Fred Finch Youth Center prepares for 125th year of mental health and social services
on December 2, 2015
In 2013, former foster youth Joseph Skyler was studying rhetoric and education at UC Berkeley, living and working at the Berkeley Student Cooperative. Less than a year later, he found himself homeless in Sacramento, working on his teaching credentials online at the public library, and engulfed in a deep depression. Skyler had no one to turn to. Eventually, he rediscovered a home and hope through Fred Finch Youth Center of Oakland.
Today, at 24, Skyler is a resident at Turning Point, a transitional housing program for homeless youth and young adults ages 18 to 25 run by Fred Finch. The non-profit organization serving victims of trauma will mark its 125th anniversary next September, yet it remains one of Oakland’s “best kept secrets,” said CEO Thomas Alexander. As the anniversary approaches, he said the nonprofit would like to raise its profile as well as its funding. Fred Finch also is inviting the community to get more involved in its work, for example, by offering job opportunities for clients, said Susanna Marshland, the group’s regional vice president.
The roots of the program extend deep into Oakland’s history. Fred Finch was the son of a 19th century shipping magnate, Duncan Finch. At age 24, Fred died of tuberculosis. His sister had also died young, leaving Duncan childless. In his grief, Duncan would wander the docks of Oakland, passing homeless orphans living in dismal circumstances. On one of these walks, Alexander said, Duncan Finch decided to take action in his son’s memory, so that the city’s vulnerable youth would not be neglected or forgotten.
Duncan and his wife owned a retirement property, which they donated to the Methodist Church to be used as an orphanage. Within a few months of the center opening in the 1890s, 25 children lived there. The orphans managed a working farm as they took care of each other. Today, French Finch maintains its Oakland headquarters on the same spot on Coolidge Avenue, with additional centers in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Diego Counties.
Evolving with the introduction of mental health services and psychiatry in the 1950s and 1960s, Fred Finch Youth Center began to focus on childhood trauma and developmental disabilities, poverty, substance use and emotional impairments, particularly in foster youth. In the late 1960s, the center opened a psychiatric residential treatment facility for kids requiring more intensive services. Eventually, it moved toward more community-based treatment, along with its temporary transitional housing services.
“We try to break down the barriers so they’re not clinic-based services,” Alexander said, “We meet families in their homes. We meet families at schools, wherever’s convenient for them.” This model has proved successful, as youth are allowed to heal in their own communities, he added.
One of 21 Fred Finch programs, Turning Point offers housing and supportive services for 18 to 24 months as participants seek emotional stability, permanent housing or a job. In the meantime, they have access to therapy, education and career guidance, as well as help with practical living skills like learning how to cook or find an apartment.
Skyler said in an interview that he lost his mother when he was 9, and lived on and off the streets from a young age. Placed into the foster care system, he shifted from household to household. After rotating through what he called “foster farms,” Skyler ended up living with his high school teacher before starting UC Berkeley at age 18.
The constant moving was a “jarring and detached experience,” he said, though he found it enlightening to view the world from the perspective of many households. Skyler originally planned to become a lawyer, but fell in love with education after taking an elective in the subject.
Then things began falling apart again. “I was working about 30 hours a week and going to school and trying to maintain my relationship with my fiancée,” he said. “That really took a lot out of me.” His relationship began to break down, and he started sinking into depression.
One day on an impulse, Skyler invited a homeless man living in People’s Park to come stay with him in his cooperative. The man later got into a fight with one of Skyler’s roommates, an incident that got Skyler evicted. After living transiently in Sacramento for about a year, Skyler returned to the Berkeley area and applied to various shelter and homeless programs.
Such stories of homelessness and trauma are not uncommon among foster youth, Fred Finch staffers say. According to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 10 percent of all homeless people in the U.S. are between the ages of 18 and 24. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports that one quarter of former foster youth experience homelessness within four years of “aging out” of the system. In 2012, California extended foster benefits to age 21 from 18, postponing the cutoff cliff faced by younger clients “so we can at least look at transition,” Alexander said.
At Rising Oaks, a Fred Finch residence in Oakland for former or current foster youth and youth on probation, clinical case manager Camille Bailey calls the work emotionally challenging yet rewarding. Bailey meets with a total of 10 of the 30 residents at Rising Oaks on a weekly basis. “It’s very sad that often [for] the youth who are in the system, a lot of their trauma is from the system itself, rather than the original reason they were removed from their home,” Bailey said.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘How can you work in a system that you know is broken?’”she added. “Because I have to have hope that I can change the system. Even if I just change one life, that’s enough.” To see survivors of childhood trauma smile or say “thank you” means a lot to her.
As for Skyler, he now has a routine of counseling and career planning at Turning Point, located on King Street in Berkeley. He hopes to continue with his teaching credential program and return to UC Berkeley to finish. His goal is to become a special needs teacher, helping those who experience some of the trauma he did as a homeless foster youth.
“It’s easy to forget that they [the homeless] exist, and that people’s lives are at a turning point and they’re being forgotten and left on the streets,” Skyler said, “Past a certain point, jobs won’t accept you. Even colleges will look at you like [you’re] a waste of time. So I urge the community to remember us.”
“We do want a chance,” he continued, “and want to change our lives.”
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