Asher Waite-Jones
Asher Waite-Jones (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

It is my 3L spring semester. I am in a car with my supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). We are driving some residents of a homeless encampment to the Berkeley City Council meeting, so they can speak out against continued evictions by the California Department of Transportation. A young homeless woman tells us stories about her life on the streets. She pauses mid-sentence. She asks us, “Why don’t you hate us? Everyone else does.”

In my head, I am 17 again. I am watching the rain from under the bridge, in a similar homeless encampment, across the country in Pittsburgh. I escaped from one violent home into another. We have a small campfire, and we are going to eat beans from a can and stale French fries someone found in the trash.

I take a breath and tell her, “Because I was homeless, too.”

Roughly 1.7 million young people in the U.S. are homeless. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the number of homeless youth is particularly high. According to the January 29, 2015 homeless count and survey, in San Francisco alone there were 1,569 homeless children and transition-aged youth, living unaccompanied by parents or guardians. According to the report, “unaccompanied children and youth represented 21% of all homeless individuals counted in San Francisco on January 29, 2015.”

As housing prices continue to rise across the Bay Area, cities struggle to address the corresponding increase in street homelessness. Overwhelmingly the response has been increased criminalization of homeless people, including homeless youth.

Criminalization often comes in the form of citations for infractions such as sitting and lying on the sidewalk, which are adjudicated in traffic court. According to a June 2016 San Francisco Examiner article, between January and November 2015 the SFPD issued 60,491 “quality-of-life” citations. The number of youth cited under these ordinances is uncollected and unknown, though advocates on the ground estimate these numbers to be high.

When they are cited under “quality-of-life” ordinances, youth receive a date by which they must appear at an arraignment. If they fail to do so, youth over 18 could receive an automatic $300 civil assessment that they have to pay regardless of the outcome of the underlying case. In the alternative, the court could charge the youth with a misdemeanor for failing to appear, and a bench warrant for their arrest will be issued. If they’re picked up on the warrant, youth often sit in jail for an original offense no more serious than a speeding ticket.

Appearing at a court proceeding is a huge burden for homeless people, particularly youth – remembering the court date, figuring out how to get to court, paying for bus fare. As a result, homeless youth often never deal with their citations.

Despite estimated high numbers of homeless youth charged with quality of life citations, there are few organizations providing citation defense, and none focusing on youth. My project, hosted by Legal Services for Children (LSC) and sponsored by ALM through its partnership with Equal Justice Works, will fill this gap.

In the next two years, I will represent Bay Area homeless youth ages 13 to 21 in traffic court proceedings—and also in areas of immigration, guardianship, dependency and school discipline. LSC has provided legal and social services to Bay Area youth since 1975. LSC is an ideal host for my project because of its connection to Bay Area youth and its model using lawyers and social workers.

This work is deeply personal to me. After being expelled from my parents’ house, I lived intermittently on the street from 16 to 18. Moving out from under the bridge, attending college and law school, I was always drawn to working with homeless youth.

Decriminalization of youth homelessness will not happen overnight, and is not a one-person battle. Pro bono attorneys can be involved in my work by taking on representation of homeless young people in a traffic court cases or by taking on representation of a homeless young person in guardianship, education, or immigration cases.

LSC has a robust pro bono program and interested attorneys can sign up or find out more by emailing ProBono@lsc-sf.org or checking out the Pro Bono section of the website at www.lsc-sf.org under the “Get Involved” tab. In addition, giving homeless panhandlers money and/or food is a crucial way to help.

Asher Waite-Jones is an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by ALM.

It is my 3L spring semester. I am in a car with my supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). We are driving some residents of a homeless encampment to the Berkeley City Council meeting, so they can speak out against continued evictions by the California Department of Transportation. A young homeless woman tells us stories about her life on the streets. She pauses mid-sentence. She asks us, “Why don’t you hate us? Everyone else does.”

In my head, I am 17 again. I am watching the rain from under the bridge, in a similar homeless encampment, across the country in Pittsburgh. I escaped from one violent home into another. We have a small campfire, and we are going to eat beans from a can and stale French fries someone found in the trash.

I take a breath and tell her, “Because I was homeless, too.”

Roughly 1.7 million young people in the U.S. are homeless. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the number of homeless youth is particularly high. According to the January 29, 2015 homeless count and survey, in San Francisco alone there were 1,569 homeless children and transition-aged youth, living unaccompanied by parents or guardians. According to the report, “unaccompanied children and youth represented 21% of all homeless individuals counted in San Francisco on January 29, 2015.”

As housing prices continue to rise across the Bay Area, cities struggle to address the corresponding increase in street homelessness. Overwhelmingly the response has been increased criminalization of homeless people, including homeless youth.

Criminalization often comes in the form of citations for infractions such as sitting and lying on the sidewalk, which are adjudicated in traffic court. According to a June 2016 San Francisco Examiner article, between January and November 2015 the SFPD issued 60,491 “quality-of-life” citations. The number of youth cited under these ordinances is uncollected and unknown, though advocates on the ground estimate these numbers to be high.

When they are cited under “quality-of-life” ordinances, youth receive a date by which they must appear at an arraignment. If they fail to do so, youth over 18 could receive an automatic $300 civil assessment that they have to pay regardless of the outcome of the underlying case. In the alternative, the court could charge the youth with a misdemeanor for failing to appear, and a bench warrant for their arrest will be issued. If they’re picked up on the warrant, youth often sit in jail for an original offense no more serious than a speeding ticket.

Appearing at a court proceeding is a huge burden for homeless people, particularly youth – remembering the court date, figuring out how to get to court, paying for bus fare. As a result, homeless youth often never deal with their citations.

Despite estimated high numbers of homeless youth charged with quality of life citations, there are few organizations providing citation defense, and none focusing on youth. My project, hosted by Legal Services for Children (LSC) and sponsored by ALM through its partnership with Equal Justice Works, will fill this gap.

In the next two years, I will represent Bay Area homeless youth ages 13 to 21 in traffic court proceedings—and also in areas of immigration, guardianship, dependency and school discipline. LSC has provided legal and social services to Bay Area youth since 1975. LSC is an ideal host for my project because of its connection to Bay Area youth and its model using lawyers and social workers.

This work is deeply personal to me. After being expelled from my parents’ house, I lived intermittently on the street from 16 to 18. Moving out from under the bridge, attending college and law school, I was always drawn to working with homeless youth.

Decriminalization of youth homelessness will not happen overnight, and is not a one-person battle. Pro bono attorneys can be involved in my work by taking on representation of homeless young people in a traffic court cases or by taking on representation of a homeless young person in guardianship, education, or immigration cases.

LSC has a robust pro bono program and interested attorneys can sign up or find out more by emailing ProBono@lsc-sf.org or checking out the Pro Bono section of the website at www.lsc-sf.org under the “Get Involved” tab. In addition, giving homeless panhandlers money and/or food is a crucial way to help.

Asher Waite-Jones is an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by ALM.