Newly graduated from college and pursuing her interest in social services, Kira Zylstra came to Seattle in 2001 without roots and with unclear direction.
Fortunately for Solid Ground, she applied for a job with our organization, then known as the Fremont Public Association (FPA), and within the week she started working at our headquarters building’s front desk. With this position, she unknowingly began her development into the King County homeless system community leader that she is today.
A steady career path
Working at FPA’s front desk “gave me really great insight. Being new to the community, I was able to get a better landscape view of what was happening in Seattle,” says Kira. “Engaging with people in crisis every day was really eye opening.”
Her first position wouldn’t be her last. Over 14 years at Solid Ground, Kira would assume a handful of roles, each giving her the opportunity to reflect on where she saw her particular interests and skills having the most impact in a community facing adversity, one that she was now a part of. This sense of community motivated Kira.
“We will not be building a homeless system that is responsive to need if people with lived experience aren’t involved in the decisions.” ~Kira Zylstra, All Home Acting Director
Soon she became a Tenant Counselor with Solid Ground’s Housing Counseling program, and says “immediately I grew a huge passion for addressing housing and homelessness.” From the perspective of Tenant Services, “You hear it all – those that need far more than financial services to those that need just one little piece of law to understand their rights.” This experience grew her interest in the housing arena.
When the opportunity arose to channel this interest into Solid Ground’s ambitious first affordable housing development, Sand Point Housing, she accepted the challenge, assuming a Community Liaison position without reserve. “It was new to all of us,” she recalls, yet the work “was energizing and made me want to work with the broader community, including those uninvolved with homelessness.”
Kira would soon find the opportunity to do just that, taking on additional housing management and leadership roles at Solid Ground, ultimately becoming Stabilization Services Director in 2015. By this time, she was no longer the uncertain yet eager girl who entered FPA looking for direction, but had grown into a passionate leader, whose community now extends far beyond the walls of Solid Ground.
Solid Ground insights & reflections
Today, Kira is Acting Director at All Home, the lead agency for the Continuum of Care for Seattle/King County, which coordinates efforts to end homelessness across the county. While at Solid Ground, Kira was involved in the family homelessness work with the Committee to End Homelessness (now All Home). Interested in how the organization could have greater collective impact by working at the system level, Kira says, “I sought to make connections and think about [Solid Ground’s] role in that kind of work.” So when the opportunity arose to work at All Home, she saw the chance to make an impact at a new level. Yet her experiences at Solid Ground would remain significant, as she knows what it is like for “an organization trying to do more and more with the resources they have.”
Reflecting on her time at Solid Ground, the organization’s anti-racism work was particularly impactful for Kira. She joined the organization just as the Anti-Racism Initiative (ARI) was launching and recalls, “It set a new direction for us.” She learned that difficult conversations and being uncomfortable are part of the work, and she was thankful for being able to acquire that mentality.
Solid Ground Planning, Development and Operations Director, Humberto Alvarez, was Kira’s supervisor during her time as Community Liaison. He recalls her “total confidence” in any task she was given. “A lot of the work that she did is still sustained, and people speak fondly about the partnerships she built.” When she was offered the position at All Home, he encouraged her to take the job, now reflecting that “It’s a very natural fit.”
As a community member, Kira observes a “growing frustration in our community,” one that “leads to the loss of recognizing the homeless community as our community.” Yet, as a community leader, Kira says she strives to “address that frustration from a place of curiosity.” This keeps her encouraged and steadfastly committed to her efforts that began years ago at Solid Ground.
Kira asserts that “we will not be building a homeless system that is responsive to need if people with lived experience aren’t involved in the decisions.” She finds that offering those with lived experience “the opportunity to get really engaged in informing the solutions” is the most rewarding aspect of her work. For example, All Home recruits people with lived experience for paid Guide positions for All Home’s Point-In-Time annual census – a physical canvassing of the entire county to measure the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on one given night in January. “I am incredibly grateful for the people that have given their time and experience to improve our response,” she says, so that in the future we can have a better system response for people experiencing homelessness.
Over the years, Kira has observed Seattle’s growing homelessness crisis and responds with the desire to challenge herself and her community to work towards real solutions. “When you feel stuck, that is when you keep doing the work. When you back off, you won’t find those real solutions.” She is keenly aware that backing off would be “backing into a white dominant culture, into my privilege” – not to mention “being able to back off” because of that privilege.
Kira is a leader continuously navigating how she can best serve her community. We can all learn from her diligence and commitment: “When it gets hard, dig in.”