Uncertain future for SAY and the at-risk youth it serves
Last minute fundraising helps Sonoma County’s premiere homeless youth organization avoid an immediate shutdown, but huge challenges remain
On Monday, Jan. 8, Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), which provides support services for homeless and at-risk youth throughout the county, held an emergency press conference at its Dream Center on Summerfield Road in Santa Rosa.
A combination of events had conspired to push SAY to the edge of bankruptcy. Its Dream Center was on the brink of shuttering, and the window of opportunity to fix the situation was about to close.
Staff, press and local politicians, including Vice Mayor Mark Stapp and incoming Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair David Rabbitt, attended the event.
Board President Ted Patchett made a public plea for immediate financial assistance, saying “SAY operates the only staffed crisis line for youth which operates 24/7, and SAY operates the only homeless shelter for youth in Northern California, north of the Golden Gate line up to the state line with Oregon.”
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In short, SAY needed to raise $1 million dollars in the next 10 days, and up to $3 million over the next few years, to cover expenses while it sold its Dream Center and reorganized to meet new financial obligations and legal stipulations.
Say’s current financial predicament is complicated, and many years in the making.
Founded in 1971 as a means to provide runaways with an alternative to detention, SAY’s services grew over the past five decades to include youth and family housing, counseling, crisis support, skills training, and education and career assistance.
With its increased services came increased expenses.
Its flagship Dream Center opened in 2016, following the long-term lease and $9.5 million conversion of Sutter Health’s Warrick Hospital.
An initial $1.5 million county donation funded the Dream Center for its first year, but inadequate funding in subsequent years resulted in layoffs and downsizing.
“SAY is facing some of the same factors impacting many nonprofits over the last few years: the pandemic, inflation, labor shortages, and a very turbulent economy,” said SAY Chief Development and Operations Officer Dennis Agnos in a recent press release.
In addition, homelessness among youth aged 18-24 years old increased 70% in 2022. Rising housing costs and mental health needs conspired to make the situation more dire. The end result: By fall 2023 SAY had used up all its funding and maxed out an ongoing $400,000 line of credit supplied by Exchange Bank, with no ability to pay it back.
In spite of this, SAY has persisted as the county’s premiere support center for at-risk youth.
The good news is that Monday’s press conference generated enough community interest and support to convince the Board not to shut services down immediately. Though fundraising goals still haven’t been fully met and more donors need to come forward, the Board is determined to proceed with operations for the time being.
But the future is not fully written.
If SAY closes, the list of adversely affected people and services is long. Sixty-seven youth will lose secure housing, and SAY’s Family Cottage assistance to pregnant youth will end, as will its mental health services for 400 youth, which serve many west county teens. What’s more, 34 waitlisted homeless youth will lose their opportunity to find future housing, and Sonoma County’s only youth-focused street outreach and emergency shelters will close.
And to compound matters, recent reforms to Federal Continuum of Care regulations now limit “congregate” housing for at-risk youth to 20 under one roof. Which means that SAY will need to replace its Dream Center with multiple smaller centers in order to (re-)house its 67-plus housing-impaired youth and any future homeless youth.
SAY Communications and Marketing Manager Susan Boyle, who attended Monday’s press conference, said: “Everything we do is with the kids [at the] forefront. Before the news broke, we had conversations with them. We let them know that SAY is in this circumstance, that we’re pulling together to do everything possible to ensure that our programs stay in place. And we’re not going to tell them that it’s different unless it gets to that point.”
When asked how local government was assisting SAY during its moment of crisis, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who also attended the event, responded: “I think the county right now is looking at shelter space for the individuals that are housed here in various places, so that they are not put out on the street. We need to support those who are receiving shelter and support [them] as quickly as possible. And in a slightly longer term, we need to figure out how to keep this building open and the services continuing to flow.
“There’s not a huge pot of funding that’s just sitting there waiting to be used, so we’ll have to be creative using multiple funding sources and community services to figure this out,” Gorin told the Sebastopol Times after the meeting.
