Ken Williams | Editor
Urban Street Angels offer lifelines to homeless youth
Steven still has nightmares about the time, when he was only 3 or 4 years old, that his drug-addicted mother got really angry with him, grabbed him by the ankles, then held him upside down over the toilet bowl — his head inches from the water — as she flushed and flushed and flushed.
The little boy’s physical, mental and verbal abuse continued for many years. With no dad involved in his life, nor any adults who cared much about his health and welfare, Steven lived in a hellish world where “normal” meant constantly seeing a pile of drugs and needles on the coffee table and his mother strung out and violent.
When he turned 12, Steven left home, begging friends to let him temporarily stay with them. He dropped out of school. By age 17, he was on his own, living on the streets. But the cold, brutal Michigan winters took its toll, and Steven decided he wanted to live somewhere warm — and that’s how he ended up in San Diego around the time he turned 21.
With Steven’s luck what it was, he arrived in America’s Finest City during last year’s worst weather event. That’s when he made the call that would change his life.
Sheltering in North Park
“We rescued Steven in Ocean Beach during the three-day El Nino storm, along with his companion, his dog,” said Eric Lovett, founder and executive director of Urban Street Angels, a 5-year-old nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with a mission to help end youth homelessness in San Diego. Lovett shared the story of Steven, whose real name is being withheld to protect his privacy.
“We brought Steven to our shelter and we helped him out,” said Lovett, who has 25 years of experience working with the homeless.
Urban Street Angels operate an emergency overnight shelter on Tuesdays in space rented from Missiongathering Christian Church, located on Polk Street in North Park. Jerry Troyer, a longtime La Mesa resident who is one of the founding members of the Angels, is the shelter coordinator who has just been promoted to assistant director.
Troyer said the shelter takes in “transitional age youth” typically between the ages of 17 and 25, people like Steven who they find on the streets of San Diego or who desperately call them for help. The shelter can accommodate up to 24 youth at a time.
“We feed them dinner, let them shower and clean up, offer them haircuts, provide medical services, give them clothing and hygiene supplies, and they have a warm and safe place to sleep for the night,” Troyer said. “We serve them breakfast Wednesday morning before they go back out in the world.”
Troyer emphasized that the Angels have no religious affiliation, unlike most local organizations that serve the homeless.
“We are not religious or spiritual,” he said. “We are not about saving souls or proselytizing. If you want to turn somebody off, hit them over the head with a Bible!”
Mind you that this message is delivered by a man whose background is the ministry.
“We are not a faith-based organization,” Lovett agreed, “but all of us come from that background.”
A home and a job
The Angels also operate a transitional housing and employment program for homeless youth called “8 West” — think Interstate 8 West to get to Ocean Beach, where a lot of homeless youth congregate.
At an undisclosed location in San Diego, they have a group home housing 10 young men and behind the main house is a “granny flat” housing six young women. Three house managers supervise the residents.
“These 16 young people are working toward preparing themselves for a productive life,” Troyer said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“About 80 percent of our homeless youth come from our shelter,” he said about the 8 West program.
More than 3,000 young people are living and sleeping on the streets of San Diego, out of an estimated 9,000 homeless people.
San Diego has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S., and the problem seems to be getting worse.
Lovett figures that about half of the homeless youth served by the Angels are from the San Diego area, while the other half come from out of town or another state. The Angels regularly find homeless youth sleeping in parks in Ocean Beach, North Park and Mission Hills.
Additionally, Lovett calculates that about 75 percent of the 8 West residents have come out of foster care, where youths are unceremoniously dumped out of the system when they turn 18. Most have no job skills or prospects and no money for housing and living expenses. Most end up living on the streets to survive.
“Many of the kids don’t know about California’s AB 12 law,” he said, adding that the 2010 measure extended state benefits to foster children to age 21.
Although LGBT Americans comprise about 10 percent of the population, an overwhelming number of homeless youths identify as a sexual minority. Lovett said the national average of LGBT homeless youth is around 43 percent, but in San Diego that number is more than 50 percent.
