Larkin Street on mental health, new barriers to housing, and resiliency in 2020

Young person working with Larkin Street staff at their drop-in space

Larkin Street on mental health, new barriers to housing, and resiliency in 2020

In depth with Larkin Street Youth Services

Larkin Street Youth Services offers a comprehensive spectrum of services to young people experiencing homelessness so they can move from crisis to stability—and three out of four youth who exit their program enter stable housing. But their mission has become uniquely complicated in 2020. Larkin Street’s nimble staff has been operating a shelter-in-place hotel, online counseling services, and other programs to meet shifting needs. Here, we connect with Development Director Clare Armbruster, who explains more about the work her team has been doing.

Q: The shelter system in San Francisco has been drastically interrupted due to social distancing. How has the COVID-19 crisis affected housing availability for youth?

A: The shelter system provides emergency housing for young people who need immediate shelter with minimum barriers. But the closures have made it extremely challenging for young people to come inside and get shelter. Additionally, youth haven’t been prioritized as part of the recovery planning, which means more are forced to be on the streets.

Some folks think young people are not vulnerable to COVID, but that’s a fallacy. Once youth are living on the street, they’re more vulnerable to infectious diseases. And even before COVID, the mortality rate for youth experiencing homelessness was 10 times higher than housed peers.

On a bright note, last year, we saw a 20% increase in the number of young people we were able to house at Larkin Street, which is remarkable. That was due to projects working towards cutting youth homelessness by 50% by 2023, and we’re making great headway on that goal. There’s also currently more housing available and costs have slightly decreased. Additionally, we’ve been running a shelter-in-place hotel for those who are medically vulnerable. But while these are some tremendous things to celebrate, we're still very much aware that 1,100 or more young people are outside now or living in situations that might be untenable.

Q: This year has certainly brought a lot of challenges. Has it brought any opportunities?

A: One need we’d actually already identified before the pandemic was tele-support for behavioral health. Generally, we wouldn’t roll out a program in one month—we’d be more thoughtful with testing and piloting—but we really needed to act quickly because a lot of youth have been reporting feelings of isolation and depression. And you might think, everybody has those, right? But for them, these feelings might be coupled with discrimination due to sexual orientation or color of their skin. Additionally, nearly 40% of the young people Larkin serves in housing have lost their jobs or had their hours dramatically reduced due to the pandemic. So these feelings really affect them in different ways, and now they’re able to talk with someone over video or text instead of coming in.

If youth really need to talk to someone in person, we also always have a clinician on-site. But tele-health is really valuable for us, because it’s so important that youth continue to have access to people they have relationships with. Even outside COVID times, it might be hard for some young people, especially those in subsidies, to get to us in person.

Q: How has the Dropbox Foundation grant money helped?

A: This year, along with increased costs, we’ve had to cut fundraising events and other revenue streams. But unrestricted funds from the Dropbox Foundation have allowed us to be more flexible, so we can expand in certain areas to meet the needs of the moment and get youth the critical services they need, like the tele-support I mentioned. Unrestricted funds also allow us to act quickly, which has been so important this year. We’re actually one of the only drop-in spaces that’s continually stayed open. A lot of non-profits in the city had to close because of costs and safety.

Q: The Black Lives Matter movement has brought an increased awareness to structural racism. In the context of homelessness, what dimensions do you think some of these conversations have missed?

A: It’s extremely important that people are paying more attention to the structural systems that have impeded people of color from building generational wealth for decades. This has led to overrepresentation within the homeless population, and almost half the youth we serve are Black. It’s a statistic that hasn’t been on many people’s radar but we’ve known it for a long time. And about half of the young people living on the street in San Francisco identify as LGBTQ. People at the intersection of those two are even more impacted by these complex systems, which can be really intense to move through. That’s also why behavioral health is an important piece of the conversation.

Q: What has given you hope lately?

A: The resiliency of the young people and their outlook on life. I had the privilege of hanging out with four of them for a video shoot recently, and it was such a humbling experience. One is going to school to be an environmental engineer. Another is a model. He walked in LA Fashion Week and just did a campaign for Forever 21 in New York. He was talking about how he got into that industry because he didn’t see himself represented—that on every level, his population is told where they’re supposed to be. He said Larkin Street was the first place someone told him that he can do whatever he wants. That day, I found myself laughing and crying, and I was like wait—that’s silly, to not have hope anymore. They’ve got it. They have so much hope. And they’re the future.

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2020