Economy

Unique, Successful, Peer-Run Drop-In Center for Homeless Youth Goes Homeless

A look at the Homeless Youth Alliance's drop-in center on Christmas day — the last day it was open after being a safe space for 12 years.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Lichtmeister

It was a scene that would make any parent marvel. The kids lined up to wait patiently for turkey, ham, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans and pumpkin pie, saying “thank you” before eating most of their meals. Afterward, they scraped turkey bones and a few uneaten green beans into the compost bin, returned dirty dishes to the sink, and settled down on the couches to watch a movie. No fights. No complaints. A picturesque Christmas afternoon any worn-out Santa could appreciate.

But the teenagers weren’t sitting in any old San Francisco living room. Most wore pants that had been ripped and patched repeatedly. They walked in with backpacks and puppies, shrugging off heavy loads to sink into plush sofa cushions—a luxury compared to concrete sidewalks and wooden benches. Some laughed and chatted as they ate from the plates warming their laps while dogs wagged tails at their feet, waiting eagerly for scraps. Some teens perched on the couches, arms folded around their bodies as they watched the flickering screen. They settled on Peter Pan.

It was the Homeless Youth Alliance’s last day in the drop-in center on Haight Street. After 12 years of opening its doors to the 5,000 homeless youth seeking a few hours of daily refuge from their lives on the streets, the nonprofit group is being evicted from the building, which is slated to become a restaurant or retail space following renovations.

A Space of Their Own

Stepping through the front door, it’s immediately evident that for these kids, the Homeless Youth Alliance isn’t just another nonprofit handing out condoms and frozen dinners. It’s likely the closest thing they have to a home. There are no locks on the cabinets or refrigerator. The computer isn’t bolted down, and anyone can rummage through the shelves for hygiene supplies, clothing, shoes and food. Dozens of notes are tacked on a message board posted by the front door, left by youths trying to contact friends who don’t have phones, dating as far back as July. It is their space, a refuge worth preserving.

The Homeless Youth Alliance operates on the premise that homeless kids take care of each other, offering support in a world that typically rejects them. The organization is run by formerly homeless kids, now in their 20s and 30s, who return to help their peers after obtaining stable housing. As peers, the staff are tangible and accessible role models.

Sorrow and anger over the impending eviction hangs heavy in the air as the teens eat their last meal in the storefront space. When they go back for second helpings, they repeatedly pause in front of the staff to say “thank you” and “I love you” and “you saved my life,” over and over again.

“I still believe the Christmas miracle is going to happen,” says director Mary Howe. She hopes the community can help find the Homeless Youth Alliance a new home. After struggling to save herself as a homeless teen, she knows it takes a village to save any kid.

A banner above the television lists 11 forbidden behaviors while in the drop-in center, printed neatly in permanent marker. They include: “disrespecting anyone” and “racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, ableism.” On the screen below, Tinkerbell intercepts Peter Pan and drinks poison to save him. The actors all chant in unison, “I do believe! I do!” All eyes are glued to the screen as the crescendo builds and breaks when Tinkerbell springs to her feet in triumph.

“I do believe!” shouts Tara McComas-Moodie with delight. Petite and sporting a pixie cut, she started visiting the Homeless Youth Alliance as a teenager in 2000. “They’ve been helping us for weeks, years,” she says. “This is all we got here. We’re losing our safety.”

She walks slowly with a limp, favoring the broken ankle from a recent hit-and-run. McComas-Moodie talks about the love she felt when Homeless Youth Alliance counselors visited her at St. Mary’s Hospital in March. “I’ll do everything I can do to help them.”

Doctor Katie Ryan walks through the front door and gives a round of hugs. As a neighbor, she started donating clothes and eventually offered to donate her time to the center’s medical clinic three nights a week. She stops to crouch down beside various teens, following up on injuries she’s treated and checking out new ones.

After consulting with the doctor, two young women collect medical supplies from the cupboard. As they pack the materials into a bucket, they chat about potential storage spots, someplace where they won’t be discovered and tossed in the trash. One suggests nailing the bucket to a tree. Her friend shakes her head and says the cops might see it and think they were camping there. Instead, she suggests burying it in a spot where she keeps other supplies she can’t carry around in her backpack.

