SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — There is a hidden homeless population, often by design: street kids. When children end up homeless, it’s usually because someone in their life dropped the ball. Dr. Coco Auerswald of UC Berkeley says it’s up to society to pick them up.
“Who is homeless? Kids of color, African American, Latino, gay, trans, bisexual kids,” Auerswald said.
Auerswald is an associate professor of Community Health Sciences at UC Berkeley. She studies youth homelessness and points out that it affects more young people of color.
“60% of kids who are homeless in Berkeley are African American. This is not a 60% African American city by any means,” Auerswald said.
Rika Abir says being a young, black, transgender woman is directly related to her ending up on the street. “When I came outside, I was scared, really, really afraid,” Abir said.
Abir spent her first night on the street in San Francisco at age 19, right around the time she came out as transgender.
“What started my homelessness was my father. He didn’t accept me for who I am, he burned my clothes, because I was presenting as female,” Abir said.
So she moved from Sacramento with no family and no connections to San Francisco. She says strangers on the street almost immediately started to chip away at her.
“I was raped on the streets at least twice. Times got desperate for me, so I had to do sex work because I didn’t have a place to live,” Abir said.
“If a young woman is on the street for 48 hours, she has nearly 100% chance of being trafficked for sex,” Auerswald said.
While you might find Abir’s story shocking, Auerswald says it’s textbook. During her research at UC Berkeley, Auerswald found youth homeless are disproportionately black and LGBTQ.
49% of the Bay Area is made up of people of color, yet 80% of our homeless youth are people of color. 12% of the region’s population identify as LGBTQ, yet 46% of our homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, according to a report on how to end youth homelessness by Larkin Street Youth Services.
Auerswald says intervention for young people experiencing homelessness is critical, especially as they begin to develop self-esteem.
“If you and I were passed out on the sidewalk, people wouldn’t step over us and keep walking. That’s what we do every day because that’s what we’ve been taught…young people are going to internalize that it’s their fault and that they’re objects or animals to be ignored,” Auerswald said.
It’s also an extremely expensive epidemic; every night, about 1,300 young people are homeless in San Francisco. Statewide, that number is 15,000. Auerswald says the public cost is $1 billion for just one night. Over the course of their lifetime, that number jumps to $15 billion.
“The cost of leaving people on the street is exorbitant and it’s a cost we can’t afford,” Auerswald said.
Dr. Auerswald wants to see the state implement a plan to end youth homelessness. Right now, California doesn’t have one. She also wants to see a law implemented to make it illegal to discharge anyone from jail, foster care or a hospital onto the street.
The state of Washington passed such a law called the Homeless Youth Prevention Act and Protection Act in 2015.
In spite of everything, Abir is optimistic. She’s now permanently housed, thanks in large part to Larkin Street Youth Services.
“I would say I’m a lucky person. It could have been worse…having a place puts me in a space to focus on ways to get ahead in life,” Abir said.
She’s also starting an internship and wants to work as an activist to help LGBTQ youth like her. That’s one solution San Francisco is getting right. Communities where youth are given a voice and decision making authority have seen the greatest reductions in youth homelessness in the past two years.
San Francisco’s youth homeless count is down 10% since 2017. Both Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas are also seeing major decreases.
Abir says she wants to work as an activist to fight for people like her who have so much life ahead of them and desperately need a hand up off the street.
“I haven’t given up, I haven’t completely lost myself,” Abir said.