The Young and the Homeless

Written by Marine Chalons

As the busiest street in Berkeley, Telegraph Avenue is a window into two worlds. Everyday thousands of students march up the street until it dead-ends in Sproul Plaza, where the nation’s finest public university awaits them. But to others of the similar age, Telegraph is not part of the daily commute. It is where they sit, without a home, asking for change from those passing by.

Students are familiar with Berkeley’s homeless, who are sometimes jokingly considered part of the city’s flavor. But they may not know a substantial number of Telegraph’s squatters are young. 18% of the estimated 1,200 homeless persons in Berkeley are between 18 and 25 years old, according to the Youth Engagement, Advocacy, Homes Program (YEAH), an organization that assists homeless young adults in Berkeley.

According to YEAH, several features characterize the youth homeless population in Berkeley. Three-quarters of them are male and on average, they become homeless when they are only 15 years old.  73% reported regularly consuming alcohol or drugs. Approximately 80% of the population is unemployed, which is partly explained by the fact only half have high school degrees. Without any educational background and or source of income, finding adequate housing would be a miraculous achievement.

Reasons for leaving their familial homes differ from one situation to another, but according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Congress, “the primary reason youth consistently state for their homelessness is family conflict,” which includes “fights with parents or caregivers, parental rejection, as well as neglect and/or abuse by a parent, caregiver, or other individual with access to the home.” The street often appears as the only solution for those young adults.

Sadly, the street is a harsh world where survival comes before living. “The realities of street life lead many young people to engage in a range of high-risk behaviors, both in order to meet basic survival needs, and as a result of engaging with other troubled peers,” according to the report. Among those “high-risk behaviors” are drug and alcohol use and even “survival sex” — performing sexual acts in exchange for food or shelter. Young people living in the street “are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual assaults,” the report adds.

YEAH is one of several programs designed specifically to get kids out of the streets and it is financed by Alameda County and private donations. Located in a Church on University Avenue, YEAH has three primary programs: an emergency shelter open six months a year; workshops aimed at providing social support and defining new goals; and a clinical case management program related to school, employment and housing. In addition, YEAH provides medical services, on-site therapy, and help overcoming drug addiction.

While YEAH’s work is commendable, other measures could be taken across the state to combat youth homelessness. In addition to providing more welcoming and safe youth shelters, we ought to consider legislation to better protect children in dangerous familial environments so they do not flee to the streets in the first place.

Berkeley is unique in that it is more accommodating to the homeless than most cities in America. In 2001, the Alameda County Superior Court ruled that paragraph 647 (j) of the Californian Penal Code which makes sleeping in public a crime was “unconstitutionally ambiguous.” The Berkeley City Council voted to make paragraph 647(j) the lowest enforcement priority of the Berkeley Police Department. Those decisions effectively decriminalized homelessness in the city of Berkeley, except on Telegraph Avenue, where the homeless are not allowed to sleep.

The perilous state of the California state budget will likely to affect the most vulnerable parts of the population, including the young homeless. Currently, state funding for Homeless Services in Alameda County has not decreased. But the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is considering cutting General Assistance (GA) beginning April 1, 2010. GA is a loan offered to unemployed persons living in poverty and capped at $336 a month.

This may have devastating effects for the at risk community. According to the San Francisco Bay View “the last time Alameda County imposed a time limit on General Assistance [1997], the county saw an increase in hunger, crime, homelessness and housing instability” and “29% of recipients surveyed were forced to move after losing aids and 20% became homeless.”

Considering the current economic situation, the County doesn’t have many options, but cutting funding for these services could put many more young lives on the streets. We as a society ultimately have to decide whether fighting homelessness should be a top priority during a poor economy. But as a nation that prides itself on being the land of opportunity, how can we sit idly by while some our youth spend their best days in the gutter?