OpinionOpinion

Op-Ed: Berkeley needs a year-round youth shelter

One resident's bed and belongings, on the last day before the YEAH shelter closed for the summer
One resident’s bed and belongings, on the last day before the YEAH shelter closed for the summer

Last week, Berkeley’s only youth shelter — Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing (YEAH!) –closed its doors, not to reopen until November. At 7:00 in the morning, the shelter’s young residents began walking out onto the street, carrying all of their belongings. Some asked to borrow a blanket before they left. Despite months of effort by shelter staff to find other placements, there were only a few transitional housing spots available. Most of the youth, ages 18-25, left the shelter without anywhere stable to stay. One young man, when asked what his plan was, said he had to get to class—he will have to study for and take his community college exams without a safe place to sleep at night. 

The youth, now on their own, had to interact with the police almost immediately. Several were stopped by police in front of an empty storefront and held for 20 minutes while the officers did warrant checks. A couple of hours later, other YEAH youth were in the downtown area with their belongings and the police told them that they had to leave. With no shelter, no daytime drop-in, and no homes for them, there’s no clear place for these young people to go.

Nearly every summer, Berkeley has heated debates about homeless youth in public spaces. During the summers of 2011 and 2012, the City Council considered passing a law against sitting, motivated largely by stories of homeless youth in downtown and on Telegraph Avenue. In June 2007, the City Council initiated plans to consider the Public Commons for Everyone Initiative to address the same issues. It is not sheer coincidence that these discussions happen during the summer when the YEAH shelter is closed, just as it was predictable that homeless youth would leave the just-closed shelter only to be told by police that they can’t be in public. There are simply fewer services for homeless youth in the summer, and the real life impact is significant.

While it is open, YEAH becomes a home for 25 transitional-age youth per night, serving about 70 over the course of six months. While the space is not enough to meet the need, for those who get in, the shelter provides a safe structure, both a place to sleep and a place to find stability. Youth get help looking for housing. They get mental health counseling. They have positive interactions with their peers. They apply for school, or apply for disability benefits, or apply for work. They begin to count on the place — some even call it home — and then the shelter ends. These young people take their pets and their stuff and take their chances on the street.

Unfortunately, this disruption is not the only time the youth have experienced loss. As documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 43% of homeless youth were beaten by a foster parent or caretaker, 25% were sexually propositioned by a caretaker, and 20% left home over a conflict with their parents about their LGBT status. YEAH’s yearly closure causes unnecessary trauma to youth who have already had more than their share of it.

This summer, when we’re debating what to do about homeless youth in public spaces, let’s plan for next summer. Let’s make year-round youth shelter a reality, for Berkeley and for the young people of YEAH. As one young homeless woman said, a year-round youth shelter is one of the most important things Berkeley can do about homelessness, because “Everyone needs their own space and a place to survive.”

You can donate to YEAH on their website

Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.

Susan Halpern is the board chair of YEAH! and Elisa Della-Piana is a member of the board and serves on the Berkeley Homeless Commission.