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.
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.
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."
Winston believes politicians need to do a better job of making sure community-based organizations deliver on their promises to help working class communities of color. At the same time, as he acknowledges, "We can't cure the world in one day."
"Over the last five to 10 years, the African American population in SF has shrunk," he observed. "Everybody is moving to Antioch and Fairfield because people can't afford to live here. People are losing their jobs. And San Francisco has almost become impossible to live in unless you have a college degree. A lot of what I hear from youth is about economics. They want jobs. They want to be trained."
Political disputes over the city's sanctuary city policies on undocumented immigrants — which have left in limbo the question of whether arrested immigrants will get their days in court before being turned over to the federal government for possible deportation — have also been a source of instability for immigrant teens, many of whom are homeless and/or LGBTQ.
Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, decried Mayor Gavin Newsom for refusing to implement Sup. David Campos' due process legislation, which the board approved in November 2009.
"It's been a little bit upsetting for the many groups that took the democratic process seriously. But these groups are still very committed to these kids," Chan said. "We are hoping to work with the new U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag to clarify this issue and explain that the top priority of the Obama administration is not to deport undocumented youth."
Other so-called tough-on-crime initiatives also threaten local at-risk young people. In September, City Attorney Dennis Herrera secured an injunction against 41 alleged gang members in Visitacion Valley, a strategy that progressives fear will accelerate the ongoing displacement of the African American community.
Court documents show that 66 percent of the men named in the injunction are 18 to 25 years old and that many have children in public housing, where lease holders are predominantly women of color.
San Francisco City College Trustee Chris Jackson, 27, is running for the District 10 seat on the Board of Supervisors. Noting that the southeast SF district has some of the highest numbers of poor people and children citywide, Jackson said that youth issues are similar to challenges that other voters face.
"But the context is different," said Jackson, who previously served on the San Francisco Youth Commission. "Young people care about safe streets because it's us or our friends who are on them. We care about schools because we are in them and want to go to college. And we are concerned about the future of employment because how do you tell folks to go to school if there are no jobs?"
Jackson notes that in the Bayview-Hunters Point, home to the city's largest remaining African American community, kids don't come back if they leave for college. "We see a brain drain. It's really difficult to retain young people, so it's important to first make sure that youth's housing needs are met. And they also need access to careers so that when they graduate, they know there is a job in the city. But right now, youth can't even find a summer job because of the recession."
He called for city policies that are based on the needs of current city residents rather than developers' profits or the desires of well-off outsiders to move here.
"San Francisco is more of an opportunity for Silicon Valley residents than for youth who were born and raised here. And part of the problem is city policies, ineffective programs, and a failure to provide job opportunities for youth," he said. "Everything for youth has been gutted."
And those evaporating opportunities are compounded by punitive policies like Prop. L, Jackson said, further alienating young people. "It comes down to how much money you have," Jackson observes. "If you are rich, you can enjoy the parks, the clubs, the transit. But if you are low-income, especially low-income youth of color, it's very hard to take advantage of everything the city has to offer."
Noting that both City College and the San Francisco Unified School District canceled their summer school program, Jackson said, "it doesn't look like youth are prioritized."
Jackson was recently at Double Rock (a.k.a. the Alice Griffith Public Housing Project) and he saw four kids under 10 who were at home while their parents were at work. "Why aren't they in school or in child care? And don't give me the line that these are hard to serve communities. We have to serve them."
N'tanya Lee, executive director of Coleman Advocates, agrees that while all young people are struggling in the city, African American children and youth are having one of the worst times.
"We don't need 5,000 different strategies and initiatives when 90 percent of these kids live in extreme poverty, mostly concentrated in public housing, and you could fit the city's entire black high school student population into one auditorium," Lee said.
She wants the city to create a database of these youth and develop specific strategies to help this population before it's too late.
"No one in city government feels accountable for the outcomes for black children and youth," she said. "Instead you have one group who are about young people and another who are about economic development — and they have nothing to do with each other. Meanwhile, we've lost half of all black families with children in this city in the past 20 years."
Our 44th Anniversary Issue also includes stories by Rebecca Bowe on ageing out of the foster care system , Caitlin Donohue's account of the Haight street kids , and Tim Redmond's editorial on the issues facing our rising generation