To hear Beneit Gandre tell it, sleeping under a table in an open-all-night U.S. post office isn’t much to write home about.
Gandre would just as soon put those homeless days behind him. The young man with aspirations to be a TV writer is doing just that, with the help of Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity (AHO), a nonprofit that targets a vulnerable and invisible population: homegrown homeless young adults in Marin County.
For young people who grew up in Marin only to find themselves on its streets, the cruel ironies are everywhere. Youth in this age bracket who come from difficult home situations often find themselves at the mercy of an outsized cost of living once they’ve left the checkered nest. These are not ukulele-playing freegan gypsies living off the land and the nearest food bank.
Gandre is 21 and one of scores of Marin County youth who’ve been helped by Zara Babitzke and the AHO, which she founded in 2006. She says Marin County needs to do more for these kids—and the county says it’s working on it.
This is a unique sub-section of the homeless population: young people with self-image and stigma on the mind—along with stress about where to find that next meal or place to stay.
The county did a homeless count in 2013 and concluded that this demographic makes up about 6 percent of the population, says Jason Satterfield, the county homeless policy analyst. Now the county is counting heads again for an upcoming update—and Satterfield says “the number is higher than six percent.”
“There’s recognition that there’s special needs for those people, and we are trying to address it. “
Gandre grew up in Fairfax and went to Sir Francis Drake High School. He was living with an aunt who told him, “As soon as you graduate high school, you are out.”
Gandre didn’t take the threat seriously. On graduation night, he stayed out with friends, got back to his aunt’s house around 5am.
“All my stuff was outside,” he says.
It wasn’t too bad that first summer out of high school. Kids are scrappy and adaptable. They’ve got the DIY spirit in spades—even if, as he says, being a homeless youth is a “huge pride thing.” Gandre put his stuff in storage, stayed with friends and made a specialty of going to parties, where he’d get so intoxicated that he had to crash there for the night.
But summer ended, reality hit home and Gandre started staying in post offices around the county. “You can hide under the postal table,” he says, “but I learned that people check their mail at all hours, and I got thrown out of them.”
He lied to friends and said he had a place to stay. He couldn’t pay the storage bill, so his stuff got sold. He had a grant to go to the College of Marin, but says, “I didn’t do well, because I was homeless.”
Gandre eventually got caught lifting items from a grocery store, and through a public defender was given a referral to Babitzke.
Now he works at a Subway and stays with his girlfriend. He does standup comedy and hits an occasional poetry night. But his material doesn’t address the time he spent without a roof over his head, even though “so many people are completely oblivious to the homeless youth living in Marin.”
That’s the way homeless youth want it, too. Being invisible is better than being scorned and judged. “Self-image means a lot in Marin,” says Emily Schwenk, 21.
Schwenk grew up in a Mill Valley household that didn’t provide much in the way of teaching adult life skills. She contrasts her story with those of the troubled children of Marin’s well-heeled. “Their kids can mess up a thousand time and still be ahead of a lot of the kids that I’ve met,” she says.
Schwenk says her father has mental-health issues, and that she first found herself on the street as a high school sophomore. She stayed with a family friend for a while after graduating high school, but when it was time to move on, she says, “I realized I was homeless and headed to darker waters. It was very scary.”
Now Schwenk is taking classes at the College of Marin and stays with her boyfriend, Jesse. She checks in on her father to make sure he’s OK, and dreams of being a teacher even as she laments at the cost of living in Marin: “Everything is as expensive as it can be here.”
Even a nutritious meal becomes a source of cruel irony in a county of such abundance. Schwenk just got a monthly $200 food stamp card. “Having fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, it’s life-changing,” she says.
Schwenk first met with Babitzke at the Cafe Aroma in San Rafael.
“They don’t look like ‘urban homeless,'” says Babitzke, “so people don’t see them. They’re not causing trouble, so in the mind of residents here, everything is fine.”
Babitzke says sensitive youth like Schwenk face additional hurdles on the street. “People with these qualities can have a really challenging time in a culture or a country that has values that are more monetary or ‘thing-oriented,'” she says.
There’s also a stigma in self-identifying as homeless in a community you call home.
“It’s an awkward step,” says Nick Petty, 23, another AHO participant. “It’s like giving up drugs—it’s very awkward to make yourself vulnerable like that.”
Petty grew up in Novato and comes from a “a blue-collar family that struggled.” His struggle was with opiate addiction and he was thrown out of his house over it.
“My family didn’t want to deal with me,” he says. “It was hopeless. I had nowhere to go.”
Petty is a musician with a history of depression and says that along the way he “started self-medicating.”
He wound up in jail, more than once, to clean up from drugs. “Not exactly good mental-health treatment in there,” he says.
He would stay in halfway houses and the occasional motel room, but invariably wound up back in jail. Now he tries to help others in similar straits. He recently met a homeless youth who shared an interest in music during an outreach event called Youth Connect put on by Babitzke. “I was stoked to help some kids,” Petty says. “It felt good to reach out to someone.”
Petty also slept outside and worked hard to “do everything you can do to not look homeless. It’s a very uncomfortable place.”
Julian Stein echoes the sentiment. He has never begged for spare change and always tried to “dress better than the not-homeless.”
Stein, too, is in his early 20s. He’s been working since he was 17, even when home was his car. He got kicked out of the house by his father when he turned 18. His mother died when he was 13.
“I didn’t get along with dad, but now the relationship is better,” says Stein.
Stein recently shared a Marin County shed with two others. The shed was 98 square feet and the monthly rent was $700. “Luckily, we got out of there,” says Stein.
Now he’s staying with his girlfriend and hopes to get back to the College of Marin. He took courses there until he couldn’t afford them.
Stein has made pizzas and worked other jobs as he bounced between couches and his car. Now he finds himself at work helping his 70-year-old father. “Dad just got evicted,” he says. “He had no place to stay.”
Julian is giving him rides around Marin County as his father tries to find a job and a new place to call home.