Shelter Warms Hearts of City’s Homeless Youth By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday December 03, 2004

T-Rex, 25, says he has been living on Berkeley streets since he was eight. Wednesday night, however, he and his dog escaped the bitter winds blowing through their wooded hillside squat to take refuge in the city’s shelter for homeless youth. 

“This is th e best thing ever to happen to Berkeley,” T-Rex said of the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH). “I always avoided shelters but this place is different.” 

This week marked YEAH’s third season as a winter shelter for youth ages 18-25. Started by a group of Berkeley women in 2002, the 55-bed shelter located at the Lutheran Church of the Cross on 1744 University Ave. has brought the tight-knit Telegraph Avenue youth culture indoors. 

“We’re all like family,” T-Rex said as he pointed out a volunteer who he said had once been homeless and helped him survive on the streets years before. By 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 21 residents filled the shelter, several playing board games until their beds were ready. Most of them were white, split evenly between those pas sing through on their way south for the winter and those who called Berkeley their permanent home. 

YEAH Executive Director Sharon Hawkins-Leyden said the shelter has a laissez faire policy that welcomes all homeless youth, even those with serious drug a nd alcohol addictions so long as they don’t use drugs at the shelter. Youth with dogs are also welcome. 

“The only way to get them in is to accept who they are now, not what we want them to be,” she said. 

The city has been impressed with the shelter’s de but. This year, in the wake of budget cuts, the council doubled YEAH’s funding to $30,000—about one-third of its projected budget and enough to keep the shelter open 21 weeks, its longest season so far. The shelter operates with the support of 45 communit y volunteers, said Hawkins-Leyden, who hopes one day to keep it open year-round. 

“They’ve really wowed the council and the mayor,” Berkeley Community Services Specialist Jane Micallef said. “I think when they first asked for funding everyone thought they would be so green that they’d fall on their face, but they’ve been great.” 

After opening in 2002 for five weeks, the shelter last year operated an 18-week season, taking in 214 different residents, most of whom would choose to sleep on the street rather than check into an adult shelter. 

“Regular shelters aren’t for us,” said Chad Perdue, a 25-year-old traveling from Portland with his partner Christian. “They usually have a lot of hard-core, violent drug addicts.” 

Because homeless youth often migrate and avoid services geared for adults, officials can only guess at their numbers. 

Megan Schatz, coordinator of the Alameda Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care Council, said the most recent surveys estimate that at any point in time the county is home to 300 homeless youth. 

Besides YEAH, the county has one other youth shelter, Covenant House, which operates a 25-bed year-round program at St. Andrew’s-St. Joseph’s Church in West Oakland. 

There most of the residents are local African Americans, many of w hom found themselves on the street after they turned 18 and left foster care. 

Amy Lemley, executive director of First Place Fund For Youth, an Oakland-based organization that finds housing for foster children, said that every year about 200 children age out of foster care and roughly two thirds of them find themselves homeless. 

Covenant House, which doesn’t allow dogs, has stricter rules about drug and alcohol abuse and a well established network of services for the residents. Several residents attend federal Job Corps training and the others spend their days at Covenant House’s youth service center where they are a assigned a case manager, see job training specialists, work towards a GED, and are offered drug abuse and mental health counseling, said S ean Sullivan, program director at Covenant House California. 

“It’s helping me out,” said Jamal, a 23-year-old studying to be a cook, who described himself as a foster child experiment that went wrong. “This is a good place to learn and think about the fu ture.” 

Hawkins-Leyden doesn’t think that Covenant House’s more stringent structure would work for YEAH’s residents, but she does want to emulate the model of tying services to the shelter. 

This year, YEAH will introduce evening classes in drug education, AIDS, pregnancy and STD prevention and creative writing. 

Still, she said, Berkeley could do a lot more to serve homeless youth. 

“Nearly everything is designed for adults,” she said, adding that the city’s mental health department lacks a specially tra ined youth therapist and that the city’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation services were too strict to attract younger addicts. 

Micallef acknowledged “big gaps in services to homeless youth,” and said she was working with the city’s service providers to co ordinate their activities and beef up their programs. 

Of the three organizations operating daytime youth drop-in centers, Micallef said two, the Chaplaincy to the Homeless and Fred Finch Youth Center, have had major personnel turnovers recently, while th e third, Jubilee Restoration Inc., is in jeopardy of losing its federal grant pending an investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for misuse of funds. 

Hanna McQuinn, who last month took over as executive director of the Chaplaincy program, said her immediate goal was to implement an employment training program and connect the organization to the Jobs Corps program, her former employer. 

When it comes to helping homeless youth overcome addictions, local service providers remain hes itant to push too hard. 

Hawkins-Leyden said that most of the youth in her shelter are still healthy enough that they don’t see the need to get sober and are better served by learning to administer drugs safely to reduce the risk of overdosing or contrac ting HIV. 

“What works is if we keep them safe enough and alive long enough so they can get to the point where they realize they need help,” she said. 

In combating drug abuse among homeless youth, Hawkins-Leyden has formed a alliance with Davida Coady, e xecutive director of Berkeley’s drug abuse treatment program Options Recovery Center. Coady has been a vocal critic of YEAH’s philosophy, known as harm reduction. 

Although Coady would like to see local service providers push youth towards abstinence from drugs, she said homeless youth often rebel against strict programs like hers. 

“Harm reduction is a bad model but it might be the best you can do with youth,” said Coady, who plans to offer drug counseling at YEAH later this winter. 

Christian McCullough, a 21-year-old heroin addict, said he appreciated the shelter’s policy. “When I’m ready to get help I will,” he said, “but I don’t need anybody telling me what to do.”