Oakbook | From Jerry Brown to homeless youth
Kima was sitting in a jail cell in Sacramento on prostitution charges when she thought of a caseworker she had met once in Oakland. So she called the number on an old business card and hoped for the best.
“I didn’t know what to do, and she had seemed nice,” Kima says.
The caseworker picked up Kima from jail and brought her to the Oakland branch of Covenant House, which is part of an international organization that shelters homeless youth.
Like other Covenant House residents, who all asked that their last names be withheld, Kima fell into prostitution after her mother abandoned her. She was 13, and living in Brooklyn.
Kima followed a man she met in a group home to the West Coast after he promised to help her launch a dancing career. Soon, she was getting shipped back and forth across the country, and was forced to prostitute herself.
She credits Covenant House with helping her find a way in the world where she doesn’t have to sell herself.
“I needed the change in environment,” Kima says. “With the stuff I’ve done in my life, fear is not an object for me…but I didn’t know what else there was. I’ve been here for a month. I never thought it would be this nice, all peaceful.”
About 80 percent of the shelter’s residents are from Oakland, but some residents, like Kima, are from farther away. Zak, 21, says he knew he could never shape up in his hometown of Las Vegas.
“I just had to get out. I figured any major city would have a shelter,” he says. “I had been to San Francisco once as a kid, and I liked it. So, I hopped on a Greyhound bus. I found [Covenant House] on the Internet by Googling ‘shelter’ at this guy’s house… They just welcomed me in without any questions.”
In June, Covenant House (Oakland) moved to a new building in Jack London Square. In 2005, the organization had bought the warehouse-turned-commune from California Attorney General Jerry Brown.
“It was just right,” says Sean M. Sullivan, director of development and community relations. “Big, airy, lots of light. It’s the kind of space that really inspires people. I really believe that where you live really affects you.”
Both the residents and staff are unpacking for the shelter’s grand opening on November 8. Office supply boxes line the new teal walls erected to form private offices in the wide-open building. Posters cover the walls, and clothes are already strewn on the floors in the shared bedrooms.
The bedrooms overlook a spacious living room and dining room in the center of the complex. A computer lab and sound room fill the back. The only things that indicate the building is also a halfway house are the 24-hour on-duty desk, metal detector wand at the front door, and ever-open bedroom doors.
The shelter now houses 30 young adults and offers them job and education services. “Everything we do is to try to provide [residents] support that they should have gotten from their parents,” Mr. Sullivan says.
Before the move, these residents crowded into St. Andrews and St. Johnson’s Church in West Oakland. Mr. Sullivan hopes the new location will help keep residents away from old problems associated with their old home.
“The old church was near a center for prostitution,” Mr. Sullivan says. “The kids couldn’t get away from their pimps, or would keep running into their old friends who would bring them back.”
In contrast, Jack London Square is in a quieter neighborhood with blossoming businesses that may provide jobs for residents.
But not all of the shelter’s neighbors were ready to welcome a teen shelter, according to Ben Delaney, president of the board of directors of the Jack London District Association.
People were concerned about loud music — and that residents would use the rooftop area to climb onto other buildings.
The Covenant House met with the district association, brought in residents to meet the neighbors, and changed renovation plans to assuage neighbors’ concerns.
“I haven’t heard a complaint since they came in,” Mr. Delaney says. “No one even noticed when they opened their doors.”
After the association gave its formal approval, some neighbors donated to the cause, even financing a tall gate on the open rooftop.
“They’re a positive influence on the neighborhood,” Mr. Delaney says. “It’s a lot better for the kids to have jobs and skills than to be out on the street. And they can fill the jobs that are opening up here.”
About 80 percent of the shelter’s funding comes from private donations, Mr. Sullivan says. The remainder comes from federal and local grants.
There are 12 beds for transitional housing and 18 for a crisis shelter. In the rainy season, the shelter often has to bring in cots for more homeless youth, according to Mr. Sullivan.
“There are about 200 homeless teens in the area, and that’s a low estimate,” Mr. Sullivan says. “If we can house 30 of them, at least it’s a dent in the number.”
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