We sat down with Mary Howe, the director of the Homeless Youth Alliance, to find out what she thinks about the state of the street kids.
Mary is a formerly homeless youth, and she's been at the helm of HYA since 2006. Her office is in the back corner of the HYA building at the corner of Haight & Cole (on the north side). On a normal day, she sees 30-40 homeless youth come and go. On a busy day, more like 120. What do the kids do there? They sit, get warm, watch TV, shower, brush their teeth. In addition to basic hygiene needs, HYA has counselors who can help kids get documents they might be missing (birth certificates, Social Security cards, etc.). HYA provides medical and mental health care, a needle exchange program, referrals, and up-to-date information on how to transition into housing, if that's what someone wants to do. They're right here in the Haight, because "that's where the kids are." Unlike a lot of other programs for the homeless and homeless youth, HYA has no preconditions for those who want to take advantage of the services they offer. A kid can drop in once to brush her teeth, or, come every day and get sober and transition into housing. Whatever is needed, HYA will provide. They can do this because they're privately funded, so, as Mary puts it, "there's no one looking over our shoulders to tell us how to help people." They just help them. We asked her if she thinks that there have been more kids lately, and if so, if they're getting more violent or destructive. She told us that there has been no increase in the amount of kids they help. "The kids have always been here, and they're always going to be here." The only demographic shift recently, she says, is that she's seeing more and more mentally ill kids. Our conversation about destructiveness led to, of course, shit on the sidewalks. She says that HYA has rallied to get public bathrooms in the neighborhood, to no avail. "Nobody looks at a sidewalk and says, 'yeah, that's a great place to shit, right here where anyone could see me.' Nobody wants to live like that." "There's this myth that they're all trust fund kids, trust fund brats. 'Okay, so Daddy is molesting me, but he has money, so I guess I should stick around and see how this turns out.' No. You run away, they run away. Money has nothing to do with it." On average, Mary says about 10% of the kids who come through are from San Francisco. The others come from all over. "It's a destination. The kids have always been coming here. You can thank the 60s for that." We asked her about the recent uptick in citations and police presence on the street. Does she think it's scaring them straight? "Absolutely not. They sit on the street because there's nowhere else to sit. They want them out of the parks, but then they want them off the street. So it becomes this constant back-and-forth shuffle. Passing Sit/Lie, or putting a bike rental place [at Alvord Lake] doesn't mean that all the kids magically get houses to go to." She went on to explain the ticketing process for Sit/Lie: they get a warning, then a citation, then a fine, then prosecuted. She said she's seen a few people get prosecuted. "Now they have a criminal record, which will obviously help them get a job." Further criminalization, in HYA's view, doesn't make them go away, or not be homeless anymore. Human services, drug treatment, and referrals, however, might. As for the future, she says she's trying to work with HAMA and the merchants on the street to start a program where merchants can donate to HYA, and HYA can give the kids jobs to do, like scrubbing graffiti, or breaking down boxes, or other odd jobs that might need to be done cleaning up the 'hood. She's positive that if something like this can be arranged, the kids would jump at it. If you're interested in getting involved with HYA, there's information on their website about how to volunteer, donate, or get their newsletter.
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