A Flare In the Dark

For 50 years, Huckleberry House has been a resource for San Francisco’s teenagers.

It’s late on a school night when the police car rolls up to the corner of Lyon and Page streets.

A young skinny girl, brunette, no older than 16, is helped from the back seat, her hands cuffed behind her back. She follows the policeman up the steps of a grand, lilac-colored Victorian mansion. He rings the buzzer, breaking the silence of the night. A few seconds later, a woman opens the door and welcomes the pair inside. Eventually, the cop leaves the house alone and drives away, and silence descends upon the residential street. For now, the girl is safe: She has a meal, a bed, and someone to talk to. Once morning breaks, she’ll have help creating a plan for her next step.

The girl has arrived at Huckleberry House, a crisis center and emergency shelter for San Francisco’s youth and a Haight-Ashbury institution for the last 50 years. Much has changed about adolescence since the Summer of Love, but one thing remains the same: San Francisco is a magnet for young people escaping troubled homes or desperate to make changes in their life.

Huckleberry is very much a child of the ’60s, born of a need to shelter runaway young people who fled their homes to escape abuse or to find adventure and freedom. Over the years, its services have evolved from serving teenagers after they’ve run away to helping them avoid leaving home in the first place. Huckleberry now treats juvenile delinquents, intervenes on behalf of trafficked kids, and helps youth get into college — but the goal of serving those whose problems may be “unseen” remains a core value.

Doug Styles, the current executive director, describes contemporary Huckleberry’s work with runaways as “more as a family reunification program than a runaway shelter.”

“We mostly work with families where there’s a crisis going on, and youth don’t feel safe, or don’t feel supported in their own home,” he says. “Our goal is to get them back home as quickly as possible. In order to do that, we’ve got to make sure everyone in the family is safe with each other. We’ve got to figure out what are the underlying issues and work those through.”

The girl who arrived on Huckleberry’s steps in the middle of the night will find three beds in a girls’ dorm room to choose from (an identical boys’ room is down the hall). Other kids, between the ages of 11 and 17, may already be there. Dense trees outside the window block the view of the street. A mirror with chipped paint hangs on the wall, above a stuffed giraffe that sits on a dresser with empty drawers. Across the hall is a shared bathroom, and downstairs, a large eat-in kitchen, where staff members and youth cook meals together. Up another flight of stairs in the attic, two counseling rooms are nestled under the eaves, each with enough seats to hold an entire family.

(Photo by Jessica Christian)

In 1967, the priority was to provide the hundreds of runaway youth who flocked to Haight-Ashbury with a safe place to sleep. It was the Summer of Love, and San Francisco had become a hippie mecca. Nearly 100,000 people from around the country flocked here to live communally, do drugs, protest the Vietnam War, and embrace the counterculture. In the spirit of the summer, neighborhood residents opened their doors to the masses. Each night, beds, sofas, and floors were filled with strangers who’d come to feel the love.

“San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up,” Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies.’ ”

Overwhelmed by the influx, authorities pursued, arrested, and tossed young people into Juvenile Hall to get them off the streets. In 1967, it was illegal for teenagers to leave home alone. Running away was categorized as a “status offense,” a vague term loosely defined as any offense committed by a juvenile that, if done by an adult, would not be a crime. This included truancy, disobeying curfew, defying parents, running away, or being “beyond control” — which meant not doing as one was told.

In the 1960s, the majority of people in juvenile correctional facilities across the country were status offenders, not delinquents. The added curse of a status-offense charge was that it was nearly impossible to defend: There was no need to prove anything, because a parent’s word was enough to send a youth away to a facility for years.

This system was enforced nationwide, and San Francisco was not exempt. During the summer of 1967, cops rounded up runaway teens in droves, dumping them in the old Youth Guidance Center — the city’s Juvenile Hall — in Twin Peaks, which had bars on the windows and barbed wire coiled along the perimeter. Stories from kids locked up in the 1960s describe cramped, prison-like conditions. Many had to urinate on the floor if they felt the need outside of scheduled bathroom breaks.

“The rooms are steaming hot 24 hours a day. The windows are half an inch thick, and through the tiny crack at the top you can maybe see a few lights at night outside the barbed wire,” wrote a girl named Deveron about her experience being locked up after the Summer of Love. “Sept. 11, 1967 — riot. After half-an-hour of screaming and pushing metal cots against windows, three were broken and six girls ran into cooler air and the possibility of freedom — and barbed wire.”

In her written account, Deveron described how she looked at the blood-stained children running away, and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Many of the kids who went through the detention center were forcibly sent home, often to situations where they were physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.

