Funders and policymakers across the country are looking to the Mason County Housing Options for Students in Transition (HOST) program for inspiration to ending youth homelessness.
Jesús Acosta was one of the toughest kids Kim Rinehardt had ever worked with at Shelton’s alternative high school — yet there he was, walking up to the podium in ripped jeans and Jordans to give a graduation speech before heading to Central Washington University with scholarships.
“So I’m guessing everybody here in this crowd has been on a rollercoaster,” Acosta said to his fellow graduates last June. “When I moved to Shelton, graduation wasn’t at the end of my ride. I was nervous, alone, scared and coming from a bad situation to an unknown situation. A lot like riding a roller coaster.”
Today, Rinehardt has a photo of Acosta on her desk. He’s just one of hundreds of kids in Mason County that she and HOST have helped off the streets and across the graduation stage.
There are no youth shelters in the county, yet one in 10 students in Shelton, the county seat, is homeless — a higher rate than Seattle schools and among the worst in the state. Most kids are doubled-up with another family or staying in hotels, but more than 100 kids are living outside, in cars, or on the street.
Funders and policymakers across the country are looking to Rinehardt’s Mason County Housing Options for Students in Transition (HOST) program for inspiration on ending youth homelessness.
HOST kids are doing well: Almost all of the nearly 200 students she has put in host homes graduated on time, and many of those who did not later returned to finish. Compare that with a 38 percent four-year graduation rate for homeless students at the Shelton School District’s alternative school, CHOICE, and the statewide graduation rate of 55 percent for homeless students.
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And all that on a shoestring budget that only pays for two part-time employees — Rinehardt included.
Washington officials have been baffled in recent years that even as the economy has stabilized, youth homelessness is not going down. Philanthropy groups and efforts like Pearl Jam’s charity shows are pouring millions into reducing and ending youth homelessness in parts of the state.
That search for solutions has state policymakers looking at host home programs like Mason County HOST. Born in Minneapolis, “host homes” are a middle ground between youth homeless shelters and foster care. A host family takes in a youth at risk of entering the foster-care system, sometimes with a stipend to offset costs. There are rules — if the youth is under 18, a legal guardian must give consent, and the family taking in a youth has to be screened.
But there is less red tape and interaction with the courts, which people in small towns often prefer, said Jim Theofelis, director of A Way Home Washington, a statewide advocacy group for homeless youth. The model has seen success in cities like Seattle, where it’s especially appealing to the LGBTQ community, he said. (70 percent of HOST kids identify as gay, bi, trans or nonbinary).
The HOST approach
Rinehardt herself sticks out when she drives from Tacoma to Shelton each day for work. She’s a black lesbian, and Mason County is 88 percent white. President Donald Trump won it by 6 percentage points in 2016.
In her office on the second floor of the CHOICE school, there’s a pride flag on the wall, and Rinehardt’s desk has a roll of toilet paper with the president’s face on each square. Next to it is the picture of Acosta.
When a homeless kid comes through her door, Rinehardt figures out who they could stay with. Are there family members or friends who might take the kid in if they got a little help with bills or food? If they are willing, she does a background check and a walk-through of the home.
Rinehardt often works with Child Protective Services, which asks for her help placing kids for whom other placements haven’t worked out. That is not a common partnership in other parts of the state. There are never enough foster parents in Mason County, according to Kat Scheibner, the CPS supervisor for Mason County. CPS only works with kids up to 18. Rinehardt can work with kids up to 21.
“There’s this old saying, at least in child welfare,” said Scheibner. “‘This kid just needs that one person in their life that can make a difference.’ And Kim has been that one person for so many kids.”
Rinehardt likes to say kids never leave the HOST program. They’ve gotten jobs, moved, gone to college, but they still come back to visit and ask for help. She often finds herself being a mom to kids who can’t depend on their parents.
“The HOST program, quite honestly, is very successful because of Kim Rinehardt’s heart,” said Alex Apostle, the superintendent of Shelton School District. “Her heart and soul is in her work, and we benefit as a school district.”
As Rinehardt works — meeting with kids, making calls, doing paperwork — kids come through the door intermittently to grab cups of noodles. Almost 70 percent of CHOICE’s student body qualified for free or reduced-price lunch last year. When Rinehardt first showed up, she started buying food with her own money. As private donations increased, they covered it.
Rinehardt works another job part-time because the budget is so tight. HOST’s budget was only around $140,000 last year, and most of that is private grants, local and regional.
One kid’s story
The first time Rinehardt met Acosta, he was fresh from Arizona and on the brink of homelessness. He had been raised by his grandmother, aunt and uncle. His mom was in prison and his dad was in gangs, according to Acosta, and he got in trouble so much that his sister paid to bring him up to live with her in Shelton.
But she was struggling herself. She’d been living with a boyfriend, but a breakup was imminent. Rinehardt helped Acosta’s sister with rent assistance from a matching grant Rinehardt had developed.
After the stability part is taken care of, Rinehardt gets to work on helping the kids.
Early on, Acosta got in fights with white kids at school. They called him poor because he wore the same pair of Kevin Durant 7s every day. One day, a kid used a homophobic slur against Acosta, and Acosta rushed him. Teachers pulled them apart before anyone got hurt, but Acosta got called into the principal’s office.
Rinehardt decided to get Acosta busy. He was soon on the track, wrestling and basketball teams at Shelton High, and volunteering at a local soup kitchen. She got him into extra classes after-hours to catch up on credits. Kids in Rinehardt’s program can earn up to $50 a month by keeping up attendance and getting good grades. Acosta started earning money and used some of it to buy new shoes.
Acosta began to change. He put energy into freestyle rapping, art and writing. He started to do really well in school, so Rinehardt pointed him to scholarships.
Most people who knew Acosta were blown away. “I never would have thought that that kid would’ve gone to college,” said Scheibner.
The roller coaster of high school
As senior year came to an end, Acosta got accepted into Central Washington University, and he had interviews for scholarships. But he was still fiercely independent, he was fighting with his sister more than ever, and he started smoking weed with a new group of friends.
A month before graduation, Acosta told Rinehardt he was moving out of his sister’s house and in with his new friends. Rinehardt told him that was the wrong choice. Acosta said Rinehardt needed to take a step back and let him do this part on his own.
It was hard, but Rinehardt did it. She handed the last work over to one of Acosta’s other mentors and told them when he needed to be at
scholarship interviews, what deadlines he needed to meet.
At the graduation ceremony, where Acosta was picked to be a speaker, Rinehardt hadn’t spoken to him in a month. But he’d gotten the scholarships he needed. He made it.
“The roller coaster of high school has taken us all through its ups and downs,” Acosta said at the podium. “Now we’re (hundreds of) feet in the air, looking down at our future, and it’s right in front of us. We’re about to drop and go through the biggest rides of our lives.”
In that moment, Rinehardt knew that he was going to be OK. She started to cry.
“It’s always emotional for me with every one of these kids because… they deserve it,” Rinehardt said. “And I’m just lucky enough to be the one to life-plan. To sort of hear the story of their life to date, and then to plan afterwards.”