While San Francisco was the place where I experienced some of the worst lows of my life (being homeless and living on the streets), it was also where the pieces of it came back together. When I left the city in 1997, shortly after turning 21, it was as someone who could hold a steady job, paid her bills and never bounced a check, had earned a bartending certificate, and was hopeful about the future.
Fast-forward to 2005. I was in the middle of my first year at Yale University, and reflected on how far I had come. I realized I had never thanked the people who had helped me when I was 16-years-old and alone in a strange city. I had not forgotten it was Larkin Street Youth Services (LSYS) that gave me shelter, medical care, food, and advice. I wrote a letter and told them if there was ever anything that I could do for them to let me know. Soon after, a response arrived. There was something I could do for LSYS - speak at their annual fundraiser, and tell my story.
I had mixed feelings about this invitation. First, I wasn’t sure I was ready to return to the city. The place held many memories for me. It was one thing to think about San Francisco within the safety of my mind, and another to go there and see the hardships and struggles of others like me in person. Secondly, while I knew that LSYS needed to show their funders their successes to raise money, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to do it. However, I had told them I would do whatever I could to help. I agreed.
The taxi from the airport drove me through many familiar sections of the city. I smiled when I saw a familiar restaurant, or a bus stop where I remembered waiting with friends. Then I remembered that I had no idea what happened to some of them, and others I knew were dead. It was bittersweet.
That year, the 2005 LSYS annual “Paving the Way” fundraiser was held at the Ritz Carlton. The opulence of the hotel contrasted sharply with my previous experience of the city. I was escorted into a large ballroom filled with tables, food, and wine. Jewels glittered on the necks and fingers of women wearing fine cocktail dresses, and the men reminded me of penguins with so many black suits and white shirts. I never imagined I would stand before a crowd of hundreds of wealthy San Franciscans, all waiting to listen to me and other formerly homeless youth tell our stories. At the time, the mayor of the city was Gavin Newsom. I was later told later that he was supposed to introduce me, but had been held up at another event. I don’t recall who ended up introducing me, but when I was called to the podium my heart felt like it wanted to jump out of my chest. I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand, clutched it tightly, and made my way to the front of the room. I hoped my words would help those people understand what I, and others like me, had been through. And I hoped they would see past our many failings and recognize the potential underneath. This was the speech I gave that night:
“Good evening. Nearly 12 years ago, I was a 16-year-old from Connecticut who had endured a tumultuous home life, suffered from severe depression, and had ultimately been forced to live on my own. For a while I lived with friends, but I began to feel that I was a burden. Like many other runaways, I wanted a fresh start; I wanted to go someplace where no one knew me, and where the landscape did not constantly remind me of failed relationships and painful memories. So, I bought a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco, and began a journey that altered the course of my life and has now brought me back to the city and here with you this evening.
When I first arrived in San Francisco, I witnessed things I had previously only experienced from afar. Many of the kids I met were severe drug addicts, prostitutes, or HIV positive. Many of them suffered brutal beatings on the streets and some even died due to drug overdoses or suicide. Yet we shared common life experiences and these people became my surrogate family. Life on the streets is a relentless struggle; a colossal challenge that requires persistence and determination to overcome. This was how I first arrived to the Larkin Street drop-in center. There, an understanding case manager counseled me and encouraged me to return to school, and a team of compassionate staff and volunteers worked hard to make the drop-in center an inviting and comfortable refuge. It was these people who helped me to look towards the future and not dwell on the past. Larkin Street volunteers and staff helped me put the pieces of my life back together. They provided me with opportunities to return to school, support and skills to find work, and succeeded in rescuing me from a short, anguished life on the streets.
During the following years, I earned my high school equivalency certificate, cultivated a better relationship with my family, worked steadily, and overcame my struggle with depression. Since that time, I spent several years traveling and working, and also as a volunteer with Volunteers for Peace. I returned to the U.S. to earn a college degree and graduated three years later summa cum laude with several awards. During my undergraduate studies, I often worked two jobs yet I also volunteered. I believe my experience on the streets taught me how important it is to reach out to others and to be compassionate. Last year, I was awarded a prestigious scholarship to continue my studies at Yale University. I expect to graduate next May with my Master Degree and aspire to work with a non-profit organization and contribute to a sustainable future.
Although my life is very different now, I have not forgotten my past, and Larkin Street is a part of that. I remember what it was like to be someone who was suffering and recall how they reached out to me and offered me help, guidance, and support. I am impressed and encouraged by how much Larkin Street has grown in the past decade and how many support services they have to offer homeless youth, and to young people transitioning from life on the streets. I would like to personally thank the Board members, staff, and volunteers at Larkin Street Youth Services, and also each one of you that is here tonight for your commitment to providing homeless teens and young adults with opportunities to better their lives. Without people like you my accomplishments, and those of other Larkin Street clients, would be far more difficult to achieve.
In closing, I recall the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Thank you.”
As I stepped down from the podium to a round of enthusiastic applause, I wondered if my story, and my being there that night, would make a difference. During that visit, I focused only on the fundraiser and meeting with youth transitioning from life on the streets at LSYS. I did not sightsee, seek out old acquaintances, or visit any of the places I used to hang out. I wasn’t ready to see those places or people.
That night, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to provide services for homeless youth. The generosity of those people brought me to tears. It was they who had helped me during my struggles. Without funding, organizations like LSYS cannot do the work they do.
Consider donating to Larkin Street Youth Services (www.larkinstreetyouth.org) or to another organization that provides services to homeless teens and people. I am proof that your gift is a worthwhile investment.