In 1992, the City of San Francisco commissioned a study of homeless youth in the Haight Ashbury district. This study demonstrated that homeless young people have a high incidence of health and psychological problems as well as a lack of access to health and human services. In response, coordinated efforts to reach these youth began springing up in the Haight. Two such efforts were the San Francisco Needle Exchange (SFNE) and the Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach Team (HAYOT). It was with HAYOT that Mary Howe, a formerly homeless youth herself, began to work with youth in the neighborhood.
In 2006, seven years after Mary first got involved, she merged the two organizations to form Homeless Youth Alliance: the city’s only grassroots harm reduction coalition designed by and for the marginalized and underserved youth experiencing homelessness of the Haight Ashbury district. Mary along side dedicated staff and the youth we work with has shaped and built an agency that reaches 13,000 at-risk youth annually, providing a drop-in center, harm reduction education, and medical and mental health services. HYA is the only youth-focused agency in San Francisco whose staff mirrors the target population it serves: most of the agency’s 14 staff and 30 volunteers have histories that include homelessness, many of whom utilized HYA’s services while living on the street. HYA trains constituents to be peer educators, helping them transcend the conditioned passivity and powerlessness that lead to self-destructive choices. As a result, many former participants have gone on to pursue careers in human services and counseling.
On Christmas of 2013 after 12 years at the same location HYA lost our lease at the corner of Haight and Cole Streets. The loss of our drop-in center was more than a loss of bricks and mortar. It was an emotional blow to the young people who’d come to identify our space with the acceptance, safety and sense of belonging that were unavailable to them elsewhere. Under our roof, they weren’t “homeless” first and “people” second. They knew they could cross HYA’s threshold and enter a place where their entire selves, not just their physical appearance or housing status, would be taken into account; and where their opinions, pasts, preferences, and experiences were listened to, validated, and valued.
Shortly after the closure of our drop-in HYA applied for several storefronts to secure a new space, unfortunately due to the stigma and discrimination of our work we realized it was going to be harder than we had thought. At that point we began applying for office-only space (over 100 applications have been submitted) and continue to struggle to secure one.
While our team works administratively out of the private residence of the kindest, most generous people we have ever known all of our work with youth happens on the very streets and parks they find themselves homeless. Over two later, HYA is still a mobile program. Our 6 Outreach Counselors and our staff therapist canvass the streets and the parks of the Haight in the mornings, building relationships with the neighborhood’s homeless youth and distributing snacks and hygiene supplies. Their afternoons are reserved for individual appointments for case management and/or therapy, which take place on the street or in a café. We now run our evening syringe access and disposal program—where youth can still get on-demand medical care, mental health care, HIV testing, and trainings in overdose prevention and safer injection practices—from a van parked outside our former drop-in space.
IN 2015, Homeless Youth Alliance:
*During Street Outreach staff made 12,097 contacts with youth, giving them basic needs, hygiene supplies and socks;
*420 youth utilized Case Management services; We helped 264 youth receive some form of substance use treatment, whether residential rehab, detox, or outpatient treatment; Assisted in securing housing for 31 young people, moving them out of Golden Gate Park and indoors;
*207 youth attended our Friday Groups at the library;
*Our Mental Health Team had 821 sessions with 357 youth;
*During our Syringe Access site 7,920 people who do not inject drugs received non-IDU related supplies and/or support and 639 youth received medical treatment at our clinic;
*6,728 people received syringes during our Syringe Access site. Those folks reached an additional 8,199 through satellite deliveries;
*353 people received Narcan prescriptions at HYA’s Syringe Access program and there were 201 reported uses= 201 lives saved;
*Dogs & some cats received 8,320 bags of food and an obscene amount of love from the HYA team.
We’ve also continued to convene our Participant Planning Council, to gauge how well we’re serving them during this time of transition. Youth gave us the following testimonials:
• “Anytime I need anything, I find someone on the street who knows where the HYA people are. I can always find you when I need to. You guys are doing a pretty damn good job considering you don’t even have a building.”
• “There’s always gonna be an outstanding need for you to do what you’re doing to help us get what we need.”
• “You guys brighten my day whenever I see you—and my dogs love you too.”
• “Some other places try to shove beliefs down our throats, and we have to lie to them about our lives. You guys don’t do that. We can be honest with you.”
These testimonials are heartening, but we are mindful of the fact that youth in the Haight are now suffering without a stable indoor place to decompress, take a shower, eat a hot meal, and have a confidential session with a case manager or therapist without having to do so in a public space (park bench or café) or a borrowed office space. And that’s why we’ve been fighting and striving to secure a new indoor location for our drop-in center in the Haight.
While the ill-informed narrative by some people that homelessness in the Haight is a “lifestyle choice” aided and abetted by human services, the past two years we have been without a space demonstrates the exact opposite. The numbers of youth living on the Haight’s streets have only increased since our drop-in closed its doors. When we lost our space, one of our participants, a young man named Josh—who’s been housed for a year now, thanks to his own drive and determination as well as the perseverance and hard work of his HYA case manager, Chelsea—said “When services go away, we don’t just disappear.” He’s right. We’ve been saying it for years: disenfranchised, traumatized young people will always come to the Haight, regardless of how inhospitable it becomes.
In honor of all the young people experiencing homelessness, HYA continues on. Homeless ourselves in solidarity and because the need still exists, HYA continues on.