October 22nd, 2013 by Amelia
I met Mary Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance when I first moved to San Francisco in 2011. She was wearing a Discharge shirt and was intimidating even though she’s only like five feet tall. Her whole life is devoted to being of maximum service to her community and those around her. Mary is a true role model for all modern day punx!
What is Homeless Youth Alliance?
HYA exists to meet homeless youth where they are, and to help them build healthier lives. We believe that reducing harm is possible through the provision of accessible, non-judgmental drop-in and outreach sessions, one-on-one counseling, and medical and mental health care, as well as creative and educational workshops, needle exchange, and accurate up-to-date referrals and information. We strive to empower homeless youth to protect themselves, educate each other, reduce harm within the community, and transition off the streets.
HYA is a space for homeless youth to access the services they need just they way they are. We are here to support and empower youth to take agency in their own lives to move beyond their current circumstance. Each youth gets to make a decision everyday what part of HYA they want to utilize. Some kids just want food, or to use a bathroom or take a nap. Some kids want help with a medical or mental health problem. Some want to figure out how the hell to get off the street. We are here for all of that. More than anything we are here to listen, for many of these kids we are the only safe people they have in their lives to talk to who aren’t going to judge them and push our own ideals or agenda on them. It is really a quite profound thing to just bare witness to peoples experiences and hold that.
Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community.
Were you ever homeless?
Yes, I made a decision to leave home and come here to San Francisco when I was a teenager, I experienced periods of chaotic drug use, homelessness and incarceration. I was wary of the services available and didn’t feel valued or welcomed at the services that were meant to work with me and my community. When I formed HYA I wanted to create a space that gave a voice to the youth who access our services and allow them to play an integral role in the care they receive.
How did you start Homeless Youth Alliance?
HYA formed out of the merging of two long-standing programs in the Haight—Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach Team and San Francisco Needle Exchange. In 2006 many things came to a head that made it necessary for us to start a new project and get back to our roots. At the time we were a program of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics and it became clear to both parties that we needed to move out from under them so we could do what was need for our community instead of having to fight for it or justify it.
I knew what I wanted to do but had no idea how to actually do it. I was lucky enough to have many mentors along the way who helped me. Basically, though, I was self-taught and wrote a lot of grants until we had enough to get us going. There were times we lacked many vital things, but the community and, in large part, the very kids we serve came together and made it work.
Was it always on Haight Street?
HYA has always occupied the same space on Haight Street. Although in our previous formation as two separate programs HAYOT and SFNE we have occupied several different spaces in the Upper Haight.
With the rapidly changing demographics and gentrification in San Francisco, has the need for your program and programs similar to Homeless Youth Alliance decreased or increased?
It is extremely heartbreaking what is happening to this city, but the Haight was gentrified long ago and dealing with the consequences of that have been a part of our work and approach all along. The need for our services only grows as it becomes harder for people to afford to live indoors and support themselves with the rising costs of living here. SF is not an affordable city and the system is not set up to help people who struggle to stabilize.
Every day we see between 40 and 150 youths inside our drop-in and we see even more when we do street outreach. I cannot even count the times I have heard people say, “They are trust fund kids,” or, “They aren’t even from here.” If your rich mommy or daddy are fucking you, abusing you or ignoring you, you don’t need to stay home. These youth leave home for valid reasons and it is not for me or anyone else to judge or question. And as for the “they are not even from here” comments, most SF residents, homeless or not, are not from here. Homelessness exists because of a structural breakdown of our government, schools and families. San Francisco has weather that allows people to live on the streets and not die of extreme weather conditions, largely that is why many folks end up here.
Where do you get most of your funding?
The majority of our funding comes from private donors and foundation support. The syringe access program we operate, though, is largely supported by the SF Department of Public Health’s AIDS Office through a subcontract through another agency.
How many employees do you have?
We have 13 staff and about 20 volunteers.
How has punk and DIY influenced the structure and attitude of Homeless Youth Alliance?
HYA was created in true DIY fashion, we created it the way we wanted to with the direct input from the folks we come here. We rebelled, so to speak, against the way most social service programs are set up in this city. We purposely never went after government funding because we don’t need to be told how to work with the kids; we already know how because we are them. I didn’t want HYA to need to meet anyone else’s agenda other than our own. The current population always sits on our hiring committees, they regularly volunteer and they create the rules by which the space is governed. We strive to hire from people who come from the population, not because they went to school or have a degree. We value people’s voices and their life experience. And although we do have a structure, HYA operates largely as a collective with the input of both the staff and the youth.
How can we support Homeless Youth Alliance? How can we donate or volunteer?
We want your money, your talent, your support and, more than anything, your ability to utilize your own voice to educate people of the root causes of poverty, homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges. We want you to remember and demonstrate what being non-judgmental looks like. We want you to have benefit shows for us. We want you to come in and get services if you need to. And if you want check out our volunteer opportunities, email me at mary@homelessyouthalliance.
Any last words, punk?
Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community. You have the ability to create change in things that you witness as being corrupt and flawed.