The May 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Oakland Tenants Face Eviction

UC Attacks the Berkeley Freebox

Berkeley Freebox Poetry Contest

Reform Profit-Making Nursing Homes

A Berkeley Fair for Street Youth

Ultimate Gift of a Homeless Veteran

Tax Cuts for Rich Harm U.S.

Many Children Left Behind

S.F. Bayview: History Lesson in Urban Removal

Let Their Chains Fall Off

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Poets and Poetry

May Poetry of the Streets


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Berkeley Holds an 'Awesome' Fair for Homeless Youth

by Lydia Gans

Doug Hamilton (center) takes meal orders from Jason Berger and Dexter in the elegant Cafe Connect at the Youth Connect Faire. Lydia Gans photo

"Many have foster care backgrounds. Many have experienced either violence on the streets or in the home... Most all of them have come out of a poverty situation. So it's a social issue; it's not their own personal pathology. It's the system that has not worked to support them."

-- Adrianne Bank, co-founder of YEAH

Being homeless means more than not having a warm, safe place to sleep. It means having a hard time getting decent food, finding warm clothing, gaining access to medical and dental care, keeping track of personal papers and belongings, keeping in touch with family and friends, staying in contact with potential employers, and taking care of a myriad of other needs that those of us who are comfortably housed take for granted. It is all infinitely harder for young people who are homeless and who have little experience in the art of survival on the streets.

On April 3, 2006, a unique event called the "Youth Connect Faire" was organized by YEAH (Youth Emergency Assistance Hostels), a four-year-old winter shelter program for young people, the Suitcase Clinic, and the Berkeley mayor's office. The Youth Faire was held at the Lutheran Church of the Cross on University Avenue which also houses the YEAH shelter during the winter months.

The event was designed specifically for homeless youth from the ages of 18 to 25 to connect with over 40 different agencies that provide a wide variety of services -- everything from food, clothing, shelter and health care, to avenues to education, bicycle repair, legal help and care for pets. In the course of the afternoon, about 60 young people enjoyed a welcoming setting where they could sit and talk with adults who cared about them, and who were there to give advice, help and referrals.

Adrianne Bank, one of the founders of the YEAH shelter program, explained that the Youth Connect Faire is important "because it gets everybody mobilized to focus on the issues of transitional-age youth, 18 to 24 years old, which are very different from the issues of adult homeless people or kids and single families. It gets all the agencies to understand that this age group has its own developmental needs and its own particular issues and they need their own sets of services. It's an incredibly important age because, if you don't catch them now, they are going to turn into the chronic homeless on the streets of Berkeley."

Bank described the youth who come to the YEAH shelter. "Almost all are not working," she said. "Most of them don't have a high school degree. Many have drug issues, and many have mental health issues. Many have foster care backgrounds. Many have experienced either violence on the streets or in the home, single parents. Most all of them have come out of a poverty situation. So it's a social issue; it's not their own personal pathology. It's the system that has not worked to support them."

The youth faire was an occasion for bringing together a wide variety of services and agencies to provide information and referrals to community resources for many of the problems that homeless youth face. Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was there for an hour and a half, talking and listening to the young people.

Bates explained that when he "came here in January and met with the young people, it became clear that a lot of services either weren't available to them or they weren't getting to those services. So we thought, why not bring everything together at one time and provide real one-stop opportunities for them to get services. It's very impressive what's happening here. They can get glasses, they can get their dogs checked, bicycle fixed, a driver's license, ID card, legal help."

Mayor Bates said that he was pleased that "the community really responded, not the least of which is the church here [the Lutheran Church of the Cross]. We've seen the wonderful part of our community come forward."

The young people who attended said they were pleased by the event, too. A young man named Cat declared, "Stuff like this is really important to put the services out there for the kids because not a lot of kids know where to go for different services, and how to get hold of people like that -- especially since a lot of services are being shut down in Berkeley. For example, my drop-in center was closed down. They've been shutting down a lot of different drop-ins." Jacqueline said it all in exclaiming: "This thing is awesome!"

Jamal is into alternative medicine and was pleased that there was an alternative health practitioner present, as well as a traditional healthcare provider.