SAY is expected to release further statements about its ongoing fundraising and reorganizing efforts in the coming days.
Former SAY kids and supporters tell their stories
SAY’s best advocates during the press conference were the adults who stepped forward to speak about their firsthand observations and experiences of SAY’s impact on them and other local at-risk youth.
Jasmine Reilly, former SAY youth
“My name is Jasmine Reilly. The mission at Social Advocates for Youth has meant so much to me because it truly hits home. There are so many before us that have come to support Social Advocates for Youth, and my family and I are grateful for that.
“SAY has supported thousands of our most vulnerable youth in the community, and they give hope to those who need it most. I was one of those that was going through a difficult time at home during my teenage years, and I found myself alone. I understand the lowest lows because I experienced a time when my future was unknown, and survival was day to day for a brief time. And I was homeless until I found Social Advocates for Youth through an outreach program.
“They provided a warm, safe place for me to sleep and to rest; an opportunity to catch my breath and to deal with the insurmountable anxiety that left me feeling desolation, loneliness and feeling just unwanted. SAY gave me a sense of belonging, a support system to overcome adversity and to help build my resilience during a time of crisis.
“Today I’m one of many graduates that have been through SAY. I am one life that was transformed as a youth and is now thriving as a hardworking professional, as a woman and as a mother of a college student. Our children are the future. We stand along with Social Advocates for Youth and recognize the colossal work they do for our homeless youth, and [the] impact they have made over the last 50 years.
“Where will our children go if SAY is not there to continue that mission? Thank you, Social Advocates for Youth, and all those that continue to support the incredible work you do. We hope that you will continue to forever transform the lives of our children just like you did mine years ago.
“I do not know where I would be; I truly do not know where I would be today if there was no Social Advocates for Youth when I needed you guys most. Thank you.”
Shaun Ralston, SAY Supporter and President of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy
“My name is Shaun Ralston, and I’m the president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy. Our 45 chaplains provide 24/7, 365 service to residents facing tragedy and loss, mostly involving suicides and unexpected deaths, and SAY. We are a nonprofit serving an unquestionable need for an otherwise [crucial] service provided by others—or not provided by others—to help people in crisis.
“And I became aware of SAY years ago through a personal connection—one of my neighbors, named Nathan. Now Nathan was a junior college student facing a series of unfortunate events: the loss of his roommate, a sudden rent hike, the closure of a Santa Rosa restaurant where he worked. And his situation worsened when his car, which he had been living in, was towed away for overtime parking.
“Left with nothing, Nathan found himself among the 294 youth who sleep on our streets every night. But thanks to SAY, Nathan received emergency shelter, food and counseling. And with their assistance and safety net, he returned to permanent housing, continued his education and [SAY] set him back on a path to a brighter future. And while Nathan’s story is not unique, imagine if it was one of your family members or your loved ones sleeping out on the streets on a cold winter night like last night.
“After seeing the amazing support SAY provided to Nathan, I began volunteering and fundraising for SAY starting with their annual One Cold Night event where participants get community donations to sleep outside in the elements with only a sleeping bag—the same conditions most of our homeless youth face every night. And this year it rained heavily all night, and we were soaked, cold and experienced dark, unsheltered loneliness.
“Believe me, once you’ve slept out on cold concrete or the cold ground in those conditions, it’s impossible not to want to advocate for our youth in our community who desperately need a hand up to be given a chance for a better future. And despite the organizational challenges at SAY right now, the services they provide are badly needed in Sonoma County.
“I’m really hoping that our community will come together and save SAY. Thank you.”
Jason Lea, former SAY youth and now the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for the Sonoma County Office of Education
“All right, thank you all very much for being here. It means a lot to see the community support. SAY is such an important organization.
