Focusing on young homeless

With one homeless count finding nearly 2,000 youths on San Francisco streets, those working with this population are calling for a greater investment in shelter beds and housing units as The City remains a popular destination for young people in search of a better way of life.

When there are housing opportunities for those under the age of 25, there are success stories. Hillary Smith became homeless at age 15 when her parents died and had been living in Golden Gate Park for the past eight years, on and off.

She received some support from the nonprofit Homeless Youth Alliance and recently worked closely with Mayor Ed Lee's homeless czar Bevan Dufty to move into the new 44-unit development at 374 Fifth St. for youths between the ages of 18 and 24 without housing.

“People ignored me when I was homeless,” Smith said during Wednesday's Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing called by Supervisor Mark Farrell. “Asking for help wasn't just something I could go do. Asking someone for anything, even what time it was as they passed me on the street, most of the time resulted in getting completely ignored. I had a dog that was about all I had to my name.”

Even with the help she started to get, it wasn't easy. The process took months with her having to sign up for benefits and resolve legal issues.

“I had to go to so many appointments and I didn't even have a watch or cellphone at the time,” she said.

But it was worth it. “I think there should be a lot more people that have a story like mine,” Smith said.

Smith was also one of the 30 percent of homeless people who are LGBT, a statistic that has many LGBT leaders alarmed and calling for a 50 percent reduction within five years.

“When it comes to the issue of homelessness, we in the LGBT community have a lot to be worried about,” Supervisor David Campos said.

Dufty said homeless youths will take advantage of afforded opportunities, pointing to a researcher who recently interviewed 300 people on the streets and found that 41 percent were trying to get off the streets by doing such things as signing up for drug treatment, applying for jobs or enrolling in school.

“This shatters the myth that somehow young people want to be homeless in San Francisco,” Dufty said. “Not intervening, not helping to house is really relegating these young people to very difficult lives.”

To address the challenges, The City needs to ramp up its investment in housing and other services, advocates say.

Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, a homeless youth-focused nonprofit with an annual budget of $13.6 million, said the existing housing resources are “just completely inadequate. We just need to build on all of the great options that we have created.”

In 2006, a city task force recommended 400 additional housing units for homeless youths.

“We are making progress but we are not at 400, and that number is insufficient,” Adams said.

For homeless youths between 18 and 24, there are 57 transitional housing units and 68 permanent housing units. There are 73 additional permanent units expected during the next two years, according to city officials.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, said The City has the affluence to house those on the street if it committed to doing so.

“There is a story behind every individual who is young experiencing homelessness,” she said. “And it's a tragic story. It's a tragedy San Francisco can avoid.”

The City's investment in the issue will become clearer when the mayor introduces his budget Monday.

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