Dr. Mike Toohey, a psychiatrist who worked with Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA) for many years, developed his own icebreaker for group sessions with HYA kids. “I start off by asking, ‘Who came here for the free love?’” he says. “Almost every hand goes up. They need love—unconditional love, love that doesn’t cost anything—because it was never given to them.”
Haight Ashbury has become an international destination for youth who come seeking refuge from abusive families, alienating foster care and group home situations, and juvenile justice system involvement. However, Haight Ashbury does not always provide the relief they’ve sought. These young people encounter constant threats to both their physical and mental health while on the streets.
HYA provides a sanctuary for youth experiencing homelessness, ages 13-29, who find themselves in Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park. Most service providers working with youth experiencing homelessness in San Francisco impose upon their clients a strict series of rules and goals that are established using a top-down approach. While this approach has helped many youth experiencing homelessness transition off the streets, there remain a large number of individuals who are unable to conform to the rigid set of requirements enforced by well-meaning but out-of-touch case workers, most of whom have never been through any of the things they are so readily giving advice about.
Homeless Youth Alliance reaches out to those youth who fall through the cracks, and lets them know that they have a home at HYA. HYA’s participants—the most “hard-core” subset of youth experiencing homelessness in San Francisco—gain access to medical and mental health services, harm-reduction education, and a range of referrals, all in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Most of HYA’s outreach staff has personal experience with homelessness and addiction, and so are able to connect more deeply and honestly with Haight Ashbury’s youth.