It was at Duke Engage Academy when I first found out about my placement this summer at Larkin Street Youth Services off of Golden Gate Avenue. I could not have been more thrilled to be spending my summer in San Francisco on Golden Gate Avenue. I had it all already pictured in my head (with a little help from YouTube travel vlogs). The stunning view of the bridge. Exquisite shops on every corner. The smell of seafood blending in with the misty fog. I did not expect to be disturbed by San Francisco’s culture. I thought I would be in the comfort zone of the paradise that I envisioned.
Within the first week, it was clear that the image I drew up of San Francisco in my head was not at all what it was like on the streets. Men were shaking pill bottles and shooting up as I walked by. Urine trickled down the seams of the sidewalk and dominated the smell of fresh air. Numerous men and women slept near the entrances of abandoned buildings on just a single piece of cardboard. I have never come close to experiencing this way of living and it was clear that this lifestyle was not one made by choice. Coming from Matthews, North Carolina, where there is one homeless man that stands on the street corner with a sign, this new culture shook me. These were not the golden streets I had imagined.
Centered in the Tenderloin – notoriously the roughest neighborhood in SF – it was evident that we were in the right place for what we came here to do. Within the first days of our arrival, T, one of the front staff that works directly with the clients, greeted us with open arms and no hesitation, unlike many of the clients. It was very clear that the sooner he showed the clients that he was comfortable with us and that he could trust us then they could too. I could see in this man’s eyes that this is exactly what he wants to be doing. The clients recognize this and they can tell that he is definitely not working for the paycheck. He comes into work and immediately brightens everyone’s mood. Clients go to him all the time for any kind of support, from a quick chat to searching for permanent housing options. He once told me something that I would never forget during my stay this summer: everyone at Larkin is a family, and sometimes we are all the support and encouragement they need that will help them reach their goals.
Another staff member that inspires me is the strong woman who works alone in the kitchen. The chef, M, inspires me by working mercilessly in the kitchen serving two meals every day to any client that walks through the doors of Larkin Street. She once told me that if she wouldn’t feed it to her own kids, there is no way she would feed it to any of the clients. Larkin Street isn’t just another shelter for homeless youth, but rather it is a family built on love and respect. She ensures that every client has had a serving before even considering saving herself a plate. I try to model her selflessness into my experiences this summer and from here on out.
During training, I was told by a coworker that regardless of how bad of a day I am having, it is guaranteed that the clients have experienced worse. That message stuck with me every morning when I stepped through the bright yellow doors. I immediately try to imitate T’s energy, sometimes disguising how ridiculously tired I was. It did not take long for me to realize the true gold that hid in this neighborhood, the staff at Larkin. The staff at Larkin is incredible and truly inspirational. They care greatly for the youth, and they want to see each one of them move on and become successful. They are phenomenal, and have taught me so much during my time at Larkin. I hope I was a fraction of help to the clients as they were to me. Over the course of the summer, it then became apparent that sometimes all you have to do to get someone to succeed is to make them believe in themself. Keith from Almost Home – a book assigned to us during our time in San Francisco – said, ”I just wish everybody that was in my situation had somebody who said, ‘You can do this, and I’m going to believe with you.”