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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.
 
 
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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.”

 
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