On the margins - Page 2

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

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Many young people on the brink of homelessness are "somewhat invisible," and therefore at high risk, she said. "Youth will double, triple up. They will couch surf as a way to be off the streets. And we hear the stories where youth are faced with a Sophie's choice: Do you sleep on the street, or do you barter with what you have available so as to get shelter? And LGBTQ youth are at particular risk because the more disenfranchised and disconnected you are, the more you have to make impossible choices to survive."

Jodi Schwartz, executive director at Lyric, an SF nonprofit that focuses on building community and inspiring change in LGBTQ youth, said the group serves 500 youth and reaches out to 800 to 1,000 more each year. "We go into classrooms and talk about hate speech, putting it in the context of racism and other forms of oppression," she said.

"There's a misconception that because we live in San Francisco and have a lot more dialogue and interaction with the LGBTQ community, that young people's experience here is so much better. It may be different, but I wouldn't say it's better," Schwartz said, noting that harassment levels, especially for transgendered youth in local schools, are very high.

HELPING THOSE IN NEED

Young women are another at-risk group, especially if they are pregnant, have kids, or are in the foster or juvenile justice system.

As executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco's gritty SoMa district, Marlene Sanchez tries to stabilize at-risk young women, then engage them in policy work so they can advocate for other young people they know.

"We work with young women who are involved in the underground street economies, doing prostitution, drug sales, and selling stolen goods like clothes," Sanchez said. "We try to reach them on the streets and inside Juvenile Hall, so we take an inside-outside approach."

Leajay Harper, who coordinates CYWD's Young Mothers United program, works with young pregnant women inside Juvenile Hall.

"We have all experienced poverty, parents on drugs, and having to take care of younger siblings," Harper said. "When young moms get incarcerated, they are at risk of having their children taken away at much higher rates. So we started parenting classes that are age and culturally relevant."

City records show that while only about 12 percent of Juvenile Hall detainees are female, they are twice as likely as their male counterparts to land back in custody for probation violations.

"There are lots of young women with felonies struggling to pay their bills and feed their kids who look out the window and see they can sell drugs. And that often seems like the only option," Sanchez explained.

City statistics also show that of the overwhelmingly male population at Juvenile Hall, almost half is African American, and that many are inside for what appear to be gang-related offenses.

Easop Winston, a 35-year-old local musician, church pastor, and member of the Visitacion Valley Peacekeepers, regularly visits young men inside Juvenile Hall, where gangs are a topic of discussion every week.

"The same guys that they have been fighting with, they are now incarcerated with," Winston observed. "So one of the approaches I try to take is rehabilitating how they think about their neighbor. You are killing/fighting with someone who lives one block over. It's plain genocide"

He credits the juvenile justice system for doing its best, but worries that it fails to rehabilitate youthful offenders with jobs skills, education, and counseling before sending them back into society.

He blames the churches for not doing a better job of making youth feel welcome. "Churches are part of the fabric of our community," he said. "They need to do more outreach and not have so many rules. They need to accept youth as they are, with their tattoos, piercings, and styles of clothing."

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