Mary Howe Goes Mobile for Homeless Youth Alliance
Advocate fights the good fight—while looking for a new home.
Howe, on the move.
Tiny in stature, covered with flower tattoos, sporting her trademark two-toned blonde-over-black hairdo and a pair of very smart spectacles, Mary Howe won’t let a big problem keep her down for long.
On Christmas, with teary eyes, members of her nonprofit helped pack up everything they owned into boxes. “We joke that we are the Homeless Homeless Youth Alliance,” she said of her nonprofit, which serves homeless youth in San Francisco’s Haight District. The alliance was forced out of the building it had rented at an affordable rate for 12 years when its lease wasn’t renewed. That hasn’t stopped Howe, who has gone mobile—serving youth by van and foot—which she admits has its challenges.
“We see youth from all over the country, but in more recent years, we have seen more and more from both San Francisco and the East Bay,” said Howe, an Oaklander. “Now with the intense gentrification of the area, I believe we will see hundreds more.”
The absence of showers, privacy, and space to just be has had a huge impact on the homeless youth in the community, she said. When approached about a trauma such as rape, said Howe, “It is incredibly heartbreaking not to have a safe space to bring them back, to have a private conversation.”
The whole experience has made her even more appreciative than she already was of her own home in Oakland.
Howe lived on the same streets she serves many years ago, a runaway teenager herself. When she moved to Oakland around 1996, it was because she was court-mandated to a drug treatment center. At age 18, she was asked by probation officials to stay away from Napa County, where her family is from, as well as San Francisco, where, she said, she had created a lot of wreckage. She started working with the Haight Ashbury Youth Outreach team, founding the Homeless Youth Alliance in 2006 to create a space for youth by youth. It was a safe space for those in need of assistance to seek showers, food, counseling, refuge, an ear, needle exchange, and other services—a program Howe wishes she had had when she was on the streets.
Listening to youth on the streets is one of the most important aspects of her daily work. “We always include the youth who utilize our program in the formation of services, rules for the space, they sit on our hiring committees and regularly volunteer to provide direct services, we view them as equals, and as our teachers. The simple act of bearing witness to people’s lives is a profound thing that has changed how I interact with everyone in my life on a daily basis.”
The Homeless Youth Alliance serves around 5,000 homeless youth annually. Many of the teens have gone on to have college careers and stable families. Still in search of a home for the nonprofit, Howe and staff continue to provide resources to the homeless youth who flock to Haight Ashbury.