Freedom Calls

Written by Ji-Ho Park
July 10, 2015

Another week in San Francisco meant another suite of events and activities happening around the city. This past weekend was the 4th of July, which following SF Pride, dare I say, felt like a bit of a let down? The pride flags are still hanging from people’s windows and banners are still screaming for equality, and they definitely outnumber the Stars and Stripes I see as I stroll around. But the combination of the SCOTUS decision, Pride, and Independence Day had me reflecting on freedom. “Freedom” is used rather liberally in San Francisco, used to describe the atmosphere, the people who live here, and the sort of hands-off attitude the police force can have when dealing with people who are homeless. But it really makes me wonder how my “freedom” differs greatly from someone else’s, especially the youth we’re working with this summer.

I happened to be around in Dolores Park on a sunny (yes, actually sunny!) Sunday afternoon, when the San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT) performed a show titled “Freedomland.” It focused on police brutality and institutionalized discrimination, aimed at people of color (PoC) and undocumented immigrants. The SFMT doesn’t hold back during their 90 minute show, making a mockery of an “up-and-coming cop” whose unwavering belief in the fairness and righteousness of our legal system made most people in the audience giggle (or groan). I won’t ruin how it ends in case anyone plans on watching, but in general, it begged the question of me, just how free are we in the US, when people of certain demographics are targeted and persecuted more harshly than others (and this isn’t simply limited to law enforcement)? Can we consider ourselves to be free when others are unjustly persecuted, or are we to ignore those and live our lives because we’re afforded the privilege of doing so?

The statistics of homeless youth tell a very similar story. Youth who are LGBTQ-identified are at a far greater risk of experiencing homelessness (~40% of the youth that Larkin Street services are LGBTQ-identified). Youth who are Black or Hispanic are also at much greater risk. And what’s important to note is, these youth are often not to blame for their homeless. People who are homeless are stigmatized and often blamed for their situation. But that’s exactly what it is. A situation. A moment in their lives, and is not an indicator of what’s to come. And I think many of us on DukeEngage San Francisco have learned that this summer. We’re working with a population very similar in age, which has made me reflect on how I’ve come to this moment; to be a rising senior at Duke, to be on DukeEngage, and to be more worried about where I’m going to apply to graduate school or for a job, than I am about where I’m going to eat or sleep tonight. Is this a freedom I “deserve” more than the youth I work with? Is it fair? Sure, people in San Francisco are free, and San Francisco has a different way of dealing with those who are homeless, but just because you’re allowing them to be homeless and not punishing them for it doesn’t mean we’re actively doing anything to help people off the streets.

People here discuss San Francisco as a “housing first” city, but I’m still not seeing much of it. We continue to hear about housing is such a problem for people who are homeless in SF, but I see very little being done to help them. Larkin Street offers great services to help youth get themselves back on their feet, but what young 20-something year old is going to be able to get a job within 2 years (how long you’re allowed to stay at a LSYS transitional living program) that is enough to sustain a living wage in San Francisco? Affordable housing is so hard to come by, but as I write, there’s a 6-story mall near the UN Plaza going up.

On a brighter note, there’s been a lot going on at Larkin Street Youth Services and At the Crossroads this week! Larkin Street has been preparing for their big Graduation, for students who have received their GED, their high school diploma, or have graduated from college. It’s an opportunity for LSYS to recognize their own youth, who have already come so far, and hope to continue moving forward. At the Crossroads’ Summer SunDay, Hike for Homeless Youth is this following weekend, and so Hannah and Madison have been working hard to make sure that everything is in place there. We’ll all be volunteering at that event come next Saturday, which will involve an 8 mile hike up Mt. Tamalpais! Stay tuned for another exciting installment of DukeEngage San Francisco, Year 1.

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3 thoughts on “Freedom Calls

  1. Great thoughts, Ji-Ho. I really appreciate how you connected with the word freedom and what that means to different people. Could you explain more about the hands-off attitude of the police to homeless individuals in San Francisco compared to other cities (such as New York or Durham)? From the various cities I’ve been to, I don’t know what the policies are for “handling” or helping homeless people from the police’s perspective.

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  2. “Freedom” is used rather liberally in the US’s conception of itself and I think this can mask the “unfreedoms” present in our society, which you’re definitely seeing on your program. When we’re repeatedly told, and in fact deeply believe, that we’re in the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” it can leave us blind to the challenges faced by marginalized populations. Keep up the good work, Ji-Ho!

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  3. Dave, what I meant by a more “hands-off” attitude is that SF Police actively allows homelessness instead of in some ways, institutionally discriminating against it. While there are certain areas where it isn’t necessarily allowed, like in city parks after closing (although it still happens), many people who are homeless, after 6 or 7pm, come out with their tents and sleeping bags and just line the streets, especially in the Tenderloin, where Larkin Street Youth Services is situated. I’m trying to imagine that happening in NYC or Durham, and how the police force would attempt to reconcile people actively camping out on the street instead of trying to find a shelter. While that also might be a product of the weather differences in SF and NYC or Durham, I think the general police attitudes differ greatly.
    And thank you Melanie, greatly appreciate your kind words!

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