Cory Butler escaped the cold nights last year by staying at a temporary winter shelter for youths and young adults, where he was provided meals and allowed to sleep.
During the day, he'd visit Rod's House, a drop-in center for homeless youths at 204 S. Naches Ave. in Yakima.
Butler, who became homeless at 17 after running away from home, was among an increasing number of homeless youths and young adults in Yakima County and across the state until he tapped into services that helped him get off the streets.
"I got sick and tired of being homeless," he said one morning at Rod's House, where he now volunteers. "I saw this opportunity as a first step and took it."
Homelessness among youths and young adults - ages 12 to 24 - has been increasing statewide for nearly a decade, a trend mirrored in Yakima County. Poverty, mental and emotional problems, substance abuse, physical abuse and parental intolerance of gender identity are all drivers, service providers and school officials say.
With unstable living environments, these youths are less likely to graduate from high school, enter college or secure long-term employment. They're also at higher risk of becoming chronically homeless as adults, service providers say.
A 2016 report estimated that more than 13,000 youths ages 12 to 24 were living on the streets in Washington. In 2017, a local survey identified 51 homeless people ages 18 to 24 in Yakima, with 45 percent of them in emergency shelters and the rest living on the streets or couch surfing.
Statewide, the number of homeless students in K-12 alone climbed to a high of 40,934 in the 2016-17 school year, according to a report from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That's about 4 percent of the state's 1 million K-12 students.
Of the 54,297 students in Yakima County during the 2015-16 school year, 4.8 percent or 2,614 were homeless, the most recent OSPI data shows.
In the Yakima School District alone, the number of homeless students had nearly quadrupled over nine school years, reaching 847, or 5 percent of the district's 16,200 students, in the 2015-16 school year, OSPI data shows.
Not all of them are living on the streets. Many are doubled up with other families under one roof or couch surfing. But housing instability often hinders a student's ability to focus in class and complete assignments, says Marilyn Bergevin, homeless liaison for the Wapato School District.
"If you're not sure where you're going to sleep or what you're going to wear, how are you going to focus on getting an education?" she asked.
Homeless services and resources are few for youths, especially minors. Overnight shelters are expensive to operate because of the cost of liability insurance and trained staff, let alone the difficulty of finding a building to house such a facility, says Josh Jackson, director of Rod's House.
Often, young adults like Butler are reluctant to seek help in adult shelters, where they face generation gaps and possibly physical exploitation and sex trafficking, service providers have said.
However, there is an effort underway to reverse the trend. The Englewood Christian Church at 511 N. 44th Ave. has opened a temporary winter shelter for young adults ages 18 to 24. The shelter opened in mid-November and will continue operating through mid-March.
School districts employ a homeless liaison who helps connect homeless youths and their families to services including clothing and other resources. Some districts, like Mount Adams on the Yakama Nation reservation, have food pantries for homeless youths.
Clothing and food pantries for youths also can be found at Rod's House and at Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, 102 S. Naches Ave.
A gathering place called The Space has been established by Neighborhood Health for youths in the LGBTQ community who are often shunned by parents and others for their gender identity.
In its third year, The Space has a full-time case manager who helps connect youths to services such as medical and housing, said Neighborhood Health spokeswoman Leah Ward.
"But mostly it's a place they can just hang out, get a snack, change their clothes and take a shower - do homework," she said.
Catholic Charities in Yakima has housing programs for ages 18 to 23 who have either aged out of foster care or are homeless.
The organization also offers programs to teach youths how to manage money and obtain a driver's license, said case manager Erin Deery.
"First we help them get into a studio apartment," she said. "Once they're in an apartment, we work pretty intensively to help them build their future."
Now 21, Butler has his own apartment, works for the Salvation Army and writes for the Mockingbird Society, a statewide advocacy group for foster care and homeless youths that publishes a monthly online newsletter.
Catholic Charities helped Butler get the apartment after Rod's House referred him.
"I think, honestly, it's a great thing that kids and young adults who are homeless can come here," he said of Rod's House. "Everyone has their own reason for being homeless. Abuse at home - there's a lot of kids who become homeless because of that.
"One of the biggest things right now is the LGBTQ thing," he added. "At home, they're not getting the support they need, so they go someplace else."
How to help
Most school districts have homeless liaisons working not only to connect homeless students to services, but also to secure funding and donations to provide them with learning essentials such as backpacks, writing materials and warm winter clothing, said Wapato's liaison, Bergevin.
Most districts accept donations from the public. Personal and feminine hygiene products and warm clothes such as coats and gloves are needed, she said.
"We seem to do OK with pencils, paper and backpacks - those aren't as big a need this time of year as warm clothing," she said.
There are other ways the public can help. The youth winter shelter is in need of volunteers overnight and in early mornings to help with meals and monitoring.
Rod's House also is in need of volunteers willing to help youths conduct job searches or simply serve as a mentor, Jackson said.
"Just to support people, help with a resume, a job search or just conversation," he said. "The big thing is having positive, supportive people who care and are not judgmental, because you never know when a positive mentor relationship will click."
Butler now volunteers at Rod's House, where he sweeps and mops, folds donated clothes and hangs out with friends to offer support.
One recent morning, he wrote an inspirational quote on a whiteboard there that read: "You are bred to be a fighter - a survivor and a king or queen. So don't let anyone step in your way of GLORY."
He hopes the poems he writes for the Mockingbird will inspire youths to reach out for help and realize they're not alone in their struggles.
"I use it more as a way to relieve the pain in my past, but also for the youth out there - this is how I got through it," he said.