Checking In With The Mobile Homeless Youth Alliance

Photo: Amy Stephenson/Hoodline
By Amy Stephenson - Published on July 24, 2014.
Last year, we introduced you to the Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA), then followed the story of the loss of their space at Haight & Cole, which was finalized in December 2013. Seven months later, we tracked down director Mary Howe to find out how things are faring for the project. 
"We're currently in our seventh month of operating as a completely mobile program," Mary told us. "Being a homeless homeless program is far more time-consuming than having an actual center. Not having a centralized location where people can find us when they need poses myriad challenges for our staff and for the countless young people who remain on the streets."

"We no longer can offer kids the option of a hot shower, an indoor bathroom, a well-stocked kitchen, a safe refuge to relax and regroup. But we've been doing our best to continue providing youth with basic needs, case management, mental health care, harm reduction education, and medical care."

Here's what a typical day looks like for the HYA today:

  • In the morning, the team does 2-3 hours of outreach. This entails walking through the Haight and the parks and handing out supplies. 
  • In the afternoon, counselors meet with clients individually, either in the street or the park, or in a cafe, depending on where that person feels most comfortable.
  • Most weeknights, the HYA van parks outside their former spot at Haight & Cole, and sets up a two-hour needle exchange.
The needle exchange, Mary explains, is vital to the operation these days, because it's the one time that the youth know exactly where to find them. They see about 25-35 kids per night who use the needle exchange, but an additional 25 per night come to avail themselves of what has become a makeshift drop-in space and a somewhat cohesive community.

"It is the closest facsimile of our former drop-in culture—a fixed site, with an Outreach Counselor, therapist, and medical provider onsite—that now exists," said Mary. "Living on the street is not easy and exposes people to constant traumas. For many of these youth, a history of trauma is a huge part of why they're on the streets to begin with. So many of the youth testify that we are the only people in their lives who they can be completely honest with and safely trust." 

HYA has also been getting a lot of help from the community. A neighbor has allowed use of her basement for storage. The clinic on Cole Street has let HYA use their meeting space for counselor visits. The library on Page Street hosts weekly game nights in their community room. 

In terms of public perception (and in response to our Taking it to the Streets article, wherein we paraphrased Christian's sentiments about HYA), Mary says she feels there is a disheartening misconception that harm reduction stops at needle exchange. Once a person's basic and urgent needs are met, Mary and her team work with them one-on-one to help them make changes as they are ready to do so. 

"A huge part of what we do is intensive, one-on-one case management: helping youth navigate the complicated, bureaucratic process of applying for and accessing housing, making sure they meet eligibility requirements (including getting on General Assistance and other benefits programs), and holding weekly meetings once they're housed to help them adjust to the transition and make sure they're fulfilling all requirements to retain their housing situation."

Unfortunately, HYA's quest for a new space has proved challenging. They've already been through three brokers who've given up after realizing how difficult it is to find an affordable space in this neighborhood that is willing to lease to a human services agency. Ideally, they'd love to be able to offer showers again, but at this point, they'd settle for a smaller administrative office space to call home. We'll keep you posted. 
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