Sherilyn Adams is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.
I have always believed that a community can be judged based on how its most vulnerable members are treated. My career began in social work, where I could have a direct impact on improving the lives of children and families who were struggling with domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness. Later, I helped design housing and clinical programs for homeless adults with profound and persistent mental illness.
When I had the chance to go to work for San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services in 2003, I jumped at the opportunity. Larkin Street’s mission resonated with me deeply: To create a continuum of services that inspires youth to move beyond the streets. We will nurture potential, promote dignity, and support bold steps by all.
When tackling a problem that seems as intractable as homelessness, we must focus on the potential of every young person who walks through Larkin Street’s doors. Our innovative service model is rooted in this singular belief—everyone deserves the chance to succeed, regardless of their life circumstances. Over the past 28 years, Larkin Street has built a comprehensive continuum of services so that youth without a safe place to call home in San Francisco can find the services and support they need to put their lives back together and build a future off the streets. Our job is to instill a sense of hope in these kids, so they can begin to recognize their own potential for success. We see every day the remarkable resilience of young people.
Larkin Street began as a small, volunteer-run drop-in center and modest street outreach program aimed to give homeless kids on San Francisco’s streets a safe refuge. Over time, we’ve grown to offer the full spectrum of care that disconnected youth need to be safe, healthy, and build the skills for self-sufficiency. We added housing, including emergency shelters for both under-age and transitional-aged youth (18 – 24 year olds) who were frightened and unwilling to access San Francisco’s adult shelter system. We grew our transitional housing programs to offer a wide range of options—including programs for special populations including HIV+ youth, former foster care youth, youth with mental illness, and youth who identify as LGBTQ—to provide up to two full years of safe, stable housing while youth focus on their future.
We also offer onsite primary and behavioral health care, wraparound case management, and life skills training. In 1998, we launched an innovative education and employment program, Hire Up, to ensure homeless youth have the building blocks for long-term success: a sound education and a sustainable career path. Today, Larkin Street serves more than 3,000 homeless, runaway, and at-risk youth annually, and our results are impressive: 3 out of 4 youth who complete one of our housing programs leaves street life behind.
There is no single key to Larkin Street’s success. We are pioneers in this work because of our commitment to innovation and rigorous strategic planning, our ongoing infrastructure investments to ensure a strong organization, and an exceptional staff and board leadership team committed to the agency’s mission. I am lucky to do this difficult work because I see the payoff every single day. I may not work myself out of a job in my lifetime, but I am heartened by the progress at the local, state, and federal levels toward addressing the root causes of youth homelessness. Just as I believe in the potential of every young person who walks through Larkin Street’s doors, I believe in the prospect of a future where no young person faces homelessness.
Sherilyn Adams is Executive Director of Larkin Street Youth Services