Relationships are the most important resource for homeless youth in SF
By Carly Schwartz
Ten years ago, I spent every Wednesday evening in a SOMA group home, helping teenagers with their homework. These were not just any teenagers – many lived on the streets or had gone through the foster care system before finding a comfortable space in the home.
My first sessions seemed uncomfortable to me. I sat shyly in a corner, making fruitless attempts at gossip, not knowing what to say or how to build trust. Many of these teens were recovering from severe trauma, and I was here, a privileged one in my twenties, spending a few hours on my way home from a cushy job on a political campaign.
Over the weeks, however, I started to bond with each of these amazing young people. They shared their stories with me, inspiring me with their resilience. In turn, I helped them solve math problems and write essays. A decade later, I don’t remember many of their names, but I am still touched by their strength. And a name I’ll never forget: Toast.
Toast was born Christopher to a family of methamphetamine addicts in Lake County. He acquired his new nickname while living on Haight Street and sleeping in Golden Gate Park. At 17, he had found his way to the group home through Larkin Street Youth Services, a long-standing local nonprofit that provides resources to homeless teens and young adults.
When Toast met me, he scowled. I asked him what his name meant. “It’s bread, what do you think it means?” He replied aggressively. The next week I spotted him writing in his journal in the living room. I told him that I was a writer too, and that I would love to read his work someday.
He didn’t want to share his writing with me at first. Then one day, I offered to read something to me. It was deeply personal: the account of a recurring dream I had had that reminded me of a period of emotional instability during my childhood. His eyes widened as I described my demons in detail. The following week he opened his journal and read aloud to me one of his own passages.
My volunteer time with Larkin Street ended a few months later when I moved to New York. Since then, I’ve taken what I learned from Toast – how to use writing as a powerful connection tool – and turned it into a series of workshops that I still run today. I recently had the good fortune to meet Larkin Street General Manager Sherilyn Adams, whose feelings echoed my own experiences.
“It’s a relational job,” she told me. “It’s about the connections young people have with our staff. They feel seen, heard and connected, which allows them to live with hope. “
Adams herself is no stranger to wrestling. She grew up with few resources, around drug addiction and health issues. The first of her family to go to college, Adams eventually earned a master’s degree in social work and began her career as a crisis counselor, helping people with stories similar to hers.
“I have always been precariously perched on not knowing which direction my life will go,” she said, adding that some of her siblings experienced homelessness when they were young. “I stumbled into social work trying to make sense of things going on in my own family.”
Young people make up about 20 percent of the homeless population in San Francisco – about 1,100 people under the age of 24 lived outside in the last tally, taken in 2019. Their circumstances run the gamut, from conflict to conflict. family to substance abuse to mental health. poverty. They need more than shelter: what Adams describes as a “launching pad”.
“They need a safe place to enter, a sanctuary,” she said. “But they also need education, employment services, and ways to address behavioral health.”
It’s not that simple, however.
“Change happens at the speed of trust,” says Adams. “For many young people living on the outside, trust in systems and adults is not there because of their experiences and trauma. We engage with them in the way that makes sense to them. “
This can happen in the form of a meal that results in a conversation with a counselor. Or a connection to the Larkin Street art program and a chance to spend an afternoon painting. Or, in Toast’s case, slow, steady contact with someone who shares a similar interest.
I asked Adams if she could tell me about a recent Larkin Street success story. With the homeless crisis in San Francisco at a tipping point, I think it’s more important than ever to recognize the real triumphs that happen to real people despite it. She described a young man struggling with a drug problem who landed at one of their engagement centers, which led him to supportive housing.
“Over time it got clean,” she says. “He got involved in our arts program, with video and multimedia graphics projects. He ended up doing a lot of political work during his time with us, both state and local. The whole process probably took about two years, and now he has a full-time job and lives alone.
Adams adds that political work is an important component of Larkin Street programming, and his team leads a youth advisory council that helps inform strategic thinking and come up with new housing models. Board members are paid for their time and provide direct feedback on the services they receive in order to better design systems for the future.
Yet despite dozens of nonprofits working to tackle homelessness in the city, the problem only seems to be increasing instead of decreasing. Adams notes that recent data suggests that youth homelessness itself is in fact a downward trend. But she says coordinating so many different programs and government agencies can be a challenge.
“We have to work together towards our common goal,” she said. “We want to reduce youth homelessness by 50% by 2023. We have discovered over the past three or four years that working together is essential. We have to do it as an orchestra instead of different instruments each playing their own songs. “
Carly Schwartz is the editor of the reviewer.