The situation was horrific, and in direct contrast to the happy, free-spirited vibe of the Summer of Love. Marilyn Harris, an elementary school teacher who moved to the neighborhood during the summer of 1967, told Season of the Witch author David Talbot that police would frequently deploy tear gas to manage the chaos. “You’d go down to shop on Haight Street, and suddenly some kids would go flying past you chased by cops, and you’d be choking on gas,” she said.

While some of the hippie communes in Haight-Ashbury welcomed teenagers, as pressure from the cops increased, many turned them away so they didn’t attract attention to the drug use and other illegal activities taking place. Not only was it illegal for kids to run away, but it was illegal to harbor them — a risk many hippies were unwilling to take. One sign in an apartment window read, “We love you, but if you’re under 18, don’t come in.”

A teddy bear and a box of tissues sit on the edge of a sofa in one of the therapy rooms at Huckleberry House, 1292 Page St. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

During this chaotic time, one institution kept an eye on the crisis. Glide Memorial, a Methodist church that — controversially — stood up for homosexuals, hippies, and drug addicts, recognized the constant criminalization of runaway teenagers was serious. In February 1967, the church worked to establish the first shelter for teenage runaways in San Francisco, headed by Barbara Brachman and Reverend Larry Beggs. As the fiscal sponsor, Glide agreed to fund a three-month pilot program, which would offer housing, counseling, and a referral service to those teenagers who showed up on the house’s doorstep. Nothing like it had ever been done before.

In its early years, the shelter occupied a large old two-story brown Victorian house at 1 Broderick St. and was given the name Huckleberry House, after Huck Finn. (Later, Huckleberry’s crisis shelter moved three blocks — from Broderick Street to a large mansion at 1292 Page St.)

In his 1969 book, Huckleberry’s For Runaways, Beggs describes his reasons for naming the house after the fictional Mark Twain character. “Huck Finn is as American as apple pie, but when you get into the story you find that he is also a revolutionary. Huck Finn challenged most of the cultural values of his day. … At the end of the book, Huck is last seen heading for the Wild West. Perhaps if there had been a Haight-Ashbury in his day, he would have gone there for a time.”

After months of planning, the shelter opened its doors on June 18, 1967. Volunteers cleaned the place up, and hung psychedelic posters on the walls. Beds were placed on the upper level, and the downstairs was used for offices and counseling, as well as a 24-hour emergency hotline for runaway youth. No one would be held against their will, and parents would be notified if a teen had to stay overnight — a clever workaround that freed the organization from the crime of harboring runaway teens.

Larry Beggs in 1967. (Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

In his book, Beggs describes an “agonizing” three days before the first client showed up. For the remainder of the month, the home only serviced four individuals. But by July, word had spread. That month, 60 youth showed up. In August, the number shot up to 88. In the first year Huckleberry was open, 664 young people passed through its doors. Glide surrendered the program to its own directive.

“The runaway episode is an S.O.S., a flare in the dark, and a plea to resolve a painful situation,” wrote Beggs. The need was great, and letters written in the years after the Summer of Love reflect the importance of the program.

“My first thought was that Huckleberry House was just a place that turned in runaways,” wrote Kobi D., in a 1997 letter about her childhood on the run addressed to “anyone who cares.” “My friend finally convinced me that we should go, and in the end I remember being so relieved that I was not going to have to stay up all night and sleep in a doorway somewhere. It was winter at the time, and we were not properly dressed to be living on the streets and had spent too many cold nights trying to stay safe. We both were propositioned by men wanting us for prostitution, and in one case, a man wanted us to be in a child-sex film. Somehow, we didn’t get hooked on drugs and didn’t end up prostituting ourselves. But it would not have been long before both of these things happened. Thank God we learned about Huckleberry House when we did.”

When Beggs’ book was published, a mere two years after Huckleberry House opened, the whole country knew about it. Articles about the home’s revolutionary activities were featured in newspapers around the United States. KQED interviewed Beggs, and even runaway youth living in the home, for television. “The house is the oldest, largest and probably the most successful of possibly 10 somewhat comparable organisations across the country,” read a Wall Street Journal article in 1969.

And letters personally addressed to Beggs flowed in from around the country. “I’ve just finished reading your book,” a girl named Melissa wrote the same year. “Please don’t ever close — we need you. Things are getting pretty bad at home — not my parents really, I’m just unhappy here. Please be there when I need you. I love you all the more for just being there.”

Two young residents of Huckleberry’s Home for Runaways eat dinner at 1 Broderick St. (Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

In 1974, Title III of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act passed, decriminalizing status offenses nationwide. It was a significant win for young people’s rights, but it left a gaping hole in services. Most counties in California launched youth-homeless shelters as an alternative to detention centers, but not San Francisco — instead, the city continued to transport runaway kids to Juvenile Hall on Twin Peaks. As it was illegal to keep them locked up, locks were simply removed from the doors, but the cops, security guards, and prison-like environment stayed.

