Public Comment

Commentary: Helping Vulnerable Youth of Color

By Sally Hindman
Tuesday October 03, 2006

Some years back, the San Francisco Chronicle published a graphic photograph of a young African American man hanging from the guard railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, his arms stretched out so that, remarkably, he appeared to be dangling in a crucifix position. The youth had attempted to commit suicide. As a Caucasian Quaker chaplain and someone involved in the interfaith religious community for most of the last 20 years, and also as a mother and longtime Berkeley resident, that photo has haunted me. I have not been able to erase the image of that anguished young man from my mind, and have continued to ponder the questions: What can we do to empower and offer needed support to vulnerable older youth of color in our community? Aren’t we all his parents? How are we “crucifying” or by neglect leading our older young men of color to suicidal despair and a sense of hopelessness? 

In 1996 and for three years following, the Chaplaincy to the Homeless and member agencies of the Alameda County Youth Collaborative received over $500,000 in funds from the City of Berkeley and HUD to start and run a drop-in center and other programs for homeless runaway youth in the Telegraph Avenue area, with the support and leadership of District 7 Council Member Kriss Worthington. In efforts at understanding the challenges faced by those mostly white youth, City staff hired veteran social worker Wendy Georges to carry out a study of the problems faced by homeless runaway youth, and providing recommendations for next steps that might be taken in dealing with youth concerns.  

One of the critical recommendations Georges developed from her research was that a parallel study needed to be carried out of the problems and challenges faced by equally homeless “couch surfing” youth in South and West Berkeley. Georges pointed out that in South and West Berkeley as many as 400 African American and Latino youth, ages 18-25, were struggling each year with a culturally different, but equally serious sort of “homelessness,” and just as badly needed attention as did the mostly white Telegraph Avenue youth. 

Despite prodding for over two years by South and West Berkeley clergy involved in the Berkeley Ecumenical Strategies Team (BEST), that recommended study was never carried out by the City. 

Nonetheless, knowing well the struggles faced by older South and West Berkeley youth, and the need for services supporting them, in 1999 BEST, and its more than a dozen partner congregations, applied to HUD for funding to open three satellite, congregation-based sites focused on meeting the special needs of these at-risk young people. The plan envisioned by local pastors, included significant street outreach to programs at these locations. AIDS and STD testing and information, jobs and computer training, and recovery and support for staying out of the jail system were the themes conceptualized for the three sites, respectively.  

In their funding proposal, and in subsequent communication with City Council members, the clergy drove home that these hard to reach 18-25-year-old youth of color are at a phenomenally high risk of incarceration, recidivism and three strikes convictions, of joblessness, drug and alcohol addiction, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and consequent related mental health challenges. 

In 2000, led by Missionary Church of God in Christ’s Jubilee Restoration Inc., and with equally strong leadership from Phillips Temple AME, BEST received a $100,000 grant to initiate this program. Supportive funds in the $30,000 range followed from the City of Berkeley. Unfortunately, as events unfolded that vision was not able to be realized. Ultimately the grant was returned to HUD and the needs of these older youth in South and West Berkeley continued to go largely unmet. 

In June of 2004, my toddler daughter and I witnessed the shooting murder three blocks from our South Berkeley house of an African American youth 20 years old riding a bicycle, by a group of his peers on bicycles, most presumably drug related. Still, despite a vigil held by local clergy at the time, no increased services were able to be made available by the city addressing the needs of vulnerable youth of color. Government purse strings were simply too tight. 

Without these empowering services and outreach, I have watched as police cars day in and day out relentlessly roam the streets of our neighborhood. They come on motorcycles, in cars, and in groups of five cars, skidding ‘round the corners. The police are ever-present patrolling the streets of South Berkeley. All that our vulnerable youth need to do is make one wrong move and the police are there to arrest them. Yet I have never seen an outreach worker so much as approach the street corner of Ellis and Fairview near our house, where large groups of these older African American youth congregate. 

Meanwhile, this last year as the South Berkeley community has pondered a transportation hub at Ashby BART, whether we need more parks and open space, whether to move the South Berkeley library to the developing Ed Roberts Campus, and whether the police should expand their site on Adeline Street, the specific needs of at-risk older youth in South and West Berkeley have continued to be unaddressed.  

The past five years have for sure been cash-strapped as our state and local governments have struggled with a diminished pool of funds to distribute for social services and other competing programs reaching out to those in need. But with a brighter economic horizon and newly available monies for homeless outreach programs through the State’s Proposition 63, Berkeley is finally blessed with having resources available to potentially support at-risk older homeless youth in our community. With an upcoming Proposition 63 Request for Proposals, community organizations with the capacity to serve youth in South and West Berkeley will have a new opportunity to apply for funds to meet the needs of these young people. 

Kriss Worthington has again taken a leadership role in addressing the needs of homeless Telegraph Avenue youth for supportive services, as has Mayor Tom Bates. Hopefully, at long last, additionally the City of Berkeley will be able to pony up and earmark new funds generously supporting programs for South and West Berkeley’s “homeless” youth.  

Further, the City of Berkeley is in the process of contract negotiations with Alameda County for Mental Health Services Act money for transition age youth which could provide an additional stream of available youth serving funds—if properly earmarked. 

My prayer for Berkeley as we approach the fall “season of giving,” is that as people of diverse faith traditions and beliefs we find a way to gravitate away from our own concerns and problems and remember those still struggling on our streets…the people “hanging from the bridge,” as it were. Not all homeless people hold up cans begging for money! We need to do everything we can both as a City and individually to support empowering programs and services, as well as community organizing toward justice and equal opportunities for all. The disgrace of homelessness in all forms, in all age groups and among all races, has simply got to end! 

To let the City of Berkeley know you support programs for 18-25-year-old South and West Berkeley youth, contact: Mayor Tom Bates, 2180 Milvia Street, Berkeley, CA 94704. Call: 981-7100. E-mail: 

To donate: Some of the local agencies and programs currently serving and organizing with/for homeless youth include: 


Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH) 

c/o Lutheran Church of the Cross 

1744 University Ave. 

Berkeley, CA 94703 


Boss Community Organizing Team 

c/o BOSS 

2065 Kittredge St., Suite E 

Berkeley, CA 94704 


Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) 

c/o Coalition on Homelessness 

2940 16th St., Room 200-2 

San Francisco, CA 94103 


Street Spirit 

c/o AFSC 

1515 Webster St., #303 

Oakland, CA 94612 


Sally Hindman is a former executive director of Berkeley’s Chaplaincy to the Homeless. She is the co-founder of Street Spirit with Terry Messman. 


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