When photographer Sara Bloomberg and I visited the Homeless Youth Alliance last week to do a story about its imminent closure, we met a counselor at the drop-in center who said she discovered the organization when she was a homeless youth herself.
Jennifer “Yeah Yeah” Cowles is a native San Franciscan who ran away from home when she was a teenager in the ’90s. She took refuge in the Haight, and got help from the Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach Team, then part of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, which later became the Homeless Youth Alliance.
Here, in her own words, she reflects on the nonprofit’s work helping young people living on the streets.
As we reported last week, the alliance is being kicked out of its building in the Upper Haight. The staff is hoping for a holiday miracle, but as of today, the nonprofit’s drop-in center is set to close on Christmas Day, after an annual holiday gathering and meal. It will be an emotional and difficult time for staffers like Cowles and the young people who depend on the organization.
“It kills me that there’s going to be all these kids who aren’t going to be afforded the simpleness of just a space where you can come in, and sit down, and grab something to eat, and just be OK for two hours a day,” said Cowles.
The staff is trying to secure a new home in the Upper Haight with help from merchants, neighbors and Bevan Dufty, the director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement for Mayor Ed Lee. “We’re here because the kids are here, and we’re not going to leave,” said Cowles.
The saving grace, she said, is the staff. They all plan to stay on board, and go mobile, taking their mission to the streets. While that’s a far cry from a cozy drop-in center, it will still provide critical services. One of the main outreach locations will be Golden Gate Park, where many kids are forced to sleep.
“We did have a time when we didn’t have a center and I think what happened then is we worked with less kids but we got to know them in a much closer way,” said Mary Howe, the alliance’s founder and executive director. “That’s the beauty of being able to just be in the park all day. You can take a walk and sit down with someone and have a half-hour with them to really get to know them and their circumstance.”
According to the city’s latest homeless count, there are 1,768 homeless youth in San Francisco between the ages of 18 and 24. Only 14 percent of them are living in shelters.
Right now, the small nonprofit needs all the help it can get. Howe is asking for donations to help fund a service van and eventually a new drop-in center.
She says: “Even if you don’t donate, just treat people as human beings. Look people in the eye and just say hello and acknowledge that people, whether they have a house or not, are individuals. I think that’s something that’s lacking in San Francisco.”