Relationships are the most important resource for SF’s homeless youth

‘Change happens at the speed of trust’

Ten years ago, I spent every Wednesday evening at a group home in SOMA, helping teenagers with their homework. These weren’t just any adolescents — many had been living on the streets or bouncing through the foster care system before finding a comfortable space in the home.

My first few sessions felt awkward. I sat in the corner shyly, making futile attempts at small talk, unsure about what to say or how to build trust. Many of these teens were recovering from severe trauma, and here I was, a privileged twenty-something stopping by for a couple hours on her way home from a cushy job on a political campaign.

As the weeks went by, however, I began to form relationships with each of these amazing young people. They shared their stories with me, inspiring me with their resilience. In turn, I helped them solve math problems and craft essays. A decade later, I don’t remember many of their names, but I’m still touched by their strength. And one name I’ll never forget: Toast.

Toast was born Christopher to a family of meth addicts in Lake County. He acquired his new moniker while living on Haight Street and sleeping in Golden Gate Park. At 17 years old, he’d found his way to the group home via Larkin Street Youth Services, a longstanding local nonprofit that provides resources to homeless teenagers and young adults.

When Toast met me, he scowled. I asked him what his name meant. “It’s bread, what do you think it means,” he shot back aggressively. The following week, I spotted him writing in his journal in the living room. I told him I was a writer, too, and that I’d love to read his work sometime.

He didn’t want to share his writing with me, at first. Then one day, I offered to read him something of my own. It was deeply personal: an account of a recurring dream I’d been having that harkened back to a period of emotional instability during my childhood. His eyes grew wide as I described my demons in detail. The following week, he opened his journal and read one of his own passages to me aloud.

My time volunteering with Larkin Street came to an end a few months later, when I moved to New York. Since then, I’ve taken what I learned from Toast—how to use writing as a powerful tool for connection—and parlayed it into a series of workshops I still facilitate today. I recently had the chance to catch up with Larkin Street’s Executive Director Sherilyn Adams, whose sentiments echoed my own experiences.

“This is relational work,” she told me. “This is about the connections that young people have with our staff. They feel seen and heard and related to, and that keeps them living with hope.”

Adams herself is no stranger to struggle. She grew up with little resources, around substance abuse and health issues. The first in her family to go to college, Adams ultimately ended up with a master’s degree in social work and began her career as a crisis counselor, helping individuals with similar stories to her own.

“I was always precariously perched on not knowing which way my life would go,” she said, adding that some of her siblings experienced homelessness when they were young. “I fell into social work trying to make sense out of the things happening in my own family.”

Youth make up about 20 percent of the homeless population in San Francisco—roughly 1,100 people under the age of 24 were living outside during the last count, conducted in 2019. Their circumstances run the gamut, from family conflict to drug abuse to mental health to poverty. They need more than shelter: what Adams describes as a “launching pad.”

“They need a safe place to come inside, a sanctuary,” she said. “But they also need education, employment services, and ways to address behavioral health.”

It’s not so simple, though.

“Change happens at the speed of trust,” Adams explains. “For many young people living outside, trust in systems and adults is not there because of their experiences and trauma. We engage with them in the ways that make sense for them.”

This may happen in the form of a meal that results in a conversation with a counselor. Or a connection to Larkin Street’s art program and a chance to spend an afternoon painting. Or, in the case of Toast, slow and steady contact with someone who shares a similar interest.

I asked Adams if she could tell me about a recent Larkin Street success story. With San Francisco’s homelessness crisis at a breaking point, I think it’s more important than ever to recognize real triumphs happening to real people in spite of it. She described a young man with a drug problem who landed in one of their engagement centers, which led to supportive housing.

“Over time he got clean,” she says. “He became involved in our arts program, with video graphics and multimedia projects. He ended up doing a lot of policy work during the time he was with us, at both the state and local level. The whole process probably took about two years, and now he has a full time job and lives on his own.”

Adams adds that policy work is a huge component of Larkin Street’s programming, and her team facilitates a youth advisory board which helps to inform strategic thinking and come up with new housing models. Members of the board are compensated for their time, and provide direct feedback on the services they’re getting in order to better design systems for the future.

Sherilyn Adams, left, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, opens the 2017 Performing Arts Night with then Board Chair Terry Kramer on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Sherilyn Adams, left, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, opens the 2017 Performing Arts Night with then Board Chair Terry Kramer on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Still, despite dozens of nonprofits working to address homelessness across The City, the problem only seems to be ballooning rather than shrinking. Adams notes that recent data suggests youth homelessness itself is actually trending down. But she says coordinating so many different programs and government agencies can be a challenge.

“We need to work together towards our common goal,” she said. “We want to reduce youth homelessness by 50 percent by 2023. We’ve found over the past three or four years that working in concert together is key. We have to do it as an orchestra instead of different instruments each playing their own songs.”

Carly Schwartz is the Examiner’s Editor in Chief.

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