OLYMPIA, Wash. — Watching Charles Adkins walk the halls of the state legislature, with his briefcase and gray suit, no one would guess that the 20-year-old student lobbyist was homeless two years ago. He spent most of high school bouncing between the houses of friends, or, once in a while, on the street, until he finally landed in an emergency shelter provided by Cocoon House in Everett.
The insecurity of those days is never far from his mind as Adkins, now a junior at The Evergreen State College, visits with legislators to press for three bills aimed at helping other would-be students who lack stable housing or tuition. To his mind, better aid for this group of young people would go a long way toward stemming Washington's homelessness crisis.
Education Lab caught up with the public-administration major in the midst of lobbying in Olympia, to learn more about his unique perspective on one of the region's most pressing problems. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you become homeless?
A: My father joined the military and we lived on the base at Fort Lewis for a while. Then he was deployed, did three tours, and after he returned from Afghanistan, there was a big family argument. It was my last day of ninth grade, and the police took him away in handcuffs. It seemed like it would be better for me not to be there when he got back.
I stayed with friends over the next few months, even as far away as Florida. Then, in September 2013, I heard about Cocoon House from an old middle-school teacher who was trying to help. I lived there until January 2015, when another family took me in until I went to Evergreen in 2016.
Q: What about school during all this time?
A: As a military kid, we'd moved around so much — I went to three middle schools, and three high schools before graduating from Everett High School while I was at Cocoon House. My doing that was never in question — it was just 'this has to happen and it will happen.' But I wasn't always able to keep up with my studying. I had to drop AP history and honors English, for example.
Q: During these years, did you feel safe?
A: I felt safe. But I never felt secure. I was always very afraid. I'd ask friends, 'can I stay at your place?' and I was always trying to plan where I'd go next _ making sure that I didn't end up on the streets. But I did stay on the streets for a couple of nights, between staying at peoples' homes. There was a lot of stress around that.
Q: What do you think people least understand about homeless youths?
A: The wide variety of ways that kids can become homeless. Adult homelessness is so complex. Just throwing money at these people isn't going to solve a lot of the root causes that made them homeless — whether it be drug addiction or mental health or employment problems.
But with youth homelessness, nine times out of 10, the thing they need most is just a stable place to sleep at night when they come home from school. Because if they can be successful in school, then go off to a training program or college, they can get a job and break this cycle.
Don't get me wrong — some youth do struggle with mental health and drug addiction, but for the vast majority, they just need a stable place to sleep. This is one of the few problems in our society that we could solve simply by putting more money toward housing.
Q: Many people may not realize that Evergreen has a registered lobbyist. How did you find out about that gig, and what does it entail?
A: I've been involved with politics for a long time. While I was living at Cocoon House, I interned for the city of Mukilteo as an assistant to the mayor, and I was vice president of the Washington State High School Democrats from 2015 to 2016. I became deeply involved with the (Bernie) Sanders campaign — I even introduced him at KeyArena when he came to Seattle. So when I got to Evergreen and started talking with their student government, they thought I'd be perfect for this position. Every public 4-year university has a student lobbyist, who represents students at the state legislature.
Q: What's the most surprising thing you've learned about the workings of Olympia?
A: How fast-paced it is. And also how slow. For a lot of bills, it takes several years to build up. But every once in a while there'll be one that starts moving like a rocket. If the leadership and governor really want something, they can move it along as fast as they want.
Q: So where do you live now?
A: An apartment off campus, mostly paid for through grants.
Q: Is this the first time you've had secure housing since ninth grade?
A: Yes, it's the first time in a very long time that I truly feel I'm not going to have to leave.