In a spacious room on the top floor of St. Mark’s Church, just a few blocks form the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way, homeless youth arrive to the rumble of rock music and the scent of hot food wafting from the kitchen.
“Clients” are greeted by UC Berkeley students around their own age. After some small talk, they’re invited to help with the meal preparation.
Two years in development, Berkeley’s new Monday night Youth Clinic is the vision of UC Berkeley seniors Shawn Mattison and Jessica Woan, who have served as co-coordinators of the clinic since it opened.
As freshmen, both Mattison and Woan volunteered at the Suitcase Clinic, a homeless clinic sponsored by UC Berkeley and run by university students that has served some 11,000 homeless since it opened in 1989. While the clinic was thriving, Mattison and Woan noticed a conspicuous absence of both women and youth taking advantage of its basic medical services.
When the Suitcase Clinic opened a center to cater to only to women and small children in 1998, Woan took over as coordinator for two years. Meanwhile, she and Mattison began planning, and pursuing funding for, a youth clinic. With a $10,000 grant from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, they launched the venture in January.
It didn’t take long for word of the Youth Clinic to circulate through the fairly close-knit community of homeless teens and twenty-somethings who hang out on and around Telegraph Avenue. One Youth Clinic regular, who gave her name as Kittie, said the clinic seemed to catch on overnight.
“I was hanging out, and everybody had disappeared. So I asked one of the guys, ‘Where did everybody go?’” And he said, ‘the drop-in clinic,’ ” Kittie said.
Curious, Kittie made her way to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. What she found was, by her estimation, a refuge from the anxiety and depression of her street existence that she would scarcely have imagined possible.
“It was like some little secret place,” Kittie said. “The people who are here really do care, and they try their best to give us what we need.”
For homeless youth, it’s not just a question of having a place to go, said Youth Clinic staff. It has to be the right kind of place.
Since many homeless youth come from backgrounds of abuse – many have run away from home to escape abusive situations – there is a tendency to be distrustful of homeless service centers where both the staff and the clientele are predominantly adults, said Jason Albertson, a social worker who staffs the Monday night Youth Clinic.
The Youth Clinic takes a low-key, user-friendly approach to providing social services for the 100 to 200 youth between the ages of 13 and 23 estimated to be living on the streets of downtown Berkeley. Mattison and Woan have made their number one priority for the Monday night clinic to simply do all they can to make youth feel comfortable and at ease for three hours a week.
Youth who may have spent the last week battling the hunger, sleeplessness and anxiety that often accompanies life on the street find themselves suddenly immersed in an environment reminiscent of a sleepover party at the Youth Clinic.
“We base the whole model around trying to be sensitive to the youth culture,” Mattison said.
Based on the demographic information Youth Clinic volunteers were able to gather from 115 clients earlier this year, about 45 percent of those who use the clinic are between the ages of 18 and 21. Another 40 percent are in their 20s.
Last Monday about 30 homeless youth turned up at the clinic for dinner. Afterwards, some settled in for a couple hours of socializing, entertainment, or rest.
Art supplies were spread out on some tables for those youth – and their were many – who want to translate some of the stresses of their day or week into poetry, short stories or drawings. One UC Berkeley volunteer tapes the day’s output to scrap paper, which she will later take home, photocopy, and staple into a crude magazine to be circulated the following Monday.
“The creative output is just amazing to me,” said Woan. “They just take time in the evenings and let all their thoughts spill out.”
Razors, soap and other amenities are available for those who want to get cleaned up.
The center’s UC Berkeley student volunteers are trained to help with medical and dental referrals, legal advice and job hunting, among other things. On most Monday’s a physician is on site to consult with clients. Every other week a volunteer veterinarian provides check-ups for clients’ pets – mostly cats and dogs.
“Whatever the goals are that they want to reach, we have people who are willing to meet with them outside (of the clinic) and help,” said Mattison.
Nevertheless, the most popular services seem to be things aimed at giving the youth an opportunity to unwind and relax.
As Albertson put it, “For people who live outside, to have a space that they can control and feel real safe in is really rare.”
Foot-washes given by the UC Berkeley volunteers are popular. Hope McDonnall, an acupuncturist who runs a detox clinic for Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, is in constant demand at the clinic. She offers 30-minute “full-body” treatments to help alleviate foot pain, back pain and flu symptoms that many youth pick up from living and sleeping on the streets.
“It’s a youth-specific place,” McDonnall said of the clinic. “They own the space, they own the treatment. They feel at home here.”
A homeless youth who called himself “Monsoon” agreed with this assessment. Going to the clinic is “like going to a friend’s house,” he said.
Monsoon was one of about a dozen youth Monday drawn small television showing the movie “Army of Darkness” – and happily heckling the film’s cheesy attempts at depicting evil.
“With entertainment comes relaxation,” Monsoon said.
Monsoon has been living on the streets since he lost his job four months ago, he said. He knows clinic staff could help him plan a strategy for breaking back into the job market, when he’s ready.
But, for the time being, Monsoon said he’s just glad to have a space to come each week with people he relates to easily.
“That’s probably one of the best medicines out there, is being able to relate to somebody and have them relate to me,” Monsoon said.
Woan and Mattison said this type of medicine flows both ways at the Youth Clinic.
“Through the clinic, I’ve probably met the strongest, bravest people I’ve met in my life,” said Woan.
The Youth Clinic is constantly looking for more collaborators, funders and volunteers. In particular, they’d like to be able to offer chiropractic treatment, educational services and expanded medical and mental health care in the future. To volunteer your services or make a donation, contact Shawn Mattison at (510) 540-8658 or email@example.com.