Program Aims to Remove Homeless Youth from the Streets of Berkeley By RIYA BHATTACHARJEE

Tuesday February 28, 2006

A man who calls himself “Cheddar Cheese” spent his 20th birthday recently singing and performing for spare change in front of the Powerbar building in downtown Berkeley, as he has every day since arriving in Berkeley last January. 

Homeless for almost 10 years, he hitched a ride with a UC Berkeley professor last New Year’s Eve and finally arrived at what is known as the mecca for the country’s homeless—Telegraph Avenue. 

“The rains gave me a hard time,” he said. “I thought of going to the public library but then if all the homeless went to the public library, there wouldn’t be much place for anyone else there.” 

Instead, Cheddar Cheese went to YEAH! 

The Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH!) is a program that provides seasonal shelter for homeless youth in Berkeley. Four Berkeley women came together in the fall of 2002 to provide shelter for the growing number of young men and women living on the city’s streets.  

Although daytime services were provided in the form of drop-in centers, the youth had no legal place to sleep at night. With YEAH!, street kids in Berkeley had a place to go to for hot showers, peanut butter sandwiches, cough syrups, clean socks and, most important, a comfy bed. 

According to Jane Micallef, secretary of the city’s Homeless Commission, “Young people often avoid adult shelters because their pets are not allowed entry. Also they feel threatened by adults. Young people don’t want to be associated with the older homeless crowd.”  

However, Micallef also said that the city couldn’t force young people to leave the streets and seek shelter at YEAH! Many youths are afraid of rules and regulations and want to live a barrier-free life, she said, so they can be found snuggled up in nooks and corners all over the city, in the tree-lined pathways on the UC Berkeley campus, or just about anywhere the cops won’t be able to get a hold of them. 

“I was once harassed by the cops for sleeping near the back door of Rasputin Music,” Cheddar Cheese said. “They said it was a fire exit and gave me a citation. Sometimes people throw water at me when I sleep. Sometimes I don’t know if I am going to wake up in the morning. Sometimes I don’t want to wake up in the morning because it’s just another day of the same old problems.” 

Cheddar Cheese keeps going back to YEAH! because of its friendly staff and clean amenities, he said. If there is something that holds him back from not going there on certain nights it’s the other homeless youths in the program. “Would you want to sleep in a room full of crack heads every day of the week?” 

Robert Nelson, procurement coordinator at the New Bridge Foundation in Berkeley, volunteers every night at YEAH! 

“Our doors are open to anyone who needs us,” he said. “If we get kids under 18, we transfer them to DreamCatchers. For the mentally ill, we recommend the Mental Health Service. We try and make it as comfortable as possible for kids. Dinner is followed by a movie or reading and then it’s off to bed. Girls and boys get separate sections of the sleeping area. Someone watches over the kids all night.” 

City Councilmember Kriss Worthington stressed the importance of having a service facility aimed especially towards the youth. 

“YEAH! is one of the most cost-effective programs in the City of Berkeley.” he said. “We need to extend the program from its limited amount of winter shelter hours.” 

Sara Isakson, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Cross whose congregation houses the homeless youths, told the Daily Planet that YEAH! was working with Mayor Tom Bates to turn the winter shelter service into a four-year program for 18-25-year-olds. 

“It will offer those fresh out of foster care with that much needed transitory phase to plan their lives more carefully,” she said. 

Osha Neumann, who runs a legal clinic for the East Bay Community Law Center, said that there’s no doubt about the fact that YEAH! was doing a great job. 

“The problem is that not all the youth can use it or will use it,” he said.  

Neumann added that shelters don’t provide permanent solutions. 

“It’s not a home—it’s not a place where you can find security and privacy,” he said. “We need to start thinking of these kids as individuals instead of lumping them together as ‘homeless.’ The government should think of introducing funding changes at the local level instead of wasting money on foreign wars. This is our country’s youth we are talking about.”