Mike is studying Social and Human Services at Seattle Central Community College, and the recipient of SEA’s 2010 Student Activist Award for his work empowering homeless youth and young adults in the U District.
Mike grew up in a low income family in Alaska; his mother left when he was three, and his father raised Mike and his younger brother on his own. After Mike’s dad became disabled it became harder and harder to make ends meet. “When I was thirteen I had to go live with my aunt for six months because there was no power in the house and the state was getting ready to take me away,” Mike told the SEA staff in a recent interview. “By that time my little brother was already in juvenile detention. When I got back to Alaska my dad and I couch surfed for awhile, and then lived in a car for the summer. We still didn’t have a place to live when school started, so he brought me to the Division of Family and Youth Services and told me that he would rather see me in foster care than drop out of school.” Mike was 14 and ready to start ninth grade.
Up until that time Mike had been doing well in school; his father was poor but loved his son. Entry into the foster care system made a bad situation worse. “At first they placed me in an emergency shelter for homeless youth in downtown Anchorage,” Mike says. “I was one of the youngest kids there, and the older kids taught me a lot about drugs, alcohol, breaking the law. It was pretty crazy, and I was angry at my dad for bailing on me.” Over the course of the next year, Mike would be put in six different foster care placements, bouncing between foster families, group homes, and juvenile detention. “By the time I was 15 I was doing a lot of drugs,” Mike says. “I was running away and couch surfing with friends. Then my social worker gave me an ultimatum: either go to yet another emergency foster home or juvenile detention. The ultimatum approach didn’t work that well,” he said grinning. “I decided I would rather be on my own.”
Seven months later the social worker finally relented: Mike would be “allowed” to move back in with his father. “But by that time the streets had a pretty good hold on me,” Mike says. He became a father at 16, and tried twice to go back and finish high school, but was not stable enough to succeed there. “My dad couldn’t control me; I think he felt defeated. I did odd jobs, sold drugs, flopped around…I was your typical teenager magnified.” Mike continued to drift in and out of street life for the next ten years – sometimes having a place to live and sometimes not, mostly working, often traveling. “I usually had a job so I usually had a place to crash,” he says. “I would contribute and I had a lot of friends, so it wasn’t hard to find a place to stay. I paid my way and didn’t take advantage of people’s hospitality.”
By 25, Mike was tired of always being on the move and ready to settle down. He moved back to Seattle to live with his girlfriend; he had lived in Seattle several times in the past and had many friends here, including Brittney, an Education Advocate at SEA. “I ran into Brittney while I was job hunting, and she told me that if I was willing to put that much time and energy into looking for work I should think about going back to school,” Mike said. “At the time, I had nothing better to do – it was like sure, why not? But after a quarter, when I found out how much fun college was, and saw that I was getting good grades, I was hooked. I don’t ever want to quit now.” Last quarter, Mike’s GPA was 3.9 and he is on the dean’s list. In addition to being a full time student, Mike works part time at Street Youth Ministry, where he helps homeless youth and young adults. He also volunteers with the Youth Council, which gives homeless youth a collective voice and a pathway to empowerment and social change.
Mike plans on continuing to study social work and his long term plan is to have a job that allows him to change the system, so that social work as it is practiced today is no longer necessary: “I want to help people help themselves so that they are self sufficient and don’t need the system any more,” Mike says. “I’ve been in every system and I know what kids go through. I know how hard it is and how helpless the system makes you feel. Too often social workers don’t help very much – sometimes its more about how to keep getting a paycheck than what’s best for the client.”
“But SEA isn’t like that,” Mike continued. “If it wasn’t for SEA I wouldn’t be in school right now. SEA staff taught me how to work the system, how to navigate the bureaucracy for myself. Brittney ‘took me by the hand’ and showed me how to cut through the red tape and get funding for college, how to register for the right classes. Now I feel confident that I can jump through the hoops myself and get the job done. College is intimidating at first, and having an advocate there showing you how the system works is invaluable.”