Youth Shelter in San Francisco's NoPa Becomes 24-Hour Operation
A young woman relaxes while creating beaded art at Larkin Street’s recent Thanksgiving Harvest Festival celebration. (Kathleen Stavis/Larkin Street Youth Services)
Homelessness is still a big problem in San Francisco. At last count in January 2013, there were 7,350 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in San Francisco, including about 914 youths. Anyone who lives in or visits the city sees panhandlers downtown, destitute people in doorways and young people hanging out on Haight Street or in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park.
There are many organizations working hard to provide services to the homeless, but finding places for shelters or halfway homes is a constant struggle in a city as dense and expensive as San Francisco.
Larkin Street Youth Services is one of the many nonprofit service providers working on homelessness in San Francisco. The organization operates an array of shelters, group homes, drop-in centers and other services for homeless youth, often in residential neighborhoods.
One of Larkin's emergency shelters, known as Diamond Youth Shelter, is located in the upper-middle class neighborhood known as NoPa (North of the Panhandle). It’s been there for over 30 years, serving homeless and runaway kids under the age of 18. Many of its clients left home because of abuse, neglect, even a bad foster placement. The shelter was first run by Catholic Charities and now is part of Larkin Street Youth Services. Recently, it won approval from the city’s Planning Commission to expand its operations to 24 hours a day.
The change is a response to new state licensing rules that require shelters like Diamond to offer continuous 24-hour service in the same building. For the past 20 years, Diamond has been operating at two locations. Kids spent the night at the shelter in NoPa, which opened at 8 p.m., but they had to leave by 8 a.m. So, if they wanted a place to be during the day, they had to make their way to a drop-in center in the Tenderloin that serves homeless youths through age 20.
“It's hard to have a feeling of stability when you have to move around to so many places,” said Denise Jimenez, assistant manager of the Diamond Youth Shelter. “They need a safe space. Some of the youth that aren't from San Francisco don't know San Francisco.”
Jimenez wants Diamond to feel like a real home, even if it's temporary. Youth can stay here for only 21 days. But as the shelter transitions to a 24-hour operation, Jimenez says her staff will be able to keep a closer eye on the kids. That means keeping them out of trouble and getting them more services.
“We're doing everything in our power to make sure nothing changes in the neighborhood other than our hours,” Jimenez said.
It's taken awhile to convince neighbors on this quiet block of Central Avenue, between Hayes and Grove streets, that the change in hours won’t disturb their quality of life. Over the past decade, NoPa has become a family-oriented neighborhood with million-dollar homes. Neighbors are already fed up with parties spilling over from the Panhandle and onto their block. And even though the shelter has been around longer than many residents, some are wary that the longer hours will bring unwanted problems.
“Each one of the neighbors on either side found syringes just on the other side of the fence,” said neighbor Dan Reynolds. He worries that Diamond staff are too lenient with the kids that seek shelter there, and that troubled youth could jeopardize the safety of his own children.
Reynolds said there have been issues with loitering, smoking, noise, even aggressive or defensive behavior from Diamond staff. But what bothers him most is how the shelter has incrementally grown while its managers claimed it wouldn't.
“It's just tough to take because you feel like you're being piecemealed,” Reynolds said.
The first shelter was only one story. Larkin rebuilt it into a three-floor structure in 2009, promising it wouldn't change hours of operation. Now it's doing just that.
“It's just one thing after another,” Reynolds said. “You realize how valuable it is to have approval for some sort of services that aren't necessarily welcome to communities.”
Jimenez knows some neighbors have concerns, so she’s been reaching out to people like Reynolds, trying to create a personal connection and single point of contact for neighbors to bring complaints. She's been holding monthly community meetings so she can respond to concerns like his.
"We said we're going to do this and do it right and take care of everything we haven't taken care of in the past,” Jimenez said. “And I want to be a good neighbor.”
Reynolds said he’s glad there's finally one person in charge at Diamond. He and other neighbors said it’s a good sign that Larkin is responding to concerns proactively, but they are reserving judgment to see how the transition pans out.
Other neighbors say they don’t have a problem with the new hours. Liz Singer lives next door to the shelter. She says NoPa is the perfect kind of neighborhood for kids looking for help. It's safe; people are watching what they do; and the kids aren't that bad anyway.
"They're not littering any more or less. It's just easy to blame them," Singer said. "And the noise -- they're never noisy. I think that one's just crazy."
Larkin went to the new 24-hour schedule right before Thanksgiving. Kids were able to stay in the house and celebrate a meal together. Jimenez says Larkin pushed for this timing so kids wouldn't have to wander the streets during their holiday break.