On the margins

44TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: At risk youth struggle to get by in a city that's tough on young people



Franklin is a 20-something computer programmer who shares an apartment with 10 other people around his age, an arrangement that helps him and his housemates come up with $3,500 each month for rent in the Mission, a rapidly gentrifying part of town.

"Everyone is pretty much working, but they are in and out at different times so the house isn't ever really empty. But there's usually only three or four of us at a time, " Franklin told the Guardian, speaking on his cell phone as he rode his bike to work.

But how does an apartment that officially has only one bedroom sleep 10 people? Franklin said there are other rooms in the house — including a dining room and a double parlor that splits into two with sliding doors — and that each of these spaces has a couple sleeping in it. "And there is one person sleeping in a closet and another sleeping in a space atop the bathroom."

While overcrowding has been a problem in immigrant communities in San Francisco, it's reaching a new area: young people who have for generations flocked to the city to escape uncomfortable home lives, find a supportive community, and make a new start in life.

Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, said at least 1,250 housing units annually were lost to condominium and tenancy-in-common conversions in the dot.com and housing bubble years, a loss rate that has slowed only slightly since then.

"Right now, it's about 1,000 units a year," he said.

It's become more common for young people to struggle to pay rent in a town where well-paying jobs are scarce and educational programs have been cut — a triple whammy that means youth with additional challenges are at risk of becoming homeless and getting trapped in vicious cycle of abuse and incarceration.


Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, which provides housing, medical, social, and educational services to at-risk homeless and runaway youth, says all young people in San Francisco face the same basic challenges.

"And if, in addition, these youth are part of a group like LGBTQ youth, or are youth of color, or immigrant youth, documented or not, then the circumstances and barriers are much more exacerbated," she said.

Adams said San Francisco has done a lot to add resources for transitional age youth, a group that traditionally has been defined as ages 12 to 24. "But there is still a significant gap in resources, especially for the more disenfranchised groups, because the longer you've been on the street, the more complex your issues in terms of substance abuse and mental health."

Civic leaders, including California Assembly member Tom Ammiano, recently held a rally and candlelight march to raise awareness of the tragic rise in homelessness and suicides among LGBTQ youth. Shortly after, Adams told us, "Youth who came here escaping homophobia in their family or city then face the harsh reality of San Francisco."

Adams understands that some people see Proposition L, legislation on the November ballot to criminalize sitting or lying on city sidewalks, as a way to address disruptive and aggressive behavior on the streets. "But it becomes part of the larger divide, because youth who come here and are on the street are mostly there because they have no other place. So penalizing them in the absence of services, housing, and education is ineffective at best and really harmful at worst," Adams said.

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