“So my journey with SAY began in 1984. I was 14. My mom and I were experiencing some hard times … and she connected me from one of her friends with SAY. And I got a job working at Jack London State Park. In 1984, the minimum wage was $3.25 an hour. And SAY was paying $8 an hour. And I worked 40 hours a week all summer long.
“So not only did I get a paycheck, I learned hard work. They provided me with interview experience and classes, taught me how to write a resumé…And so that really changed a lot of things for me. And since that time, I have not been unemployed. Ever. It’s hard for me to talk about this. Thank you.
“And as a public educator for 28 years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing how SAY impacts people. And it’s important for us to dig deep. Because if we don’t take care of our kids, what kind of community are we? And I appreciate the media being here. It means a lot. And thank you to SAY, for me and many other thousands of kids.”
Kerry Rego, former SAY youth and now a social media consultant and public speaker
“I’m Kerry Rego, and I was really sheltered when I first learned about SAY. I met a young man who had experienced a tremendous amount of trauma, housing and food insecurity, violence of all kinds. And when I fell in love with him, I took on and started to understand his perspective, and he was getting mental health support from SAY and he asked me to attend as his No. 1 emotional support person.
“It was the first time I’d experienced a family that didn’t support their child, a family that subjected their child to violence, and that was really hard to see. And as we stayed together, our relationship became emotionally and physically abusive. And he convinced me to do all kinds of things that I wouldn’t normally have done.
“He was a very charismatic young man. He was forced to, by living on the streets, forced to learn how to survive and get people to do what he needed them to do to make his life better. And I got caught in the crossfire of that. My parents grew steadily concerned that I was making dangerous choices for myself. For my future, for my physical and mental health.
“[Eventually] my dad said, we can’t live together anymore. We don’t feel safe. And I don’t blame them. Not even a little bit. I was absolutely unable to make smart decisions.
“And my grandmother said something to me at this very important juncture in my life: ‘I’m worried about the choices that you’re going to make that are going to affect your future. I’m worried you’re not going to graduate from high school. I’m worried. I’m just worried about you.’
“And that was the moment it hit me: These are the decisions in the next few days that could change my life forever. And my dad said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do. I need help.’ And he called the non-emergency line at the police department and a sergeant said, ‘We have a temporary solution for you. Have you heard of the James Coffey Emergency Shelter and Social Advocates for Youth?’ ‘No. What is that?’ ‘It’s a place your daughter can go so you can de-escalate your crisis situation.’
“If you’ve ever experienced peace in your life, that was the first time I experienced peace for 48 hours. I was at that shelter [with the] very high-pitched hormones of a 16-year-old girl. Very hard to turn down. But that shelter gave me exactly what I needed. They caught me when I was falling. I know for a fact that those were really critical hours in my life that changed my future.
“Now, that shelter didn’t solve all my problems, but it caught me at a really critical juncture. It helped de-escalate my family’s crisis. We probably would have done and said things that we would have regretted, that would have irreparably broken our relationship. And I would most likely not be standing in front of you today, and that is what I want to emphasize.
“There are a tremendous amount of really valuable services that Social Advocates for Youth offers. I feel like I was a tourist, but what I saw, and how they helped me in a very small amount of time, still is felt in my life. Because today, I did graduate from high school. I graduated from college. I was a double major and a salutatorian of my class. I am a successful business person. I’ve written several books. I’m a parent. I’m a college professor.
“I give back to my community because it is extremely important to me. And why? It’s because I understand what it’s like to need help. And when somebody is there to help you, and it changes your life, you never forget. And you always want to help others.
“So I want you to know that there are 67 people that will lose their homes, including three babies. Over 400 children get mental health services here every single year. And I want you to know that when you contribute and you lift up this organization, you help not only them, but you help Jason, you help me, you help Jasmine.
“I am a SAY kid. Thank you.”
SAY Finley Dream Center, 2447 Summerfield Rd., Santa Rosa. (707) 544-3299. 24/7 Emergency Hotline 1-888-729-0012. Tax ID #94-1711490. Donate here.
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