Youth Connect Serves the Young and the Homeless

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday May 29, 2007

Twenty-one-year-old Sam Thompson hasn’t stopped walking since he was released from prison a few weeks ago. Born to homeless parents in Berkeley, Thompson was recently arrested for peddling drugs and is out on felony probation. 

His feet—covered with cuts, bruises and blisters—finally got to rest for a bit when he visited the city’s third Youth Connect at St. Mark’s Church Parish Hall on May 21 to look for a job. 

They were also treated to some first-rate pampering, courtesy Suitcase Clinic volunteer Sandhya Jacobs. 

“Would you like powder or lotion?” Jacobs asked a delighted Thompson, while she bathed his feet in soapy water and wiped them dry with a towel. “Both,” he said grinning, as Jacobs moisturized his toes with Vaseline. 

Foot washing was just one of the many services offered free-of-charge to homeless youth by the dozens of volunteers who had gathered inside Parish Hall that afternoon. 

Vi Dyas, with the library’s Teen Services Department, helped Thompson sign up for a library card. 

“He can put down St. Marks under residence,” she said. “That way he has a proof of address, which is required to apply for a library card.” 

Across the room, AC Transit was accepting applications for bus passes that would allow homeless youth to ride the city’s buses at a discount. Next to the bus company, Andrew Wicker of the city’s Housing Department, registered visitors and informed them about housing opportunities. 

“It’s really amazing how well these kids are educated about HIV and STDs,” said Sonya Dublin, a volunteer from the city’s Public Health division who was directing students to a testing unit located inside a mobile clinic on Bancroft Avenue. “But many don’t know where to go to get tested. If they test here today, they know their HIV test results within 20 minutes. It takes about two weeks for the STD test results to arrive.” 

An initiative of the mayor’s office, the Youth Emergency Assistance Hostel (YEAH!), the Suitcase Clinic, the Fred Finch Youth Center, the City of Berkeley departments of Housing and Health and Human Services, Youth Connect is aimed at bringing service providers to the teenagers and young adults. 

Although held on a smaller scale this year, the emphasis remained on transition-age youth. About 30 kids came to the fair this year, organizers said. 

“We are not expecting too many kids this year,” said Julie Sinai, senior aide to Mayor Tom Bates. “Last year’s event was connected with [the shelter at] YEAH!, so more than 50 people showed up to take advantage of the services. We hope to do a bigger event in fall.” 

Sinai added that although such projects were common all over the United States, Berkeley was the only city that focused on the 18- to 25-year-old age group. 

“Many of these kids have a trust issue,” she said. “They are anti-authoritarian and have aged out of the foster care system. Getting them to stabilize their life is not an easy thing to do.” 

Mayor Tom Bates, who came to chat with the kids, said the event was a positive way to get kids to put their life together. 

“It’s a small step toward getting our youth off the streets,” he said. 

Dominique Linton, 20, said that she came to YEAH! because she was kicked out of her parents’ house in Fremont nine months ago. 

“I don’t ever want to go back home,” she said walking toward the AC Transit booth, “I am really hoping I get one of the discount passes. Then I will be free to travel wherever I want.” 

In one corner of the hall, Stephanie Finley was telling YEAH! Executive Director Sharon Hawkins Leydon about the horrors of sleeping on the street at night. 

“Stephanie wants a year-round place to stay, which will be designed for her needs and will accept her for who she is,” said Hawkins. “She likes coming to the winter shelter at YEAH! because, apart from a few safety rules, she is welcome there. The youth really respond to that.” 

Like Stephanie, there were other YEAH! regulars who gathered around Leydon Hawkins to talk. 

“Often all these kids need is a sense of community,” she said. “Somewhere they can go to and feel safe. Forty-six percent of youth who come out of the foster care system end up homeless, 50 percent don’t have a high school diploma, and almost everyone is burdened with personal problems.” 

Hawkins said she has a five-year plan to house homeless youth with the help of the mayor, the City Council and the city manager. 

“It will be a one-stop center which will provide 18- to 25-year-olds with housing and other services under one roof in Berkeley,” she said. “It will be a parallel community to college. We want to create a campus. We are in the process of expanding our board of directors and we hope to start a feasibility study by September.”