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

By Susan Halpern and Elisa Della-Piana

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.

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.

Print Friendly
Tagged ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • Mrdrew3782

    Kill two birds with one stone. Build a year long youth center on Peoples Park. The homeless kids now can get off Telegraph and have a space to call home. Tie in requirements of being drug free and finding a job or going to school. It’s really sad that these kids that are trying to make a life for themselves are being forced onto the street.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    A fine and useful organization; instead of giving money to panhandlers, my family and I donate a chunk of change to YEAH twice a year. Thanks to Berkeleyside for running this piece.

    (Jesse and Anthony, what say you about getting the city more involved in keeping the shelter open year-round?)

  • cw

    They aren’t the right people to ask. You’d have to ask the Chamber of Commerce and DBA for their decision about how they the council majority feel about it. Probably the police action the day YEAH closed for the summer gives a hint.

  • AnthonySanchez

    Absolutely. We recommended this when we first submitted our Compassionate Sidewalks proposal during the whole Measure S debate.

    We’re convening the working group soon, and this is one of our goals -to find funding to keep YEAH open all year round.

  • guest

    all that would do is change the demographic from old bums to young ones

  • Woolsey

    What a sad picture – hopefully funds can be found for a year-around shelter.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Berkeley doesn’t have to be the city that provides this service during these months. Why can’t YEAH open a facility in another town and fulfill its mission there? Is there a year round shelter in Albany, El Cerrito, Kensington, Richmond, Oakland, or Piedmont?

  • Truth Sayer

    Nope, can’t do that. Berkeley’s government is not frugal. It’s the responsibility of Berkeley city council and other city and county officials to take and spend as much money they can get from taxpayers. Sanchez even admitted it below.

  • Tizzielish

    Sanchez worte that he is working to convene a group to study the matter and raise funds – raising funds generally means raising private donations. He said nothing about using city funds.

  • The_Sharkey

    Don’t you know? Berkeley has to shoulder the burden of street people for all of Alameda County.

    “Give me your tweakers, your stoners/Your gutter punks yearning to sidewalk surf”

  • PragmaticProgressive

    What are the regional facilties / services available? Can this be addressed at the County level, with a broader funding base and also the option of locating facilities in cities besides Berkeley? I agree that the region needs to provide these services; I don’t agree that it’s the city’s job to do so, though we can certainly participate at a level proportional to our size/population.

  • The_Sharkey

    What’s the success rate of YEAH? What percentage of their residents do they manage to get into the system and off the streets permanently, and what percentage just use their space as a place to crash before going back out to camp on the sidewalk during the day?

    If they can show that they’re successful at getting kids off the street/sidewalk, then maybe business owners could chip in to help out since it could alleviate some of the problems in areas like Telegraph. But if their services are mostly used as an enabling tool, then maybe not.

  • cw

    Pragmatic have you quantified what you feel is the unfair level of support from the City? The numbers seem hard to sort out. For example, the city applies for and gets grant money it uses for services like YEAH so the City’s taxpayers appear to get some subsidy in this area. Also, do you happen to know if YEAH functions as a gateway to other regional services when it tries to place these young people? I seem to remember pretty extensive discussion of the state and future of regional coordination and integration during the special council meeting. It might be worth it to you to watch that and get up to speed.

  • guest

    Albany currently provides no affordable housing, no shelter housing, and no services for the homeless. Our police do harass the homeless here in Albany, at significant public expense. Every city should supply housing for some of the people who cannot pay for there own place.

  • guest

    As tempting as it is to get in to knock down drag out over a COB funded year-round homeless youth shelter, I’ll resist. Except to say the only real cures for our city’s lunacy are the ballot box, the courts (when possible) and time.

  • guest

    “Our police do harass the homeless here in Albany, at significant public expense.”

    If you replace the word “homeless” with “intimidating begging gutter punks with pit bulls” then it sounds like money well spent.

  • The_Sharkey

    What about people who choose not to pay their own way?

    Should productive members of society have their earned income taxed at higher rates in order to pay for food, housing, and other suchlike for those who choose not to work?

  • guest

    Replace the word homeless with “aged veteran” and you may have trouble when you look in the mirror.

  • guest
  • PragmaticProgressive

    I’d be grateful for a link if you have one.

    To be clear, my objection isn’t only to shouldering the cost. It’s also to being the site. Look at the title of the opinionator column here: “Berkeley needs….” This is false; Alameda County may need a shelter, but that could be located in any number of cities.

  • cw

    A link to the video for the special session? I’ll be a little lazy and answer this way: All such videos are available via the “city council” page on the city web site; live the day of meeting and then archived within a couple of days. Geeze, I forget when exactly that meeting was. February or March? Maybe April? Check the special session agendas, also published there – there aren’t many and it won’t take you long. (The time sink is in sitting through the video!)

    You opined:

    > “Alameda County may need a shelter, but that could be located in any number of cities.”

