Haight center for homeless youth explores options as closure looms 

click to enlarge Mary Howe
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Executive Director Mary Howe, formerly a homeless youth, stands in the Homeless Youth Alliance’s office on Haight Street. The site helps up to 150 homeless youths a day.
Monday for the Homeless Youth Alliance drop-in center was business as usual, apart from a film crew making a fundraising video about the clean needle exchange, psychiatry and other services provided to youngsters. But come next week, the center could be no more.

For a dozen years, the organization paid no more than $3,100 a month in rent for a 2,100-square-foot space at 1696 Haight St., despite offering to pay more, said Executive Director Mary Howe. But six weeks ago, she received a lease termination notice to vacate by Jan. 1, meaning the nonprofit will need to shut its doors Dec. 25.

“I’m banking on a Christmas miracle,” she said. “If that doesn’t happen, then we’re less than two weeks away from going mobile.”

To continue providing services daily for up to 150 youths — nearly half of whom identify as LGBT — Howe has explored purchasing a small van or a vehicle similar to a food truck. Parking would be a struggle and overall the change would not be ideal, but it’s more realistic than finding $3 million to buy a building in the neighborhood.

The property owner, who was a founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, realizes the importance of the center’s work, but wants to “take the building in a different direction,” said property manager Paul Gaetani. In addition, the building must be vacated for seismic work.

“We’ve already given one extension and there will be no more extensions,” Gaetani said.

Bevan Dufty, the point man on homelessness for Mayor Ed Lee, said the Mayor’s Office has secured a pro-bono Realtor who gave a cost estimate and drawing of a potential space in the neighborhood. That option fell through, but they have continued to work together in the past month.

“We didn’t just come to them when the fire alarm got pulled,” Dufty said. “We’ve been working very closely with them to help them find more housing or transitional housing for youth in the Haight-Ashbury.”

The 2013 San Francisco Homeless Count and Survey found that there were 914 unaccompanied 18- to 24-year-olds living here.

The organization has received both praise and criticism from neighbors and merchants for being a haven for homeless youths.

Michael Xavier, president of the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, said the organization losing its storefront means services will be more visible on the street level and possibly lead to more vocal activism. That’s important, he said, because every six months or so a new wave of people settles in the neighborhood.

The nonprofit is not alone in providing social services in the neighborhood, but it’s unique for the youths who seek help there.

“What’s such an ace is most of these people are recovering addicts, and the way that kids on the street view them as peers rather than the government that’s offering you service with a carrot and a stick kind of situation,” Xavier said. “It’s a harm-reduction method when they’re just offering carrots and no stick.”

As for the video, it is being produced for a Fundly.com fundraiser that will launch sometime this week.

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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