All that changed in 1988. The city shut down the status-offender unit at the Juvenile Hall, and to save money, decided to privatize it. At the same time, Bruce Fisher, a juvenile-attorney-turned-consultant, took over as executive director of Huckleberry, which at that point was operating as a nonprofit, with a $1 million yearly budget. Jumping on the opportunity to keep kids out of jails, staff wrote a proposal to be the city’s community-basis status-offender program. They won, their yearly operating budget doubled, and for the first time since it launched, Huckleberry Youth Programs and the city officially began working in unison.

Addicted to the momentum, Fisher found himself with a newfound responsibility not just to the youth, but to the city. “They asked if I’d be the interim Executive Director, and I said, ‘Yes, for three months,’ ” he tells SF Weekly. “Then I stayed for 26 years.”

As part of the new juvenile-delinquent program, police were instructed to bring runaways and status offenders to Huckleberry’s new Community Assessment and Resource Center (CARC), located on Gough Street just south of Market. The organization had two days to reunite kids with their families. If that wasn’t possible, they were sent to Juvenile Hall. It was a tight timeline. More family counselors were hired, and pressure mounted to resolve family disputes as quickly as possible.

The program continues today. A third of all youth arrested in San Francisco go to CARC, and not to Juvenile Hall.  

“If a minor is arrested, they’re 70 percent likely to be arrested again within a year,” says Styles. “The youth that come through our services are only 30 percent likely to be re-arrested.  We sit down with them and say, ‘You’re not a criminal. You did something you shouldn’t have, and that needs some resolution. But we want to know: Who are you? What do you like to do? What gets you excited?’ These are all questions that, if you go to Juvenile Hall, they’re not going to ask you.”

The next project Huckleberry took on fell right into its lap. After the juvenile-detention transition in the late 1980s, another issue appeared: Kids who arrived at Huckleberry House needing medical care would be trucked up to Juvenile Hall to receive it. With this gap in service, Fisher saw an opportunity to expand beyond the beds and counseling that the center offered. A section of the unfinished basement in the house was turned into a medical clinic, and he hired a nurse to treat youth 20 hours a week.

“Kids would come in to Huckleberry, then go home,” Fisher says. “But they’d come back weeks or months later, and we’d go, ‘Oh, did you run away again?’ and they’d say, ‘No, but can I see the nurse?’ ”

The return for care, Fisher learned, had a lot to do with access to reproductive health care and treatment from a confidential medical professional that was not the family pediatrician.

As demand increased and space became tight, Huckleberry applied for a large grant from the Robert Lee Johnson Foundation to launch the Cole Street Youth Clinic. In 1992, it received the grant, and the clinic is still open today.

“That became the first adolescent-health clinic in the city that focused on teenagers, specifically,” Fisher says.

Lateefah Simon, who grew up in Western Addition and is now on the board of directors for BART, attended the clinic when she was a teenager. “I used to go to the clinic — before I knew it was OK to take — and I would steal condoms and take them back to George Washington High School, and passed them out in the locker room. I remember getting caught one day, and being told, ‘You don’t have to steal condoms. You can take this whole box if you want.’ I remember taking a box of condoms to school one day, and there were 30 people surrounding me wanting the STD information and tools.”

Simon went on to be one of the clinic’s “peer educators,” who shared information on reproductive health and safe sex with other teenagers in the community. It was the presence of peer health educators that inspired Fisher to invest in his next program: the Huckleberry Wellness Academy.

“Many of our teen-health educators, who we thought were very talented kids, wanted to go to college, but they never got in,” he says. “We realized that they didn’t have the resources at home to help them apply to four-year schools; it’s competitive. So we created the Huckleberry Wellness Academy. It’s become very successful.”

The program works with high school-aged youth who hope to be the first in their family to go to college. Most start the program as sophomores and receive weekly help with schoolwork, SAT and ACT preparation, college applications, and counseling with family to prepare everyone for the college experience. If it’s a four-year school, Huckleberry counselors follow the student through the first two years; if it’s a two-year, they follow up for a year. “The dropout rate for first-generation college attendees in the first semester is horrendous,” Styles says. Those who go through the Wellness Program, however, have the support system to help them stay.

One young man named Martin struggled in school, and was skipping classes when he was brought into the Wellness Academy. Neither of his parents graduated from high school, and his motivation to keep up with schoolwork fell apart when another classmate told him that he’d never be a doctor, because he was Mexican. But Huckleberry’s resources helped him straighten out his path.

“I was interested in the program, firstly because it’s a medical program, and I’ve always been fascinated with the human body, and diseases, right,” he says. “But I wasn’t expecting that they would be such a big help with school work, and they would tutor me, they would pretty much tutor me in life if I had any problems. … I did not expect that that Huckleberry would be so involved with my life.”