    There are resources throughout the county. There are a lot of people who are closer to facts on the ground that could probably help you refine your understanding of whether and to what degree Berkeley shoulders an unfair burden. (Sorry to be wishy washy but my own vague opinion is that in some ways it does and in some ways it doesn’t.)

    One way to learn more and to learn how to more effectively represent your strong views on this topic might be to be in touch with Anthony and Jesse and find out how you can participate in the workshops. I think there will be public announcements about that but you could also ask them directly.

    I think that is part of the point of these workshops: to help share knowledge and perspective on what the real facts on the ground are.

  • cw

    I remembered. It was sometime in April.

  • guest

    Shoo, Tom.

  • Truth Sayer

    I read it the first time correctly. Sanchez clearly said to “find funding to keep YEAH open all year round.” Raising funds does imply (but not confirm) obtaining funds privately. Finding funds includes going to the taxpayers. I suppose that is why you did not quote him.

  • Truth Sayer

    Here is the crux of the problems, when the goody-good Counsel decided to put the Compassionate Sidewalks proposal: Measure S on the ballot, they failed to address the underlining problems: What to do about the homeless people. Now everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, I mean shelter, for homeless youth. Like before, that does not resolve the underlining problem. You just can’t open up a shelter without a plan designed to eventally place the youth into safe self-sufficient environment. To do otherwise, all you will have is a huge residential warehousing institution for homeless and runaway youth. It must always be remembered that when you take on a responsibility to care for youth, you own it completely. Such as, providing for food, drug and medical treatment, counseling, and security to keep the perverts away. Sanchez and other council members must consider this a county problem, not one city – Berkeley.

  • guest

    When that “aged veteran” is an “intimidating begging gutter snipe with pit bulls” it still sounds like a good deal.

  • Lindsay Schach

    No question this is the right thing to do!

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Performance metrics? Accountability? Huzzah!

  • Truth Sayer

    The police harass the homeless “at significant public expense?” Such and argument has no basis of fact, and its untrue. Businesses and shoppers are the tax payers. As stated by Guest below “intimidating begging” and their aggressive begging have ran off many shoppers. Why do you think people, especially women, prefer to go all the way to Walnut Creek and other locations to shop? Don’t you realize that shoppers like to do so without being bothered? Anyone with any retail sales knowledge knows that people shop and spend money where they are comfortable. The higher comfort level, the more they spend. You may think I am pandering to women, but the fact is that, with the exception of vehicles and electronics, women outspend men significantly. And without their spending, our economy would grind to a screeching halt. Most women I know, with the exception of food, do not shop in Berkeley because of the panhandling. And everyone knows that panhandler target women shoppers. In summary, continue to have your feel-good attitude for panhandlers if you wish, but merchants know that their presence is “at significant public expense.”

  • The_Sharkey

    The fact that they don’t readily offer such information leads me to believe that their success rate is rather low.

  • guest

    How about a work-stay shelter for youths: 4hr.s/day of trash and graffiti clean up = bed, shower, and locker? Lots of people would get behind that type of social service.

  • guest

    …if want to continue privatizing county and state social services at Berkeley taxpayers expense.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Very likely.

    I was out on Shattuck tonight for a movie and dinner at Build. Gutter punks camped out on the sidewalk, with smart phones and cigarettes. Such an unnecessary low point in an otherwise enjoyable outing.

  • The_Sharkey

    That’s a really great idea. Even fewer hours would be fine. Just an hour or two of graffiti cleanup or litter removal would be great. Not just from a neighborhood beautification standpoint, but it would give them something that they could potentially put on a resume.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge

    Are there no prisons?
    Are there no workhouses?

  • guest

    Are there no soul-killing free rides?

    Are there no enabling death traps luring youth into lives of pain and suffering on the street?

    There are! And nowhere more plentiful than here in Berkeley. As Ted Friedman says, we’re “Hilton for the Homeless”.

  • bfg

    Is the objective to have youth living year-round in a temporary shelter? What we need in Berkeley is more supported housing and a model like First Place for Youth that provides services and housing and moves youth toward independence.

  • Berkeleylifer

    Wow, I feel so sorry for you, having to walk past homeless people with phones and cigarettes must be hard.

  • Mel Content

    Well, Berkeleylifer, your name certainly fits. You have clearly imbibed of the PC Kool-aid one time too many…

  • Mel Content

    Except that vast majority of bums, druggies, and layabouts aren’t even veterans to begin with, including many of those who claim to be vets and get away with it because most people who have never served a day in the armed forces have no way of telling the difference.

  • Mel Content

    Note how the mere suggestion that those who are offered taxpayer-supported services should perform some type of token effort in return for taking these services is offensive to so-called “progressives”…

  • Berkeleylifer

    Yes. I am TOTALLY brainwashed for tolerating the prescence of homeless people downtown and not being a snotty elitist who whines about how seeing panhandlers on shattuck will corrupt their children or some ridiculous B.S. unlike far too many people in this town. That makes SOOOO much sense.

  • Berkeleylifer

    If you don’t like the panhandlers, don’t give them money and keep walking. it’s as simple as that. Antagonizing the powerless is pointless and wrong.