Back and Forth: Director of Youth Spirit Artworks

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Rachael Garner/File

Leading up to the 2016 general election, homelessness alleviation has been a major platform for almost every Berkeley candidate. Berkeley community members have taken it upon themselves to find unique ways to empower and systematically improve the lives on the city’s low-income and homeless population. Youth Spirit Artworks provides training and jobs within the arts for low-income and homeless youth ages 16 to 25. The program seeks to make the voices of marginalized youth heard while providing its aspirants, the term used for youth participating in the program, with the experience, self-confidence and skills for the future. I sat down with Sally Hindman, director of Youth Spirit Artworks, to talk about the program as well as its recent partnership with Street Spirit, a publication concerning and disturbed by local homeless communities.

DC:  Elderly people comprise a significant percent of the Berkeley homeless community, yet the YSA programs are open to 16- to 25-year-olds. What was the reasoning for focusing on youth experiencing homelessness?

SH: Traditionally, youth from around the country come to Berkeley and the Bay Area because it is a more welcoming and accepting environment. We have a lot of youth that have been rejected from their home for reasons like being LGTBQ+ community or improper treatment of mental health. The Bay Area also has many people of color who are marginalized. We just have so many young people trying to make it work here, but the high cost of living amongst systemic factors creates a huge need for youth-based services.

 DC: How do aspirants typically join the program?

SH: We have about 50 percent come to Youth Spirit from programs that serve homeless youth communities. And actually, about a third come from referrals from friends in the program. They have friends in the program who are having a good time and think they would enjoy it as well. The rest are through relationships with (local youth advocacy and shelter center) YEAH! and Berkeley Unified School District.

DC: Why did you see art as the best outlet for helping low-income youth communities opposed to directing resources into other types of services like housing or technical training?

SH: We have these six vocational pathways where students can learn a plethora of skills, but we really believe art can also be a vehicle for youth dealing with trauma or despair. We have huge numbers of youth with PTSD, and art is a wonderful way of processing things. It can be therapeutic.

DC: Do you have counselors on site?

SH: We one full-time social worker and hopefully will be adding one in December. The city of Berkeley has asked us for a proposal of things we need, which will hopefully be added to the mid-year budget to be passed Nov. 29. Our budget was cut 40 percent June 9 of this year; we are hoping the money will be restored, though, and added to in the next six months.

DC: Have you had to make any cut backs because of that?

SH: Starting last year, we also provided a Winter Day Time shelter for homeless youth, so that when YEAH!, the youth homeless shelter, closed at 8 a.m., youth could immediately have a place to go from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Last winter, we were able to provide a safe space for homeless youth with 24/7 indoor services during the winter months. For now, we can only do our winter daytime shelter four months out of a year. But with our funding back, we are open 6:30 to 8:30 in winter and hopefully can move into having these hours year round. We want homeless youth to have an indoor space year round.

DC: Does Youth Spirit Artworks participate in any community or policy advocacy?

SH: Yes, our students within the community organizing pathway choose what they want to advocate for. Some specific issues they work on are the tiny house project for specifically youth-led affordable housing and making more benefits at 2229 Adeline; their primarily focus is on affordable housing, stopping gentrification and youth justice issues like criminalization of young people and LGBTQ+.

DC:   Have you pursued any collaboration with the UC Berkeley community?

SH: We have a relationship with the public service center and recently received one chancellor’s grant to create a parklet for showcases and another for our youth to do story-recording for long-term residents of South Berkeley. We love having volunteers from UC Berkeley and encourage it!

DC: Are there any common threads of inspiration or ideas through the art created?  

SH: Some of the topics are LGBT rights and allyship — freedom for everyone to be themselves and accepted. We also have a collaboration with Beyond This Prison, our youth have dialogues with people inside our prison system and really explored their wisdom. Many youth paint use quotes from these individuals in their artwork.

DC: For homeless vendors as well as the community at large, there has been huge relief about the YSA decision to partner with Street Spirit. Was there any disagreement within the board or within YSA at large about taking on the responsibility?

SH:What actually solidified our decision was our youth — we met all together on Sept. 29 with the board, all our staff and all the youth in our program. After we gave the initial proposal about acquiring street spirit, and our board was worried about sustaining it and staff was afraid about more work, but the youth just had a passionate and overwhelming response to take on Street Spirit.

DC: Thank you so much for speaking with me! As we move to vote next week, are there any bills on the ballot or specific candidates you feel strongly about in relation to the needs of low-income and homeless youth?

SH: I think Berkeley is at a political crossroads — it’s very frightening how large a role real estate is playing in our election. Everyone should be concerned that the real estate industry is really trying to control our City Council and I’m afraid for longtime residents and low-income individuals who may not afford to live here with rising home prices. People need to vote with that deep concern in mind.

DC: Lastly, are there any events or new murals coming up for the community to be excited about?

SH: We just participated as one of the lead organizations in Bay Area mural festivals and will be completing three new murals with help of community! One is at the corner of Adeline and Alcatraz and another is being done on each side of our building, and we are also creating a mosaic on the front of the building. We have an open house Saturday and Sunday for the holidays and hope people will stop by and buy our art!