Berkeley community should do more to support YEAH! homeless shelter

illustration of YEAH! church closing
Ann Liu/Staff

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Many individuals are opposed to the relocation of the YEAH! youth shelter. Because Berkeleyside further explained the opposition to this relocation, we are featuring three perspectives from UC Berkeley students who spent the last year volunteering in the shelter and getting acquainted with the youth. These testimonials will serve to represent the Berkeley community that supports this move and offer insight from folks who will be impacted by this issue.

Sahra Aalaei, sophomore:

I’ve been working with YEAH! for about a year now, and the goal has always been to make a lasting impact on the Berkeley community. 

YEAH! has already made a huge difference in providing for homeless youth in Berkeley. They provide beds, hot meals and clinics on jobs and resume-building, as well as a sense of community. Without YEAH!, these resources are no longer accessible. Additionally, the problems of homeless youth will only get bigger as they age. Without these tools, they can grow into homeless adults with more severe issues. Addressing these issues with a youth shelter is the most proactive solution. 

Shelters can’t do it by themselves. It takes community support and pooled resources to actually make a shelter like this work. YEAH! proudly serves traditionally underserved and ignored members of even the homeless community. For example, trans or genderqueer youth know that they have a home at YEAH! Without YEAH!, these at-risk subsets of the homeless population are exposed to far more danger. Trans youth who don’t have access to medical help with transitioning or mental health resources are at a massive risk for assault, suicide and mental illness. They are also frequently incarcerated in prisons that might not align with their gender identity, which exacerbates all of the issues above. This contributes to the cycle of death, hate crimes and wrongful imprisonment that plagues trans+ youth.

Sathvik Gowda, senior:

A youth who commutes multiple hours a day to community college, a youth who does back-breaking work in construction and landscaping, a youth who uses financial aid resources to finally get his own apartment. These are the profiles of people that I have the opportunity to work with at YEAH!. Some residents in the proposed neighborhood, however, claim that these youth will do nothing but loiter outside liquor stores or ride with the local gangs. My experience tells me that this notion is absurd.

Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who represents the proposed district, stated that “we’re just concerned about tossing minnows in a pool of sharks.” Contrary to Bartlett’s concerns, YEAH! is a place to call home that provides a reprieve from the lack of stability in these people’s lives. Members of the community ought to spend time with YEAH! youth before making snap judgments. I learned that the youth at this shelter have a close-knit community that cares for and depends on each other in the same way we lean on each other at UC Berkeley. It is my unequivocal belief that welcoming these youth will be met with mutual respect and genuine gratitude. Tragically, the alternative for most of these youths is permanent homelessness, incarceration or a broken home. Losing YEAH! is far worse than swimming with “sharks;” it’s being tossed out of the ocean entirely.

Lillian Shallow:

Homelessness is hard to look at. I volunteer at YEAH! and still shuffle past people on the street asking for change. I still make judgments about them. No one wants their community plagued with youth homelessness, so I understand the community’s opposition. The shame is a common reaction towards homelessness. But the Berkeley community should not be ashamed of its opposition to this new shelter. I think this reaction is atrocious, but we shouldn’t be ashamed because shame paralyzes us.

In stopping this new shelter from being built, your passive shame can turn into active engagement. You could be the ones taking people out of safe beds at night. You could become part of the reason why these kids go hungry. You aren’t just ignoring them anymore; it could be your fault. If you are able to look these youth — these resilient, vulnerable youth — in the eyes and tell them that you are willing to endanger them for your own comfort, then be my guest. You don’t have to be involved in finding the solution to youth homelessness. If you prefer shame and passivity, that is your prerogative. It is not your place, however, to condemn them because it makes you uncomfortable. That is just cruel.

If you want to take action, there is another Berkeley City Council vote on Oct. 16, so please speak out. If you would like to volunteer with YEAH!, email [email protected] or visit www.covenanthousecalifornia.org/yeah-shelter/ to learn more.

Lillian Shallow is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying molecular and cell biology and Spanish.