Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Homeless youth
struggle through the season


C.J. Dior serves himself at the weekly movie and meal at the Living Room, a drop-in program that provides a meal and movies on Friday nights. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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If it hadn't been for the small luggage cart by his side, Tyler Johnson wouldn't have looked homeless.

As Johnson, 25, sat at the 17th Street pedestrian plaza on a chilly November night, he looked like many other people in the surrounding Castro neighborhood. Everything from his stocking cap to his dark jacket and pants looked clean, and his facial hair was only stubble-length.

But Johnson and his boyfriend, James Temple, 18, planned to sleep in Golden Gate Park that night, as they had been doing every night. The couple had moved to the city four months beforehand, after Johnson got laid off from his job in Chico and was evicted from his apartment.

Johnson said he hadn't been able to find work, and he usually got food stamps.

"When the food stamps are gone, I sit out here with a sign, usually just for food," he said. "That's all I really care about, since I don't do drugs."

The couple, who left for Chico soon after talking to the Bay Area Reporter, received help from several agencies while in San Francisco, such as Larkin Street Youth Services.

Other young homeless people are figuring out whether to stay in the city for the holidays.

Eric Bergquist, director of the Paige Street Baptist Center, runs a Friday night program called the Living Room Coffee House, where young people can grab something to eat and watch movies.

The week before Thanksgiving, Bergquist said during the holidays he sees "people making decisions about whether they're going to go home or not."

"Home might just be friends," said Bergquist. It's "a season where people think about reconnecting, beating a path toward Alabama or Connecticut, wherever they came from."

Youth who stay in the city may find the recession that has made it hard for many people to find work has also affected agencies that are designed to help them.

Earlier this year, Larkin Street released a report based on 2008-09 data that said there are about 5,700 homeless youth in San Francisco. Sherilyn Adams, Larkin Street's executive director, estimated in an interview that about 1,100 of the youth going to the agency this year identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning.

The agency saw a 25 percent increase in youth overall last year seeking shelter and other emergency services, and Adams said she assumes they will continue to have an increase this fiscal year. This year, Larkin Street will see about 3,600 youth.

While the need for services is greater, the organization has reduced its budget by about $1 million from last year, to just over $12 million. She said cuts have come from the city, which has taken hits in state funding.

Adams said the decrease means fewer people doing outreach to try to help youth get off the streets, and 22 units in their queer youth housing program instead of 26, among other changes. The agency also reduced some education and employment services.

"We're at capacity in all our programs," said Adams. "We're doing the most that we can, but it's less than what youth need."

The Larkin Street report mirrors the lives of more than a dozen homeless young people the B.A.R. talked to recently. More than 75 percent of youth served by Larkin Street last year were unemployed at intake, regardless of orientation, according to the report.

Many youth on the city's streets come from rough home lives and lack even a high school education, and trade sex or companionship for money and shelter. 

Daisy, a transgender woman who spent part of a recent Saturday night perched near the Safeway at Market and Church streets asking passersby for a cigarette lighter, said "I do tricks if I really need the money."

The 21-year-old said she planned to rent an apartment with some other people this winter, but for that night, she would probably sleep in the large green public toilet nearby, "freezing my fucking ass off."

Like several other youth, Daisy said hooking up doesn't always involve sex. Sometimes, people just want company.

"I've had tricks take me home and they just want me to have dinner with them, and they give me $80," she said. " ... It's weird. I don't get it."

Daisy, who had long hair and was wearing a slightly torn leather jacket with a silky scarf, said the heroin addiction she was trying to quit was holding her back from getting a job.

"I wish I would've made better decisions," said Daisy, who still expressed a desire to be an artist.

Being on the streets can be scary. On a Sunday afternoon in November, Erin Mayxonesing sat in Buena Vista Park with her 11-month-old brindle pit bull, Wulfred.

Mayxonesing, a 19-year-old lesbian, was sleeping in her car every night with Wulfred and her other dog.

She said "all types" of men propositioned her "just about every day," and she's even been followed.

"That's why I have the dogs," she said.

Other needs

The city tries to help homeless youth. But Beck, a queer youth services provider who works at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said his experience with the city's homeless outreach team "has not been good." The team is designed to help link homeless people to services but Beck, who uses one name, said, "there's been a total lack of response" when he's called on the team to help several youths.

Dariush Kayhan, Mayor Gavin Newsom's director of homeless policy, called that "unfortunate." He noted that the team's cell phone numbers are (415) 203-9963 and (415) 203-6643, and people could call the city's customer service center at 311 or visit the outreach team's offices at 1060 Howard Street, third floor.

Kayhan said the city spends $188 million a year on the system of care for homeless people, which includes shelters and mental health and employment services, and supportive housing for homeless individuals and families.

He wasn't sure what the spending level would be next fiscal year, given the need to close a budget deficit of over $500 million in 2010.

Many of San Francisco's homeless, including LGBT youth, say they don't feel safe in the shelters. The city has tried to address shelter safety, but Beck would like to see a multi-service center for queer and homeless youth that would be designated as a "queer and trans safe space."

In an e-mail, he said such a center must "have a structure that allows youth to decide what and how services are provided" and include shelter beds, legal aid, job training, and medical services.


Feeling the pinch

Whatever happens with the city's budget next year, many agencies are already feeling the pinch.

One of the organizations that homeless youth most frequently mentioned as being helpful was the Homeless Youth Alliance in the Haight District, which provides a drop-in center and other services. Mary Howe, HYA's executive director, said in an e-mail that this year the agency's overall budget is about $550,000, down from $600,000 last year. There have been significant reductions from the city, and the agency's state contract was eliminated.

So far cuts have included reducing drop-in and case management hours. Meanwhile, there's more need for services.

"We have definitely seen an increase of youth coming in," Howe said. The alliance sees from 50 to 120 youths a day. "Usually this time of year youth will go home if they can, but this year we have seen the opposite. More and more youth are leaving home. I think the struggling economy is playing a role and putting extra strain on families."

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