The November 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

AFSC Honors War Resisters

David Harris: A Stirring Call to Conscience

Leonard McNeil: Resisting 'Rich Man's Wars'

Karen Meredith: A Mother's Plea for Peace

Not One More Death, Not One More Dollar

Massive Police Sweeps in Contra Costa County

Housing First for Poor Families

Landlords Sue to End Just Cause

Struggle to Save the Free Box

YEAH! Shelters Homeless Youth

Gentrification in Berkeley

New Home for East Bay Law Center for Poor

Wal-Mart Pushes Philanthrophy

Sutter Health's War Against Health Workers

Growing Gulf Between Rich and Poor

Inequality in America

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Forgiveness


October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005





Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

YEAH Shelters Homeless Youth in Berkeley

by Adrianne Bank

An evening meal at the YEAH! shelter. YEAH provided daily meals to homeless youth for the past three winters. Lydia Gans photo

Many homeless youth experienced abandonment, violence and abuse while growing up. Many were placed in the foster care system where, six months after aging out, up to one-third end up on the streets.

On a cold October evening, Berkeley residents walked around the warm room examining quotations posted on the walls of Fellowship Hall in the Lutheran Church of the Cross (LCC). The sayings were from homeless youth who had slept at the YEAH! shelter between December 2004 and April 2005.

One young person wrote, "The only difference between you and me is that you are housed and I am not." Another noted, "This is my life. I don't like to label it." In large handwriting, another said, "I have nothing but time." And a fourth observed, "What makes homelessness hard is the inconvenience."

More than 100 adult community members, all housed, were meeting in the exact same space where more than 700 homeless youth had slept, up to fifty a night, for three previous winters. "So this room is really holy ground," commented Pastor Sarah Isakson, a founding member of YEAH!, when she welcomed the group.

"Look," interjected a youth on the speakers' panel, pointing, "I had my mat right over there near the door when I slept at YEAH! last year."

How was it that about a dozen homeless youth were sitting down with Berkeley City Councilmembers Linda Maio, Laurie Capitelli, Kriss Worthington and Darrell Moore; with city officials including Julie Sinai from the Mayor's office, Berkeley Mental Health Director Harvey Turek, Jane Micalef from the Housing Department, David White from the Berkeley Police Department; and with community members Bonnie Bell from the Chaplaincy, representatives from Girlstock, the Girl Scouts, Berkeley Boosters; and with concerned citizens from churches, schools, businesses and the professions? They had all gathered to talk about the conditions of life for homeless youth on the streets of Berkeley.

This was the first YEAH! Community Forum: "Homeless Youth in Berkeley; It's Not What You Think." On the evening of October 17, 2005, individuals from all parts of Berkeley came to the forum to deepen their understanding of what it is like being young and homeless in Berkeley. "Talking together builds community. That's what we're about at YEAH!" said Adrianne Bank, one of four YEAH! founders.

Linda Maio, a 12-year member of the Berkeley City Council and a YEAH! champion from the start, noted in her opening remarks that what we're about in Berkeley is not only creating a home for homeless youth, but also making it possible that they have "a life and a future."
Darrell Moore, a new councilmember, also welcomed everyone. "When creative minds with open hearts come together, we can do truly wonderful things," he said.

Sharon Hawkins Leyden, YEAH!'s executive director and a founding member, noted that for many homeless youth, their families are missing and they do not feel part of the larger Berkeley community. She reported research asserting that the presence of ties to a community helps you live longer, and she quoted Dr. Martin Marty's question: "Which is worse -- being in pain or being alone?" And his answer: "Being alone."

She told a story: "On my way to the airport, the taxi driver asked me what my work was and I told him. He said, 'I see those homeless kids on Telegraph and Shattuck. They look healthy to me. Why don't they just get a job?' And I responded, 'Most of those homeless kids don't have a high school diploma. In today's job market they don't do very well. Middle-class kids in college also hang out on Telegraph and Shattuck. For them there is an infrastructure and a way to learn and fail and pick themselves up again over the course of four years in school. Family and adults are around to help. But we tell our street kids that they have to fix it by themselves and they should fix it fast.'"

Sharon told the group about the many homeless youth who had experienced abandonment, violence and abuse while growing up; and the many who had had multiple placements in the foster care system where, statistics show, six months after aging out, up to one-third end up on the streets -- no place to call home.

Nationally, as well as in Berkeley, many youth on the street have physical or mental illness. For example, schizophrenia, usually diagnosed at around 18 years of age, is found in 2 percent of the general population but in 25 percent of homeless youth. Bipolar disorder, major depression, ADHD and post-traumatic stress syndrome are also common.

Sharon concluded: "We need a compassionate accountability. No one should work harder at making his or her own life work than the person living that life. But they should not have to do it alone."

The three youth on the panel, who had mustered up the courage to talk frankly about life on the street, agreed. The first young woman said, "I really would like a job. But it's tough without a shower, without proper clothes, and with no address. How are you going to get it when you're competing with so many other people?"

Travis said that he himself had been part of the foster care system. "I took what was handed to me and ran with it. But I was also a loose cannon. I came to YEAH! with the worst attitude in the world. And then I found that not everyone was out to get me. If I would let someone help me, I could help myself."

Gary reported, "When you're homeless, you resort to stealing and doing drugs. I would probably be in a pine box if it weren't for the people at YEAH!" He continued, "I'm frustrated and angry. It's a number one problem. Homeless youth have slipped under the radar. But it's an epidemic. We should readjust the budget to help homeless people."

Gary was responding, in part, to the recent news that the drop-in center, which has served as a day-time respite for street youth for the past 18 years, was closing its doors due to financial problems with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After hearing from the youth on the panel, older housed and younger homeless people also talked about their feelings and experiences with homelessness; and they spoke to one another about encounters between homeless and housed people on the street. The street youth made important points that they wanted others to hear.

About their friends on the street:
"When you are homeless, you can pick and choose your own friends because you don't have money so you know your friends are for real."
"We really do take care of one another, and we take care of each other's pets, too."

About relationships with pedestrians:
"It feels good when you turn around and smile at us."
"Even if we don't make a lot of money, it's fun talking to people."

About how they would like to help themselves:
"Street kids are ready and willing to organize around issues. And we need to start doing things for ourselves, like making and selling things, or feeding ourselves on the street. We need support for this."

Those from the "housed community" asked in different ways: "Why can't we do more?" Suggestions that were offered: making sure that there are correct diagnoses and treatment for those with mental illness; providing safe places to sleep for everyone who needs such a place; having a year-round all-day and all-night youth center with ongoing wrap-around services and skill-building activities so as to help youth move towards being healthy, productive, engaged, and housed members of the Berkeley community.

Someone challenged the adults in the room: "Why can't we who have lived our lives help them to live their lives?"

A slideshow -- photographed and assembled by YEAH! founding member Natalie Leimkuhler -- consisted of portraits of many youth who had slept at the shelter. These pictures ensured that the evening was moving and memorable -- an experience which everyone would recall for a long time to come.

As the forum ended, there was electricity in the room. It was a strong current of feeling that we were really a "we" -- a community of caring individuals who would assume shared responsibility for one another's well-being.

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