It’s a warm place on cold nights, with couches to sit on, a television to watch and, around 5 p.m., dinner cooking on the stove.
For homeless teenagers living on the streets, these comforts of a would-be home can be the dreamed-of refuge from constantly walking around, from dodging sex traffickers, from loneliness and hunger.
That’s why the DreamCatcher shelter is designed that way.
“This is like a youth hangout place to me. It’s our place,” said Alanzo, walking into the shelter after school one afternoon with a friend. He mentions something about being able to do homework here and play computer games before he grabs a snack and sits down at a computer. Later he washes the clothes in his backpack.
Most estimates put the number of homeless teenagers in greater Oakland or Alameda County at 1,700 to 2,000 kids. Some couch surf at various friends’ and relatives’ places; others are in the clutches of sex traffickers who don’t let them sleep. A few hunker down outside in doorways or under trees.
The majority have run away from dangerously abusive or violent family members, the statistics say, or been thrown out, or they no longer have family members because they are foster children.
“Fear and worry about how to survive are with them all day, a constant,” said Amba Johnson, director of DreamCatcher, as she showed off the cozy if rundown rooms. “The biggest thing that happens to them when they come in here is that mind-bending anxiety is gone for a while. They can relax.” The shelter, for kids aged 13 to 18, is in an old house near downtown.
Ebony describes the many afternoons and evenings she spent at DreamCatcher as her escape from the physical abuse of her brothers, whose violence a court restraining order did not control. Now transitioned from being a client to a substitute supervisor since she reached age 18, Ebony says DreamCatcher is where she found her real family. “This is where all my friends were,” she said.
The harder stories are from the kids who stay silent, who turn away.
“Our youth are youth surviving a broken trust with adults,” Johnson said, adding that kids don’t actually run away from home unless they face danger such as physical or sexual abuse or violence.
Then, out on their own and too young to get jobs or rent shelter, they are quickly targeted by sex traffickers who lure them with promises of survival necessities: food, shelter or simply friendship.
“To be a homeless teenager is to be a trafficked teenager,” Johnson said. “Sixty percent of trafficked youth were homeless at the time they were first approached by a commercial sex exploiter,” she said, citing national statistics.
Though the numbers of homeless teens in Oakland are about the same as the number of homeless teenagers in San Francisco, there’s a shortage of teen shelters here. DreamCatcher, with only 8 beds currently. The East Oakland Community Project offers shelter for teens 14 to 23 years old. The Alameda County Youth Shelter and A Safe Place offer shelter for youth up to 25 years old.
DreamCatchers‘ umbrella organization is Alameda Family Services, a nonprofit supporting needy families in Alameda County. DreamCatcher also receives funding from the City of Oakland Measure Y Violence Prevention and Public Safety Act, and from Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, the California Endowment and the California Wellness Foundation. It also had been supported by a federal grant, a Basic Centers Grant from the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 1974, but that Program was defunded in the sequestration of the federal budget, costing DreamCatcher more than $100,000 a year.
The shelter lost this grant just as it was reeling from the death last year of its well-loved founder and longtime director Nika St. Claire in an automobile accident. It was just after DreamCatcher had been given a building adjacent to the shelter so it could fulfill St. Claire’s plan to expand the shelter and open a wing specifically for kids escaping commercial sexual exploitation, to be called “Nika’s House.”
Johnson took the helm this year with plans and hopes to carry on the planned expansion. She says DreamCatchers needs to find additional grants to renovate and fund operations in the expanded space. To donate to the DreamCatcher Campaign follow this link.