Volunteering at Larkin Street Youth Services is a balancing act, and the seven of us interning there this summer are still finding our footing. As we interact with the Larkin Street youth, most of whom are older than us, we walk the line between professional and peer. We juggle openness and relatability with boundaries and humility.
I find that most of these moment-to-moment balances align naturally with a little bit of practice. Yet, I continue to struggle with one of them. How do we encourage clients without getting too emotionally invested? How do we offer support without suffering from compassion fatigue? How do we cope with secondary trauma without becoming calloused? Our ability to serve hinges on the balance between helping and hoping. Unfortunately, detachment and realism have never been my natural tendencies. (Fun fact: my a cappella group gave me the superlative,“Most Optimistic.”) So, despite many warnings from past DukeEngage participants, professors, teachers, family, and friends, I dove into the summer with all of the optimism in the world.
During our first week here, I met several clients who were about to get housing in one of Larkin Street’s Transitional Living Programs. I was absolutely ecstatic about their progress and plans. I thought something was finally going to work out for them! Then, suddenly, the plans fell through. Some decided to leave for other cities. Others got in trouble and lost the progress they had made in the housing process. I was heartbroken that, yet again, things weren’t going to work out. Meanwhile, no one else seemed surprised. “It is what it is,” someone sighed when I expressed my disappointment. This frustrated me even more, as it reminded me of the apathy and cynicism Larkin Street strives to counteract — These kids never change. Helping them is a waste of time.
I guess I reacted a bit prematurely. Ever since, I have come to appreciate Larkin Street’s philosophy that we cannot help people who do not want to help themselves. First, we have to show them that they can help themselves. I now focus on empowering, rather than guiding, the clients I meet in the community center. I asked myself, what empowers me? Well, my friends ask me for advice sometimes, and many of the people I admire treat my voice and opinions with value and respect. On the flip side, our clients have people telling them what to do all the time, and adults rarely ask for their opinions. How can you believe in yourself when no one else seems to care what you believe in?
So I started asking the clients for their opinions, on everything from coffee to GED tutoring to fashion to literature. Nothing seems to surprise them more than a staff member asking, “Hey, can I ask your advice?” or “So, what do you think about…” And, unsurprisingly, they have a lot to say! I cannot pretend that boosting clients’ self-confidence is The Solution to youth homelessness. But maybe these conversations help clients realize that they are worthy and capable of helping themselves. Then, Larkin Street can begin to help them with housing, education, employment, and health.
My fellow interns and other Larkin Street staff empower client voices in other ways. For instance, not only does Jeff’s creative writing workshop give participants the opportunity to share their stories and ideas, but it also asks clients to offer constructive criticism on each other’s writing and performances, giving them a chance to lead. Likewise, over the past few weeks, Jasmine and I have been working on a health education project. With the help of some artistic clients, we created an anonymous Q&A box for the front desk, where clients can submit their health-related questions anonymously. The Larkin Street Academy health class researches and writes the answers to their peers’ questions, which we post in the community center every week. These students are applying their enthusiasm for health, their new knowledge, and their researching skills to improve health within their own community.
Many of the events in the community center also highlight youth voices. We have been lucky to attend two of the Larkin Street Academy programs’ graduation ceremonies, during which every graduate shared their personal story and their path to success. Others got to take the mic during a recent radio show, which featured interviews with several clients about their perspectives on San Francisco’s homeless crisis. Programs like these show clients that they have experience worth sharing, and that they can take part in changing their own lives and communities.
I know that we cannot expect to “save” anyone, let alone San Francisco’s entire youth homeless population, in the eight short weeks we are here. Still, if some of our clients have to move on to other programs, I hope each of them can walk away with a little bit more confidence in their ability to create the lives they deserve.
Over the past five weeks, I have learned that blind optimism and overflowing empathy will crush me — and our clients — just as much as cynicism would. Nevertheless, even if it is optimistic, I have to believe in our capacity to help. I’d like to revise the statement from earlier in this post, that we cannot help clients who do not believe they can help themselves. We have to believe we can help, too.