This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Fresh out of college, Rob Gitin took a job working in homeless services along with one of his classmates, Mumtaz Mustapha. One day, she said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day someone started a program that was specifically focused on the kids who either got kicked out of our program or who tell us that they’ve known about it for five years before they ever set foot in it?”
Over the months that followed, the conversation turned from someone else doing it to the two of them. One day, twenty years ago, with an Echoing Green Foundation grant deadline coming the next day, the two decided to apply for the funds to launch At The Crossroads, serving the youth no one else could or would in San Francisco.
Twenty years later, Gitin, now 43, is still at it. Mustapha left after four years to go to medical school and has become a financial supporter. Today, the organization has an annual budget of $1.7 million.
According to Gitin, there are about 4,000 homeless youth in San Francisco. At The Crossroads serves about 1,200 of them—the most difficult ones. They are the more likely to be targeted by law enforcement than by service providers. They struggle with substance use and mental health issues. Many are unstably housed and don’t identify as homeless and so may not seek out programs that serve the homeless. Some don’t trust service providers. Some simply don’t know services are available. Some have given up all hope.
The Power of Unconditional Support to Change Lives
“We believe that unconditional relationships can transform the lives of the people that we work with,” says Gitin.
“Our goal with these young people is to help them build outstanding lives as they define them and the basic model is about eliminating all barriers to access,” Gitin says. Building relationships of trust is key. “They have to know that you’re there for them through thick and thin and that you’re not just saying that but that you will actually live up to that.”
Building trust requires time. “We are out there night after night after night. If it takes 50 times of seeing you before you want to take a pair of socks from me that’s fine.”
As in any other circle of influence, from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley to the inner circles of power in Washington, introductions from trusted members of the community can accelerate progress.
“If your best friend is next to you and that person gives me a hug and says, ‘Hey, this is Rob from At The Crossroads. He’s the one who helped me when I was in a real jam with my housing. You should talk to him about what’s going on.’ You may have just saved us years of trust building through the way that you kind of validated our relationship.”
Gitin’s work is complicated by the clients’ drug use. “I would say [drugs] are a very serious problem for about 30 or 40% of our clients. And substance use is a part of almost every client’s life that we work with,” he explains.
Still, asked about his biggest win, Gitin boasts: “ We’ve never kicked a young person out of our program. We can truly say that our support is unconditional. ”
“When you bring that into someone’s lives it can be as if like they have blinders that start to come off and they start to see this much more broad vision of who they can be in the world and what the world can bring to their lives.”
Housing Challenges in San Francisco
With the city sitting near the top of the list of most expensive places in the country, finding a permanent place to live is a challenge for almost anyone in San Francisco. It has become almost impossible for young people without a proper support network. And Gitin says the problem is getting worse.
“They are rarely able to just get a room and a roommate situation in the way that they may have been able to 10 years ago and having that option off the table has made it a lot harder for kids to succeed even when they’re working incredibly hard,” Gitin explains.
Problems with housing don’t just apply to the unemployed youth. “A shockingly high percentage of our clients are already working when we first encountered them. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of our clients are working and in many cases have full time jobs. But that is not nearly enough to prevent them from being homeless.”
Gitin says that to afford a studio apartment in San Francisco “you need to be working three or four minimum wage jobs—full time.”
Supportive housing options are extremely limited, too. At The Crossroads has relationships with four providers where they can place young people living on the streets but it can take months to get them moved in. “We’ve had clients wait for five months for a slot that was already theirs just because the process was so bureaucratic and challenging,” Gitin says with exasperation.
The Challenge Continues
Once a client is in housing, the problems don’t end. Conditioned by adults who abandoned or abuse them—or at least failed them as they perceive it—the youth have a difficult time in some of the supportive situations they are placed.
Youth on the street have a short-term planning horizon, Gitin says. “I think often the culture of what it takes to be young and survive on the streets can be actually antithetical to the typical structure of a nonprofit program–in particular a housing program. So, when you’re on the streets you are fiercely independent and you’re constantly having to prioritize yourself, your own safety and your own needs above everything else, you don’t think about or at least you don’t prioritize what happens 24 hours from now or 48 hours from now. You prioritize what will help me get through these next 24 minutes.”
This creates a huge gap between a young person’s experience and requirements for moving forward. “If all a young person has experienced with the adults in their life is that they hurt me more than they help me and that I am better off trusting myself. It’s a really tough transition to then be in a program where you’re told if you don’t blindly trust these adults and follow what they want you can’t be here anymore,” Gitin says.
At The Crossroads seeks to keep up with all of their clients forever, to be a resource and a help throughout their lives, in part so they can help them when they stumble.
“Although the process can take many years, ATC sticks with their clients and never gives up on them. What a gift to these young people who have been abandoned again and again during their lives,” says Mary Gregory, senior program officer for five family foundations at Pacific Foundation Services, and one of the founding members of the At The Crossroads board of directors.
The program, at least anecdotally, works. Gitin is proud of the impact the organization has on the individuals it serves. A few examples he mentions, include:
Wins may not be as frequent as Gitin would hope but he has chosen only to serve those who have been rejected by everyone else. He counts every win.
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