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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

September 24, 2014 at 6:09 AM

Putting an end to child homelessness

People don’t put a child’s face on the homeless, but there are plenty of homeless children on the streets of Seattle.

Mockingbird Society keynote speaker Roel Williams discusses being a foster child and being homeless during the luncheon fundraiser. (Robert Vickers / The Seattle Times)

Mockingbird Society keynote speaker Roel Williams discusses being a foster child and being homeless during the luncheon fundraiser. (Robert Vickers / The Seattle Times)

That point was hammered home Tuesday during a luncheon fundraiser for The Mockingbird Society, a local non-profit dedicated to improving foster care and ending child homelessness.

The society’s Youth Network Seattle Chapter Leader Roel Williams left the room riveted from his harrowing tale of being shuttled in and out of the foster system as a child and eventually ending up homeless.

The son of a Filipino immigrant, Williams watched his mother succumb to ovarian cancer the day before his seventh birthday. Family friends took him in for a year before dumping him into the foster care system without warning.

That started a rollercoaster existence that included abuse, aggressive use of medication by one foster couple to keep him sedated, and a school counselor encouraging him to drop out of high school.

“The one thing you need to know about foster care is this: For a lot of kids, healthy relationships are few and far between,” he said.

By age 17 and having lived in 14 different homes, shelters and group homes, Williams figured he was better off on his own.

“I was sick of the system,” he added. “I thought the streets would be no worse. But they were.”

Once he awoke around 3 a.m. to find he was being robbed at gunpoint.

Eventually, he found a friend whose mother took him in. But there was only a modicum of stability that came with it. As a foster child scrounging for himself, he had no formal identification. And even though Williams landed a fast food job, he had a hard time cashing his paycheck without ID.

“For most other kids, this is never an issue, but for foster youth it’s huge,” he said.

Williams pushed the issue in a foster care summit organized by the Mockingbird Society. The issue eventually made it to the state Supreme Court commission on foster care.

“Just bringing this to their attention triggered a bunch of changes,” he said. “Simply raising an issue with powerful decision makers brought about change.”

That experience gave Williams confidence at a time he was also achieving a measure of independence. He had landed some transitional housing and $4,000 in state support funds. So he did what any teenager with a wad of cash would do.

“I partied (and) I bought a car,” he said, noting that his involvement with Mockingbird then tapered off.

His little-supervised youthful freedom led to run-ins with the law. And when Williams didn’t show up for a court date, warrants were issued for his arrest. For months he lived in fear of being nabbed by police. The stress caused him to lose 31 pounds, he said.

In time he found the courage to turn himself in.

“But jail was not a bad thing for me,” he added. “I got really, really motivated.”

Williams was released after two months behind bars and returned to live with his friend. He started calling the friend’s mom his mom. He also dedicated himself to working with Mockingbird.

“At Mockingbird, I learned the importance of advocacy,” Williams said, having noted earlier that when he’d been slapped by the medication-happy foster couple, he notified child welfare officials.

He also talked of a previous experience of being forced out of a stable foster home because he’d turned 18. Consequently, Williams now argues for extended foster care through age 21.

“No kid, none, are ready to be on their own without having support at the age of 18,” he added.

Taking on such issues helped Williams find his voice, and the confidence to stand before a Westin Seattle downtown ballroom and tell his difficult story.

A year ago, he was just a Mockingbird Society assistance at the fundraiser. But Tuesday, he was a chapter leader and keynote of the event.

And Williams took that opportunity to advocate for the organization he credits with providing the foundation for him to turn his life around.

“Each of you can be that one caring adult,” Williams said. “Each of you has the power to make a gift to Mockingbird to truly change a life, just like Mockingbird has changed mine.”

Contributions to The Mockingbird Society can be made by calling 206-323-5437, or by going to: www.mockingbirdsociety.org.

• Editor’s note, Charlene Blethen, wife of publisher Frank Blethen, was a table captain for the fundraiser.

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