A San Francisco nonprofit that has served as a lifeline to young homeless people in the Haight for more than a decade is being forced to leave its home. Homeless Youth Alliance will lock its doors for good on Christmas Day, pending a last-minute reprieve.
“Our lease has been terminated,” explained Mary Howe, the founder and executive director. “San Francisco is in the biggest housing crisis there is. So, you’re seeing rents for property both residential and commercial go up dramatically, and it’s been really impossible to this point to secure a location to move into.”
Since 2001, Howe estimates thousands of kids ages 13 to 29 have been welcomed at the organization’s drop-in center in a gray, Edwardian-era building at 1696 Haight Street, just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park.
There, they can get a hot meal, a shower, medical treatment and even a clean needle. About 50 to 100 kids pack the center on a typical day.
“People are not really ready to make life changes and move beyond the street if they can’t eat and sleep and get medical care, and have someone to talk to and just have a space to like, be,” said Howe, who was once a homeless youth herself.
She pleaded with the property management company for an extension, and even offered to pay more rent, to no avail.
The manager, Paul Gaetano, said the Homeless Youth Alliance has been a great tenant, and always paid rent on time, but the building needs to be retrofitted and remodeled and it would be “easier for everyone if they vacate.”
When asked if the Homeless Youth Alliance could return after the work, Gaetano said the space would be rented to a new commercial tenant, a decision made by the owners.
One of those owners, Dr. David Smith, is the founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, which has a similar mission.
“He has long supported our work, and donates, but he’s not the only owner in that partnership. And I think their original mission got lost along the way,” said Howe.
At Golden Gate Park, where many kids are forced to sleep, a 27-year-old woman with curly red hair named Shortcake said she has been coming to the alliance since she was a teen, and dreads its pending closure.
“It’s tragic. I don’t think everyone’s prepared for exactly how bad it’s going to get out here,” she said. “It’s just going to make things 10 times worse.”
But Howe said she’s committed to stay in the neighborhood, and has the support of merchants and neighbors. An online petition to elected officials and the owner of the building urging them to stop the closure has garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
Meantime, the Alliance is looking for a van to provide mobile services, and space for a new center in the Upper Haight.
“We’re definitely very committed to staying with this population,” Howe said. “The Haight will always have this influx of kids who are escaping something and looking for something better.”
Bevan Dufty, the mayor’s point person on homelessness, described the Homeless Youth Alliance’s work as “magical,” and said he’s trying to help secure a property.
“We’re looking at opportunities where they arise. And so I don’t know. We’re going to do our best,” he said.
For Howe, it’s hard to leave a place she’s grown so attached to, even though she and her small staff plan to set up a mobile center.
“It’s still heartbreaking, and I would rather have it stay the way it is, but I do think that good will come of it,” she said.
Every Christmas Day for the past five years, neighbors of the Homeless Youth Alliance have brought a holiday meal to the kids.
“It’s really amazing, like 20 people cook food, and bring it to the drop-in and serve the kids,” said Howe.
But after this Christmas Day, the tradition ends.
When the meal is over, Howe and her staff will lock the doors, spend a week packing, and on New Year’s Day, they’ll hit the streets.