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The Tenderloin: San Francisco’s most notorious neighborhood, and where our internships are located.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard many things to describe, or maybe even justify, why people are homeless. It’s their fault; they dropped out of school; they’re addicted to drugs. The list goes on. In the case of the only homeless person that I ever remember seeing in my hometown, “He must be mentally ill– look at that pink, princess backpack he always carries.” Even here in San Francisco, an Uber driver explained to me that “the problem is that they’re lazy.”

The clients I have met at Larkin Street Youth Services are the opposite of these assumptions. In fact, the youth I have met here are just like me and the other Duke interns. They love playing scrabble, card games, qwirkle and chess (chess is so competitive here!). They like to read about and discuss subjects such as psychology, computer science and physics. They like to attend workshops on dance, poetry and art. One client, who I talk to often, was a member of the swim team when he was in school, just like I was. They have dream careers and aspirations. Another client I work with dreams of opening her own bake shop. They just don’t have the privileges that we, luckily, were born with.

Graduating high school, attending college, getting a decent job, I used to think of those things as no big deal. Maybe it isn’t, for someone who grew up with resources and supportive parents in a wealthy, suburban town. But this DukeEngage experience has forced me to wonder, what if I didn’t grow up with resources and a supportive family? What if the town I grew up in wasn’t such a nice place? Would I be any better off than the youth that I work with? If not, would I be thought of as lazy, as stupid, as a druggie? Would I be thought of as these things, despite the fact that with resources and support, I was accepted to one of the top universities in the country? If so, what could these young people do given the proper resources? As a community, we must think of homeless youth as they actually are: resilient, tough, hard-working, fun, passionate, curious.

At the end of high school, one of my teachers wrote in my yearbook, “You’re full of potential.”  I still remember this clearly because of how those simple words had such an impact on my life. If each of the young people I have met this summer had a yearbook for me to sign, I would write those same four words in each one. And it’s the truth.