Huckleberry Youth Program’s Executive Director Doug Styles stands in one of the crisis shelter’s therapy rooms. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

While many of Huckleberry’s programs were born out of an internally recognized need, some came from the outside. In the past few years, the center has begun work with trafficked youth.

“The city called and asked if we would take over for trafficked kids,” Fisher says. He was in the process of retiring when the situation arose, and Molly Brown, the director of programs at Huckleberry, stepped up to the plate. Huckleberry House is now the primary provider of intervention for trafficked youth in San Francisco. Referrals come in from schools, police, and even parents who know or suspect that youth are engaging in sex work.

“The intervention is pretty much an instant, 24-hour response to get on the street and go find the person,” Fisher says. “If nothing else safe exists, we bring them to Huckleberry House for a few days to figure out what goes on.

“It’s a difficult population to work with,” he adds, and the circumstances of a young person’s life are often to blame. “People coming through our exploited and trafficked program, the number of foster youth in there is unbelievable.”

Part of the struggle to find help for this population lies in San Francisco’s housing crisis, and the subsequent lack of foster homes within city borders. “Ninety percent of our youth are able to go to a safe space after coming to Huckleberry,” Styles says. “Some go back to family, or to other relatives, or to friends in the community.

“Most often, the rest go into child welfare,” he adds. “And because they’re older, that’s not a very good option. In San Francisco, there’s not a lot, so you’ll be placed in Stockton or somewhere else, and are likely to run away again.”

Today, Huckleberry House still maintains a runaway youth shelter, in the old purple Victorian that sits on the corner of Lyon and Page streets. The crowds that the shelter saw in its early days have dissipated, though as long as teenagers remain in San Francisco, the need for a safe space will be there.

“Culturally, there may be some differences, but there are a lot of the same issues,” Styles says, when asked how runaway youth have evolved in the past 50 years. “In the ’60s, there were people being kicked out of the house because of their gender identity, because of their sexual preference, because of all kinds of things. Some of that is just adolescence, like trying to figure out who you are.”

And its legacy is everywhere — evidenced by the letters from adults that the program still receives today.

Johanna, who is now 47, reached out to tell her story last year. “I was separated from my mother when I was two-and-a-half and raised by my abusive father,” she says. “I started running away when I was about 7 or 8 and I found living on the street was better than being at home.” Johanna eventually found her way to the crisis shelter. “I was abused my whole life and when I went to Huckleberry House, it was the end of it,” she says. “After Huckleberry House, I was never abused by my father again. You guys helped me find a better place to live.  I ended up OK, because even though my childhood was rough, I saw another side of life. Huckleberry House showed me what it was like to live in peace and I liked that — I loved it actually. I thought, ‘That’s the life I want,’ and it’s the path I chose.”

Today, Huckleberry Youth Programs is thriving. With 70 staff members and $6 million annual operating budget, the program helps hundreds of youth and families each year. From July 2015 to July 2016, Huckleberry held health education workshops for 4,739 youth in San Francisco and Marin counties. Counselors treated 574 youth, 183 of whom engaged in therapy with their families. Huckleberry’s Health Clinic treated 1,156 teenagers and young adults, and 238 kids received shelter and counseling services. A full 100 percent of the youth in Huckleberry’s Wellness Academy graduated from high school, and every single one of them enrolled in college. And 80 percent of the youth arrested and brought to Huckleberry’s CARC were not rearrested within the year following completion of the program.

The work is rewarding, and many of the Huckleberry’s staff are there to stay.

“I’ve worked at Huckleberry Youth Programs for over 20 years,” says Brooke Tao, direcrtor of fundraising. “I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. It’s like one big family. Young people, their families, staff, donors, board of directors, city departments, foundations, corporations the community — people who really, truly care about all young people — that’s the secret sauce.”

This month, Huckleberry will open the doors of its crisis shelter to the community, in celebration of its 50 year anniversary, to honor the staff and the “thousands upon thousands of youth who have found safety, solace and support within the walls of Huckleberry House.”

“At the core, we’re really about meeting the needs of youth who fall through the cracks,” Styles says. “Programs come and go, but the core has been how can we find the people who, with just a little bit of connection and strategy, can be right back on track? It tends to be those who should be seen, but aren’t. Clearly, the runaways were seen in the Haight, but the reasons they were running away is because they were forgotten. That kind of thinking is what’s carried us all these years.”

On Sunday, June 18, Huckleberry hosts a Summer of Love “old-school, family-friendly” block party on Page Street, complete with live music, DJs, food trucks, face painting, tie-dye dipping and a mural. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, 1292 Page St. will be open for public tours.

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