Several neighbors dish out food they prepared for the kids and pass out plates in the hallway. One woman with long dark hair looks forlorn as she distributes sodas, iced tea and water. Sarah Thibault talks about her long history with the Homeless Youth Alliance, first as a client and later when she returned to work for the organization. After completing her master’s degree, she now works as a medical social worker for the Department of Public Health and says she’s still coming to grips with the eviction. She remembers working as an outreach counselor, writing and talking to kids even when they were locked up.

“It really makes a difference to have those calls,” she says, “especially when you’ve been on the other end of that line before.”

A Matter of Life and Death

Above Thibault’s head, a series of memorial posters line the wall, each a collection of photos of kids who have died over the years with farewell messages from the friends they left behind. As the young people socialize on the couches, they recount the antics of their dead peers. Some discuss their own cremations and where they would like their ashes scattered. Death is omnipresent in the drop-in center. Skeletons and skulls decorate the walls and the kids’ clothing, jewelry and tattoos. Tomorrow is not guaranteed.

Three boxes of ashes sit in the office cabinet, from youths who used the drop-in center’s staff as their emergency medical contacts. Howe says she put one kid’s remains in a red heart-shaped box and mailed it to his grandmother. She was shocked when the package was refused and returned to the sender. Howe says the staff plan to spread his ashes over the ocean, per his wishes.

“All of us are dying,” says a teen who calls himself Patchwork, “and now we’re losing our spot to be.”

In 2003, the lanky teen wound up at the Homeless Youth Alliance, brought in by another kid when he first arrived in the city after running away from his small hometown. When he was stabbed in Oregon and dumped in a lake to die, the Homeless Youth Alliance tracked him down and called him in the hospital.

“Even under all the train grease and the pain and the anger, there’s still love there,” he says. “We’re losing our family.”

Patchwork often referred other newly arrived runaways and traveling kids to the drop-in center, especially if they were having trouble.

“As long as you were decent here, they were always good to you,” he says. “Even if they couldn’t help you, they know where to send you.”

He remembers when the Homeless Youth Alliance was threatened with an eviction in 2007, and with the support of a local pastor, attempted to move into the Hamilton Church’s community center around the corner. Patchwork thought the move “would’ve been awesome with the bigger space and everything.” But when a group of neighbors vocally opposed the move, it was canceled and the Homeless Youth Alliance remained in its Haight Street storefront.

Closing Time

As the drop-in center started shutting down, kids lined up for paper plates of food and a few gifts. One young woman with pink hair gives a gift back, wrapped in Hello Kitty Christmas-themed paper.

“If it weren’t for you guys I’d be dead,” she says as she takes the last to-go plate. Everyone received the same Christmas present: a green army surplus sleeping bag, a Homeless Youth Alliance patch and a pair of new socks. “I hate to do this,” the program coordinator, Karin Adams, shouts, “but we’ve got to close.” Her voice cracks on the last word.

After hoisting her backpack onto her shoulders, a young girl bends down to pick up her dog's leash and starts walking to the door. She stops to look at Howe, who’s perched on the couch. “I just want to say, I love you, Mary,” she says before asking for a hug. Howe, Thibault and Adams watch as the kids walk out the front door, tears streaming down all three faces.

When the doors are locked, 10 current and former staff sit in the drop-in center space, suddenly cold and cavernous without the kids inside. Silence magnifies the sinking realization that the Homeless Youth Alliance’s last moments in the building are slipping by. “We didn’t get our Christmas miracle,” Howe says. “There’s still a chance it’ll happen,” former peer counselor Jen Dehen says without conviction. They unwrap the Hello Kitty paper to find a box of chocolates and $60, money the girl had been collecting for a bus ticket but decided to donate instead.

The staff members laugh and cry as they share memories and highlights from the past 12 years: the time one kid showed up barefoot to a job interview; busting down the bathroom door to find a litter of puppies; collapsing on the floor after hearing about another kid’s death. As they reminisce, several shake their heads, saying they’re still amazed that their peers hired them to work at the Homeless Youth Alliance, giving them the chance to transition out of homelessness into leadership roles. When they stand to go home, the staff hug each other tight before they walk out the door.