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Two California Projects Alleviate Youth Homelessness

[woman playing guitar on sidewalk]A large part of what we identify as American culture is born in California and, for better or worse, eventually spreads to the rest of the country and even the world. It’s a state worth keeping an eye on. Twenty years ago, a program started there that now runs learning centers in two of the worst areas of Los Angeles and in five other California counties. It’s a nonprofit called School on Wheels whose founder, a retired teacher named Agnes Stevens, made a modest start by tutoring homeless kids in a Santa Monica park.

Helping with homework was only part of her plan; encouraging the kids to participate in school activities was equally important. Of course, a big priority was to discourage dropping out of the education system altogether. Currently, hundreds of volunteers are paired up with kids to work with them one-on-one. The organization also collects donations to buy backpacks and school supplies. It counsels parents about educational goals and can help locate missing school records for families whose lives are in disarray. The “Success Stories” page is very heartening.

Homeless Youth Alliance

San Francisco has an unusual dual personality. As a place to buy or rent dwelling space, it is heinously expensive, but the clement weather allows almost anyone to survive outdoors — especially the young, healthy, and agile. In addition, the Haight-Ashbury district, where the Homeless Youth Alliance is located, bears the burden of history as the molten core of the best and worst of the ’60s.

The HYA clients are mainly unaccompanied youth, teenagers who have no contact with their families or who aged out of the foster care system. Every day the drop-in center greets between 40 and 150 youth in need of the services offered by 13 staff members and 20 volunteer workers. Adding in the contacts made by the outreach initiatives, HYA touches the lives of at least 7,000 young people every year.

At the center, the kids can shower, use the Internet, receive mail, and get help with obtaining identification papers and government benefits including shelter and transitional housing. They can join the beautification crew (earning goodwill from the neighborhood by cleaning up trash) or volunteer as outreach counselors. Here’s how it works:

For a minimum of two hours each day, 2 members of our outreach team walk along Haight Street and into neighboring parks, distributing snacks, safer sex supplies, and hygiene kits. Counselors also distribute educational materials on healthier lifestyle choices and behaviors.

Kids can take part in groups and workshops with both educational and creative aims, and sign up for substance-abuse treatment if needed. HYA meets homeless youth where they are, which means, among other things, a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of communicable disease. Nonjudgmental harm reduction is the name of the game. There is counseling for those who want it, and medical, dental, and mental-health services are available. About the psychotherapeutic possibilities, the website says:

Encounters may be crisis oriented, insight oriented, solution focused, supportive, or based on symptom management or behavioral change. Youth may access a single therapy session on an on-demand basis, or may engage in ongoing psychotherapy over months or even years. A private office is available to ensure confidentiality; but based on individual preference, sessions may take place on the sidewalk, in the park, drop-in center, or at a cafe.

The executive director is Mary Howe, who emancipated herself at a young age, and whose past experiences include homelessness, “chaotic drug use,” and jail time. She put HYA together from two previously existing groups, and as an organizer received wisdom from several mentors but was mostly self-taught. Howe has written a lot of grant proposals, an activity so arduous that only someone truly devoted to a cause would undertake it. A certain amount of interaction with and dependence on the government is unavoidable, but most of the HYA funding comes from foundations and private donors.

As much as possible, staff members come from the ranks of former clients. A collective spirit is the ideal. Kids who are being helped also volunteer to help. They have a say in the rules and in the hiring. If they thrive in the atmosphere and want to stay on as staff members, they have a very good chance of being employed. Howe says:

These youth leave home for valid reasons and it is not for me or anyone else to judge or question…. Homelessness exists because of a structural breakdown of our government, schools and families…. We rebelled, so to speak, against the way most social service programs are set up in this city. We purposely never went after government funding because we don’t need to be told how to work with the kids; we already know how because we are them.

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Source: “Our Mission and History,” SchoolOnWheels.org, undated
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Source: “Programs,” HomelessYouthAlliance.org, undated
Image by Byron Bignell Busker