“And that is just the ones who identify as being LGBT,” Lovett said, noting that millennials tend to be gender fluid and reluctant to check off identity boxes. “At least 20 percent of our homeless youth chose not to tell us how they identify. If I had to guess, the figure might be 60 percent to 65 percent LGBT.”
LGBT teenagers who come out to their parents and friends don’t always get a warm and loving reaction. Instead of acceptance they get rejection. Lovett and Troyer hear all the time from LGBT teens who were kicked out of their homes after coming out to their families.
“We are the only [county-funded] homeless housing program in San Diego that welcomes transgender people in the gender with which they identify,” Troyer said. The San Diego LGBT Community Center also takes in transgender people in its youth housing program.
It’s difficult enough to be homeless, but adding the extra layer of being LGBT makes their lives even more challenging. Some faith-based agencies, for example, refuse to serve LGBT clients.
Because almost all of the homeless youth are suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Angels provide outpatient therapy.
“They need a safe place to talk about their feelings,” Lovett said. “Most have PTSD, are depressed and have a lot of anxiety. Most have never been taught how to deal with these issues. That’s why therapy is so important.”
Why they do it
Troyer and Lovett get emotional talking about their lifesaving work. Troyer had to pause twice during the interview to compose himself as he brushed away tears in his eyes.
“The point I want to make,” Troyer said, “is that we are in the business of providing unconditional love, which is something that some of these kids have never experienced. That’s our business.”
But that’s not all.
“The reason we do this for this particular age group,” Troyer said, “is because they are incredibly underserved by programs that deal with the homeless. Most of the other programs in San Diego deal with either homeless veterans or chronically homeless people who have addiction problems.
“We believe that if we get homeless youth off the streets before they reach the age of 25,” he continued, “we can break the cycle and help reduce the number of chronically homeless people.”
Lovett added that it is a difficult challenge to get older homeless people off the streets.
“When somebody has been on the streets for 20 years,” he said, “it is hard to get them to change their ways.”
As for homeless youth, Lovett said the key is building trust.
“I cannot help someone who cannot help himself,” he said. “If you are willing to change, we can help you. If you are willing to move forward, we can help you. We can show you: This is what your worth is. You may fall, and most of us will, but we will be there to pick you up.”
The youths who are accepted into the 8 West program must make a number of important commitments, including remaining clean and sober, but the most important of which is to agree to earn a GED if they dropped out of school and/or attend community college classes. They also must agree to find a job or work in the program’s “high-end soap-making business,” Troyer said. The handmade soap is sold online at 8west.org and raises money to help sustain the program.
Success stories like Steven’s are mounting, Lovett and Troyer said. But neither man is resting on his laurels.
“Our goal, within three years, is to house 50 young men and 50 young women,” Lovett said. “And in five years, we want to house 100 young men and 100 young women.”
The immediate objective, they said, is to persuade six other churches to join their cause and sponsor a nightly emergency shelter for homeless youth.
“We would like to have a shelter every night a week at seven different churches,” Lovett said, noting that the Angels are in talks with a church in Pacific Beach and another church in North Park about joining their cause.
“Steven joined our housing program in March,” Lovett said. “Since then, he has gotten a full-time job and is now the manager of a high-end carwash. He has also earned his GED.”
Lovett said he is so pleased to see Steven thriving. He knows how hard it is for homeless youth, who have difficulty trusting adults after living in abusive situations in their childhood, to express their emotions. Just the other day, Lovett said he pulled into the carwash to get his vehicle cleaned and got a chance to speak with Steven. He learned that Steven is doing so well at his job that he might get to run his own carwash franchise.
“For the first time, Steven said thank you for helping me,” Lovett recalled, his voice choking with emotion. “And he said, ‘I love you.’
“I must say, his pathway forward is very inspiring.”
—Ken Williams is editor of Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at @KenSanDiego, Instagram at @KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.
Tax-deductible donations by check can be mailed to: Urban Street Angels, 3090 Polk Ave., San Diego, CA 92104.