At age 17, Gem Gabbett was kicked out of their home.
“I found myself in my last semester of high school couchsurfing, terrified and alone,” they say, “Until one day I got a call from Wind Youth Services.” The Sacramento youth homeless shelter provided mental health support, transported Gabbett to and from school, and helped them get on their feet. Today Gabbett, who uses gender-non-specific pronouns, is enrolled in college, studying journalism and communications. “If it weren’t were those resources, I probably would be telling a very different story,” Gabbett says.
It’s not news that a large number of people who live on California’s streets are young. In San Francisco’s 2017’s Homelessness Point-in-Time count, 1,274 unaccompanied youth — that is, young people experiencing homelessness without their parents — were found in shelters and on streets across the city. Of those, 1,030 were between 18 to 24, a tricky age that often falls through the cracks, as young people leave the foster care system with little support for independent adulthood. Half of those surveyed said they were living in San Francisco at the time that they became homeless, and these numbers reflect an uncomfortable trend: Our city has the highest rate of youth experiencing homelessness in the nation. Statewide, youth homelessness increased 26 percent from 2016 to 2017.
So it’s not unprecedented that Wiener, who represents San Francisco in the state Senate, co-authored a bill with Assemblyperson Blanca Rubio to address the crisis. Called State Bill 918, the Homeless Youth Act of 2018 would provide $60 million annually to youth-specific programs that would expand housing and access to mental-health services. In addition, it would establish an office of youth homelessness in the Housing and Community Development Department in Sacramento.
“Once they’re on the streets youth are vulnerable,” Wiener said at a press conference announcing the bill. “Homeless youth have unique needs and can’t just be lumped in with the homeless population. You have to recognize that a 16- or 19-year-old has very unique challenges, compared with a 40-year-old who’s been on the streets for several years.”
San Francisco resident Zak Franet, 23, spoke in Sacramento on Tuesday about his experiences. Abused mentally and physically as a child, he had the odds stacked against him from the very beginning. He was a ward of the state for much of his childhood, and moved constantly; by the time he dropped out of high school at age 16, he’d attended 10 different schools.
“When I was 18, I found myself on a path that would lead me to developing a substance abuse problem, and to become homeless on the streets of Oakland,” Franet said. “During my time of the streets I’ve been assaulted, harassed by police, robbed more times than I can count. I’m super-lucky now. I live in San Francisco where there is a significant investment both from the community as well as our civic leadership to address youth homelessness, but you go across the bridge to Oakland, and those services drop.”
This discrepancy in funding is part of the reason why Wiener and Franca are authoring the bill at a state level. Two-thirds of California counties don’t have youth-specific homelessness programs.
It’s a good bill, and an important one. But while the amount requested is absolutely necessary, it’s also an enormous number — making it a harder battle to win. “It is going to be a fight, there’s no doubt about it,” says Rubio.
Wiener agrees, but he’s optimistic. “Anytime you’re asking for more money, it’s hard, but I know we’ll get it done,” he says.
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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