BURIEN — It’s cold and windy and a half-dozen girls are standing outside of a Mary’s Place family homeless shelter trying to stay warm, hoping for some cookie customers.
Their folding table, covered in brightly-colored boxes, hasn’t seen much action so far, but below them, plenty of cars are passing by on a busy thoroughfare through Burien.
For many members of Troop 40103, Washington’s first to be based in a homeless shelter, this is their first introduction to the economic ups and downs of selling Girl Scout Cookies. Regular Girl Scout rituals, like the spring fundraiser, can take on greater meaning for this troop as they manage schoolwork and friendships while grappling with the uncertainties that homelessness brings.
Nevaeh Younger, 15, the oldest of the bunch, grabs a small sign that reads “Girl Scout Cookies” as two younger members follow behind her toward the road. One of the little ones carries a red box of Tagalongs in one hand and green Thin Mints in the other.
Standing on the sidewalk, the Girl Scouts wave their arms, hold out the cookie boxes and pray more people pull in.
Soon, they do.
A red Hyundai turns off the road and pulls into the girls’ drive-thru sale, and then another car. Every time, the troop leaders cheer.
“You guys are doing great!” one of them shouts. “Keep it up!”
Before living at the shelter, Carleigh Lawrence said Girl Scouts was never an option for her daughter because it required paying dues. But at Mary’s Place, those fees are waived.
Sure, the troop does some things differently — the girls walk down the hall from the single rooms they share with their families, past the communal bathrooms and showers, to attend meetings — but a lot of things look exactly the same.
The troop recently built birdhouses and papier-mâché hot-air balloons. They go on trips and sell cookies.
For the members, that sense of community, responsibility and routine that the troop brings is comforting. Something they’re proud to claim.
Since 2016, Mary’s Place, one of the largest nonprofits serving homeless families in the region, has hosted its own Girl Scout troop at the shelter.
“When you’re looking into empowering young people, young women in particular, and there’s already a platform like Girl Scouts, it just made sense to bring the two things together,” said Tanita Horton, one of the founding leaders and shelter staff members, who is still involved today.
COVID-19 hit during the troop’s 2020 cookie sale. It forced the troop to go dormant as the shelter and its staff faced a host of new safety concerns and measures.
Horton’s daughter, Damira Tullis, and other Mary’s Place staff members started the troop back up in 2022.
This spring marks the first cookie sale since the pandemic. Members have set their sights on raising enough money to go camping. For every $6 box sold, the troop earns 75 cents, so they’ve got a lot of work to do.
If they can pull off their plan, Karina Lawrence knows exactly what she wants to do out in the woods: stargazing.
The 13-year-old wants to work for NASA one day. She told her mom she wants to be the first biracial woman in space.
Talking about how much humans don’t know about space, its expansiveness and its beauty, brought tears to Karina’s eyes Thursday.
“Sometimes I just like to go outside and look at stars,” Karina said. Since her family moved from Texas to her mom’s home state of Washington, they’ve been living in the shelter to help them start over.
Her mom, Carleigh, recently found work serving food at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s cafeteria. She hopes that with the new job, Karina and her younger brothers soon will be able to call a house their own.
Until then, the family has their belongings in storage.
If the troop can earn enough for that camping excursion, Karina said she’ll make sure to stop by the storage unit first, so she can bring her telescope.
Karina has been in Girl Scouts for only a few weeks, and it is already teaching her leadership and that it’s important to look out for others and to help set a good example for the younger members.
“It feels like we’re needed,” she said.
“I feel safe,” another member added.
Living in a family shelter, there’s so much out of your control, some of the older Scouts pointed out. Breakfast starts at 5 a.m. The showers run out of hot water. And on Saturdays, you can’t sleep in because it’s “mat day,” when sleeping mats are pulled out of rooms so they can be cleaned.
Sometimes scouts don’t stay for long, and the troop’s membership is constantly changing.
“It’s a very different dynamic than most troops,” Horton said.
The troop is still working out the kinks since it restarted during the pandemic.
Since eviction protections ended, families have been staying at Mary’s Place shelters for longer periods, said spokesperson Linda Mitchell. Stays averaged 87 days before, now they’re at 105 days, she said.
It has gotten harder for families to find suitable, permanent options to move into as the need for temporary shelter and rental assistance has increased. Some of the Girl Scouts have lived at the Burien site for six months.
Most of the families that Mary’s Place helps are coming from South King County, Mitchell said, where people who earn less have been pushed farther away as Seattle has become more expensive.
During the pandemic, research from the Urban Displacement Project at the University of California, Berkeley, found the King County neighborhoods that faced the highest rate of “housing precarity” — the risk of losing their current homes — were almost all located south of Interstate 90.
And in those places are fewer homeless resources.
“Calls to our intake line are higher than they’ve ever been,” Mitchell said. If families are staying longer in the shelter, that means there are fewer vacant rooms there for others who need help.
On Wednesday, to practice before their first official cookie sale, troops leaders set up a trial run within the shelter’s walls. Every sale they do is together, as a group.
Girls huddled around the table in the busy corridor. Some toddlers walked by. A staff member squeezed past with a mop bucket.
A handful of sales were made that night as shelter guests went about their evening, pushing babies in strollers to keep them entertained, or walking to the dining hall for dinner.
While selling the next day, Nevaeh estimated that her family of seven lived at the Burien shelter for a year, in a corner room shaded by trees.
Nevaeh lost track of how many schools she has enrolled in due to moving around while homeless. Before Mary’s Place, her family would live in motels or sometimes crammed together in their vehicle.
Mary’s Place helped them find permanent housing about two months ago.
“I actually cried when we had to leave (the shelter),” she said.
Because there are good people, like her troop leaders, who make her feel supported and looked after, she said. She points down to a pair of white lace-up shoes on her feet — something they gave her.
That’s why she wants to be in Girl Scouts at the shelter.