Night after night in San Francisco, 1,300 young people find themselves on the street without a safe place to stay. They hide in plain sight in order to survive and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
Since 1984, Larkin Street Youth Services has helped over 75,000 young people ages 12 to 24 who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness through a range of services including outreach, housing, health, wellness, education, and employment. It can be shocking to learn that so many young people experience homelessness. Every story is different, but Larkin Street’s compassionate, committed staff understand that young people are affected by an incredibly complex network of challenges. Nearly 90% of young people at Larkin Street have experienced some form of abuse, and many have been involved with the foster care or justice system. These issues are particularly acute for those from marginalized communities. In fact, 76% of the organization’s clientele are people of color and nearly half of young people experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area identify as LGBTQ.
Larkin Street can report these startling facts thanks to the work of Research and Evaluation Director Haley Mousseau. “In addition to our extensive services, what sets us apart is our deep investment in data,” Mousseau explains. Her five-person team gathers vital information—everything from which neighborhoods are experiencing spikes in virus transmission to youth employment trends—and collaborates with staff on the front lines to respond. “The reality is that these issues are not linear. In order to test our theories, it’s critical we bring in the voices of folks who have direct experience.”
One of those folks is Assistant Manager of Outreach Camilla Bolland. Her magnetic demeanor is indispensable when approaching young people on the streets. “Building rapport is the best way to be effective,” she explains. “I can tell someone they need to go to this or that facility until I’m blue in the face, but if they don’t trust me, why would they listen?”
Larkin Street’s comprehensive services create a foundation for young people to take the decisive steps needed to reach their full potential. And it’s working—three out of four young people who complete Larkin Street’s programs exit street life for good. Counselors like Torrence Avery play a key role in this success by helping integrate young people into the community. “I try to gradually lead them in the direction they need to go,” he says. Often that means connecting them to one of Larkin Street’s shelters or transitional housing programs, to educational and employment services designed to orient them in the professional world, or to new activities like yoga or art to inspire creativity, all of which help establish stability in their lives. “I let them know I’m here for whatever they need,” he says. “I won’t come walking—I’ll come running.”
Larkin Street Youth Services, established in 1984, is based in San Francisco, California. In the photos above (left to right; top to bottom): Angel Jamaica and Camilla Bolland; Tyler Spencer and Jilleen Ward; Haley Mousseau and Camilla Bolland; Ten Barnes and Deon Price. Photography by Julia Robbs.