A young woman named Sara was standing outside when we talked. She had come for food and for veterinary services for her dog, a 15-month-old pit bull named Brutus. She has had Brutus since he was a little puppy and brought him out to Berkeley with her from New York. Here she is trying to work and save enough money for an apartment; but in the meantime, Sara is on the street. Being able to come to YEAH for food for herself and Brutus means a lot to her.

For Sara and so many of the young people who are homeless, a dog or other pet is an important part of their lives. Bank said that it was the policy of the YEAH shelter to allow pets. She explained, "Lots of street kids have animals. They are a wonderful source of unconditional love." She has seen kids come into the shelter with "dogs and cats, parakeets, parrots, salamanders, mice, all kinds of things."

Lawrence had been staying at the YEAH shelter most of the winter and said he appreciates the "good treatment." As for the Youth Connect Faire, Lawrence said, "It's just great! I can't believe they've got it set up just like you're going to Denny's or something like that."

Actually, it was a lot more elegant than Denny's. The Cafe Connect was easily the most popular service at the event. It was set up like a classy restaurant with tablecloths and a vase of flowers on each table, a musical combo, and a printed menu offering a variety of gourmet dishes. This is Berkeley, after all.

Jane Micallef, from the Berkeley Housing Department, acted as hostess, and the serving was done by the pros from the Cafe Venezia across the street. Other city staffers joined the volunteers who were preparing the food and doing the dishes. It was an inviting setting for the kids to relax, socialize and make new friends.

Julie Sinai from the mayor's office was involved in the planning and the post-event evaluation. She found that "the big hit of the event were definitely the health services. (There were) 25 kids who received eye exams and 23 prescriptions for glasses were delivered the next Friday. Dental services - half of the 60 kids who came through had their teeth screened."

It turns out, not surprisingly, that "some of these kids have very serious dental problems. It's one thing to get them screened; another issue is to get them served."

By all measures, the afternoon was a success; but by now, the wintertime YEAH shelter is closed and the kids still have any number of unmet needs. The next step is to make sure that the positive results from the day are followed up with some continuing programs. Ideally, Berkeley should support a year-round shelter for homeless youth, along with a comprehensive array of on-site supportive services, similar to the ones offered for one afternoon at the Youth Faire.

Bank is determined to expand services for homeless youth in Berkeley. She said, "What YEAH is wanting to do is to make sure that there is follow up, that this is not just an isolated event. We're organizing a mentoring program to have adult allies for the youth who can make sure that what has to be followed up is followed up. Because much of the problem with this kind of service provision is that it starts fine and then it gets dropped." She expressed the hope that this kind of event can be held regularly several times a year.

Julie Sinai affirmed that Mayor Bates' office is looking to the future. "We're definitely planning to do two to three a year for this age group," Sinai said. "That's what the vision of the mayor is. We will look at what are the lessons learned, what do we want to do next time and begin to look at when the next one will be."

One of the immediately obvious objectives "is to engage more people into providing support for these kids," she said. "We had three dentists at that event. All of them are tremendously wonderful people. For next time, when we go to the dental society, maybe besides having dentists come to screen, maybe we can get three or four who would volunteer to do some follow-up dental services. We will need to work through that kind of thing."

Zachary Running Wolf, who has declared his candidacy for mayor of Berkeley, said he enjoyed the afternoon with the young people. He also agreed on the importance of follow-up and establishing ongoing programs for homeless youth.

"It's great to see a lot of people come out for this event," he said, "but I don't like it being a feel-good, one-day event because no kids should be out on the street."

It was, indeed, a "feel-good day" for the participants, both those who gave and those who received help, and a good model for beginning to tackle the issues of homelessness among young people.

Sharon Leyden, one of the founders of YEAH and an organizer of the event, saw one young woman whistling happily and asked how her day went. She responded, "Well, I got glasses and I got a dental exam and I got my identity card and I don't have a care in the world!"

As uncertain as her life still is, this young person got the help and the affirmation that made her feel good about herself and the world -- at least for the one day. Every person deserves that, every day.


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