“They’re looking at us like we’re zoo animals,” a client mumbled under his breath to his friend as our aggressively large group of eight interns walked into Larkin Street Youth Services’ Engagement & Community Center (ECC) for the first time. We looked overeager and out of place as we entered all at once, clutching our notebooks and clearly unsure of how to begin fostering the bonds with clients we were told would develop over time. His comment turned one of my biggest worries for the first day of work into a reality — that I’d come off as stuck-up or condescending to the clients. I felt guilty, beginning to question whether what we were doing in San Francisco was truly going to make a significant positive impact on these homeless youth, or if we would end up taking away more from the experience than we were able to provide. I thought about the importance of a first impression, and how I had hoped to gain the clients’ trust. After some reflection, a bit later, we gave it a second try, this time leaving our notebooks behind and starting our own small card game until eventually a larger group had gathered and I began to get to know a few clients.
It’s weird to hear how matter-of-factly the clients, many of whom are my age, describe their own circumstances. “My parents just didn’t know how to take care of me,” one client brought up out of nowhere, in the middle of a game of dominoes, almost shockingly unfazed by her own reality she then went on to describe. It has been eye-opening to see first-hand how out of one’s control homelessness can be, a stark contrast with the generally scornful outlook on homelessness that I was predominantly surrounded with growing up. Many of the clients who work next to me at the computers express their frustrations as they apply for jobs, while others tell me how they already have jobs and yet are unable to afford housing in San Francisco. At the same time, it has been inspiring to see their generosity and gratitude; clients frequently offer to share their snacks or candy without hesitation. On one grocery trip I made with some of the other interns, a homeless man we were chatting with outside the store clearly felt obliged to offer us something in return for the snacks we gave him, offering some knock-knock jokes and a detailed explanation of his favorite game, “Ball-Ball” as a thank-you.
Since my first day, I’ve tried to spend a chunk of time in the ECC each day when I get the chance, because I enjoy developing relationships with the clients and it helps me internalize the direct impact of my projects, allowing me to better understand what is truly needed and how I can best put myself to work, in turn coming up with new project ideas of my own. Many of the clients have toddlers or infants that they bring along, who don’t necessarily have the daily stimulation or attention that young children typically crave, as their parents obviously face unique daily struggles just to take care of themselves and their children at a basic level. This has been heartbreaking, as they remind me of the children that I babysit and love at home. It’s crazy for me to process the differences in their access to opportunities that could help them reach their full potential, simply due to the circumstances they were born into. It has also made me more grateful for what I have, and I hope to use my own privilege to help reduce these disparities among the parenting youth and their children at least to some extent while I’m here.
My conversations with the youth at Larkin have honestly changed the way I see homelessness on the street; I am now more comfortable saying “hi” or nodding as I walk by on my way to work, hoping to make these people feel more human and acknowledged. As I continue with the rest of my internship, and delve deeper into my work, I aspire to empower even just one individual, help them feel valued and confident in their abilities, and provide the resources, knowledge and support for them to succeed.