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Huckleberry House — a refuge for youths in dire need

Sun, 30 Dec 2012 17:28:00
5 / 5 (1 Votes)
Article by:
Sarah Morgan
Staff of Huckleberry House includes [L-R:] Sharon Lacay, therapist; Katie Reisinger, program director; and Debbie Linley, case manager. Photo by Leland Fox.

“Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them,” Lady Bird Johnson famously said, and it is true. From the father who trains his son to be a shortstop, to the mother who cultivates a scientific mind in her daughter, a child’s future is shaped today.

Thousands of youths in San Francisco alone are dealing with homelessness, low access to a quality education, poor health care and a dismal economy. What do those children’s futures hold? Huckleberry Youth Programs is a nonprofit committed to providing better answers to that question.

More than 170,000 youths have found assistance at Huckleberry Youth Programs when they have been kicked out of their homes, have trouble with schoolwork, get arrested for a nonviolent crime, and when they want to apply for college. For almost 50 years, Huckleberry Youth Programs have served the youth of San Francisco and Marin — not only for one visit, but for the long term as well.

“It started in 1967, during the Summer of Love in the Haight,” Heather Mathews, director of communication for Huckleberry Youth Programs, began the story. “It was one of those things where youth came to San Francisco for the cultural revolution. Once they got here there wasn’t anywhere for a lot of those people to go, so Huckleberry House started in response to the young people needing food and shelter and just some place to be.”

Huckleberry House is the nation’s oldest program for runaway and homeless youth ages 11 to 17 in this country. In addition to providing shelter, the house on Page Street offers counseling services and crisis intervention. These needs have been constant since Huckleberry House opened its doors, but there was more to be done.

“After the shelter started, the youth needs changed, and the environment changed, and HIV became a factor,” Mathews continued. “And so our clinic — which is now on Cole Street — was started in the basement of Huckleberry House. We were doing HIV testing and education.”

The clinic outgrew itself and is now operating as a multiservice center on Cole Street in partnership with the Department of Public Health. In addition to testing, counseling services and case management are provided for ages 12 through 24 and their families. Over 900 youths received medical services at the center during 2011–2012. 

Most of Huckleberry’s growth has been overseen by Bruce Fisher, the executive director since 1988. Fisher has implemented several programs with the hopes of extending support beyond just one day.

“In our opinion, it’s all about the young people having a caring adult that is willing to stick with them and provide support over a long period of time,” Fisher explained. “And many of these youth do not have that.”

“I think our staff is really trying to make a difference by making a personal commitment to work with young people,” Fisher continued, giving his staff credit for making the programs a success. “It takes one person to make a commitment, so the kid thinks there is somebody there helping him.”

Huckleberry Youth Programs tackled the problem of juvenile recidivism with the Huckleberry Community Assessment and Referral Center — CARC. Local law enforcement and Huckleberry partner together to avoid booking youths in jail for nonviolent crimes, but instead allow the youth an opportunity to speak with a case manager and probation officer.  Each year more than 600 youths — approximately 30% of the arrested youths in San Francisco — are helped by this program.

“One of the things that I think makes a huge difference is that we are a strength-based organization, so we’re looking for the  youth’s strengths rather than when they are brought to CARC — ‘Oh, you just got arrested. How horrible!’ We’re really looking into what are this young persons strengths and how can we help them learn something out of this experience and grow, and find something positive that they can do,” Mathews added.

Wanting to offer more academic and longer term resources, Huckleberry Wellness Academy was begun. The Wellness Academy serves as a career pipeline program helping at-risk youths become the first generation in their families to graduate college. The academy was such a success in San Francisco that Marin County asked Huckleberry Youth Programs to create a wellness academy there. More than 136 youths participated in the academies during 2011–2012.

“The program grew quicker than we thought,” Fisher explained. “We now have maybe 60 students in San Francisco, 60 students in Marin — that’s 120. Plus, we have another 60 in college, so that’s 180 students who are active in the wellness program.”

The sons and daughters who are struggling academically or have no place to live are not the only family members who need help finding their strengths. Parents Turn, which began in 2012, is a six-week program helping parents learn how to deal with having a teenager in the house.

“One of our aims is to provide a shelter for kids so they aren’t on the street. They’re not at risk. They are in a safe place where they get supportive help,” Fisher said. “And the other is to try and see if we can’t change the family functioning to improve it so there’s not fights between parent and child all the time.”

Fisher said more often than not it is parents who kick out teens because they do not know what to do anymore except call the cops. “Parents who come and say, ‘You know actually I love my kid; I just don’t know what to do. The kids in my face all the time; the kid runs away; the kid doesn’t come home. I’m really frustrated and angry and sad.’”

Getting to the source of the problem is a Huckleberry practice, not only for the parents, but also for the youths they serve.

“The bottom line of all our programming is to kind of figure out what’s at the root of the problems at home or with the youth,” Mathews said. “So at Huckleberry House, we also have therapists. There’s basically counseling and therapy at every one of our programs, because when we see issues with a youth coming to Huckleberry House or a youth being arrested and coming to CARC there’s always something under the surface that can be brought to light and be worked on.”

Finding the source isn’t always easy, however, when you are trying to communicate with a teenager. That’s when staff put it together: Teens often will not talk to adults, but they will talk to other teens. A peer education program was created, allowing youths to be leaders and conduct frank conversations about body image, healthy relationships and sex.

On top of all these challenges is the necessity of fundraising. The funding for all of these programs comes from government grants, foundation grants and annual fundraisers — including Beach Blanket Babylon in the fall, and a Kentucky Derby themed auction in the spring. Huckleberry Youth Programs also partners with Cirque du Soleil for a fall fundraiser every other year. Between these efforts and creating public-private partnerships — for example, working with the San Francisco Department of Public Health — has allowed Huckleberry House to not only sustain services,  but to add to them.

“I think it’s been a very difficult time for nonprofits, because when we had the recession individuals were giving less, foundations lost a lot of money in the stock market — so they started cutting their grants, and then the counties are under pressure to reduce their grants,” Fisher said.

No matter how difficult it has been to raise funds and maintain them, Fisher still believes teenagers have a rougher time than a nonprofit trying to raise money.
“But I think the other thing to say in many respects is it’s getting harder for teenagers today. The economy is bad. Students are exposed to more violence. They, you know, can’t make assumptions that they can be safe when they walk from home to school or school to home,” he explained. “They can’t make assumptions that if they do well they can get in to college. They can’t make assumptions that if they somehow can get through college they can get a job.

“So I think there’s more stress. So we are actually trying to increase our mental health programs because we see kids who are suicidal, and we see kids, actually once in awhile, actually commit suicide.”

How the staff, volunteers, youth and families work together to handle that stress is what determines the future. In the 2011–2012 fiscal year alone, 7,435 youths attended a Huckleberry health education workshop in Marin or San Francisco, 954 received medical services in San Francisco, 379 received mental health services and 136 participated in the wellness academies. The future for those is, hopefully, a little brighter.

More information about Huckleberry House can be found at www.huckleberryyouth.org/. There is also a 24-hour hotline offering 24-hour support for teens at 415.621.2929, or by calling 1-800-runaway. Mentors are currently being recruited for youths ages 11–17. Those who are interested may contact Harvey Lozada, case manager, at 415.437.2500.


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