, and when asked if she would do StoryCorps again, she responded with a resounding “Yes!”

It reminded me of Rosette Royale’s keynote address the next day on storytelling. He shared the Maya Angelou quote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Other than being inspired by the Gilliard’s and the StoryCorps project, there were two sessions that really excited me. One was a presentation on trauma-informed care, and the other was on using host homes to help youth experiencing homelessness get on their feet.

Trauma-informed care

 I have been interested in the applications of trauma-informed practices in schools for some time now. This is more broadly related to my interest in toxic stress and child development. This presentation was on how organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness are able to benefit from a trauma-informed model. However, much of the content had direct applications to schools.

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Caption: Trauma-informed care is about better service delivery for clients, but also friends and colleagues supporting each other. Hugs work! Image from Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

For instance, I really appreciated how presenter Karin White, deputy director of the YWCA of Pierce County, discussed how trauma impacts the brain, and leads to behaviors which can be confusing for those who don’t have a strong grounding in this research.

This made me think about how important it is for teachers and other school professionals to have this information; how else can they accurately interpret child behaviors?

The importance of understanding the reasons behind child behaviors was emphasized recently in a Seattle Times article on trauma-informed schools. The author profiled a teacher discussing how she realized the importance of a school-based response to trauma and toxic stress in children because otherwise, when asking kids to learn, “It’s as if their hair’s on fire, and you’re asking them to write their name.

 I also appreciated the connection Ms. White made between dealing with high-need populations and self-care. According to Ms. White, an often-neglected component of a trauma-informed model is the need for effective support for helpers. This support is essential to prevent secondary trauma and burnout. For school professionals working in high trauma schools, this is also important. Support for teachers could look like:

  • regular collaborative meetings between staff
  • administrative support
  • strong training on how stress and trauma lead to challenging child behaviors,
  • and integrating mindfulness and meditation into the curriculum for both staff and students.

 Host Homes

It is estimated that about 800 young people experience homelessness every night in King County.

Often these young people end up on the streets because they have fled dangerous and abusive home situations, or because their parents are un-accepting of their sexual orientation. With no safe place to call home, they are left to fend for themselves without the guidance provided by a loving and stable family.

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Caption: Homelessness for teens is most often not a choice. It is time to think innovatively so that kids aren’t left on the streets. Lori Cavender of Ryan’s House For Youth has done just that through creating a host home system for Whidbey Island. Image from

Our shelters systems are not set up to handle the number of teens and youth in need of housing and case management. Throughout this nation, teens are turned away from shelter because there are simply not enough beds.

That is why I was so excited by Lori Cavender’s (executive director of Ryan’s House for Youth) and Carly Cysensky’s (Shared Housing Services) presentation on “host homes” for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness.

After going through a matching process, a background check, and an education process with the referring social service agency, a host family/person opens their home to a young person in need. This host is a person/family that has a spare bedroom so the youth has their own space. The young person then stays for different lengths of time, depending on their needs, their match with the family, and the goals of the referring program.

The presenters discussed how they are using a “host homes” model in Tacoma and on Whidbey Island so that community members can provide housing to students who would otherwise be on the streets.

The Tacoma model has kids stay for up to two years, with adults providing housing and serving in a mentorship role. That is, the adult who has opened their home lets the youth’s case manager handle a lot of the heavy-duty stuff (job training, connection to education, counseling, etc.), while they act as an adult the youth can count on.

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Caption: Most of these youth are desperate for a secure and warm place to stay so they can pursue their education and feel safe. Shared Housing Service’s host homes program give youth the stability they need to reach their potential. Image from

Whidbey Island has also embraced host families through Ryan’s House for Youth. This program allows youth to stay indefinitely, and asks the host family to fully integrate the child into their life. That is, the host family might even take the youth on family vacations. As with the Tacoma model, all of this happens after a matching process, and with plenty of support for the host family and teen. So far, two families have actually ended up adopting the youth they brought into their home.

Hearing about the host family solution to youth homelessness was inspiring to me for several reasons.

  • One, we are currently failing to keep up with housing demand for these teens through more bureaucratic means.
  • Two, I believe that communities need to step up and be the parents these youth need. That is, rather then seeing a need and handing it off to a social service program, community members should respond, when possible, by opening the doors of their own homes. Host homes provide a vehicle for this sort of “community mentoring/parenting” philosophy.
  • Three, the bureaucracy inherent in housing young people strictly through available shelter systems ensures that the system will always be too limited and too slow to meet the needs of all homeless youth.

Thus, host homes can be a valuable component of emergency housing services.


One of my major takeaways from this conference is the importance of innovative thinking and collaboration in ending homelessness. That is why I appreciated the workshops I attended so much; they all featured creative ways of reaching people and opening minds. In the case of host homes and trauma-informed schools, they also revealed newer ways of thinking about old problems. These sessions in particular challenged their attendees to re-evaluate their own client practices. On my end, the sessions I attended at the conference deepened my personal commitment to reach youth who are struggling. In particular, I plan to take the concepts of storytelling as advocacy, host homes and trauma-informed care into my school psychology internship next year.

Overall, WLIHA’s Conference on Ending Homelessness was great. It was inspiring and motivating to be around so many people working tirelessly to help those in need. The work required to end homelessness isn’t always glamorous, but it is always important.

What You Can Do

  1. Spend some time exploring the YouthCare website, a Seattle non-profit dedicated to helping youth experiencing homelessness.
  2. Peruse the Ryan’s House for Youth and Shared Housing Services websites to learn more about their individual programs for youth.
  3. Read this great article from the Seattle Times- You are more than your mistakes’: Teachers get at roots of bad behavior, on the importance of schools being trauma-informed.
  4. For those of you interested in how to help people experiencing trauma while maintaining self care, I recommend Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk.
  5. Go to the Firesteel StoryCorps page to hear interview audio recordings of families and youth experiencing homelessness, and how homelessness relates to trauma. You can do this by trying different search terms (eg., “teen,” “school,” “youth,” “child,” “trauma,” “abuse”).
  6. Spend some time on this SAMHSA website on trauma-informed care. They have great resources for the development of trauma-informed care programs.
  7. Read my Firesteel blog post Innovating Toward Academic Success: Empowering Students Who Are Homeless or Living With Toxic Stress which describes some innovative ways schools can help support students experiencing homelessness. It includes a discussion of trauma informed schools.

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