Berkeley - It's 6 p.m. on a Monday night and homeless youths are beginning to drift into the new, student-run Youth Clinic off Telegraph Avenue near the University of California, Berkeley.
One young man, wearing a collar with studs and an orange plume of hair on his otherwise shaved head, heads for UC Berkeley student, Linna Li, who is washing the feet of the young clients. Described by the staff as initially silent and distrustful, he has opened up with Li and is smiling and talkative as she washes his feet.
A homeless young woman in ragged clothing with a dog on a leash doodles on butcher paper while UC Berkeley student Jessica Woan talks to her about the need for a medical referral. Later, Woan will escort the young woman to a nearby medical clinic. Meanwhile, a third homeless client lies down behind a curtain for his acupuncture treatment.
UC Berkeley's innovative Youth Clinic is run by UC Berkeley undergraduates to help the 100 or so homeless youths who camp out on Telegraph Avenue and in surrounding areas. During the summer, this population nearly doubles as young people ages 11 through their 20s converge from all parts of the country on the famous avenue adjacent to campus.
The students aim to bring a range of medical and humanitarian services to these homeless youths who usually shun such help. The Youth Clinic is the most recent offshoot of UC Berkeley's Suitcase Clinic, which has served some 11,000 homeless people since it was established near campus 11 years ago by medical students and faculty members from UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.
Now in its seventh month of operation, the Youth Clinic is beginning to experience success.
"Last week, we had 19 of 31 clients who used at least one of our services, besides dinner," exulted Shawn Mattison, an English literature undergraduate who launched the Youth Clinic in January with a $10,000 grant from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation.
Mattison said that when the clinic first opened, the homeless young were more withdrawn, dropping by the clinic to hear the rock music that plays all the time, or to watch TV and eat.
"These youths shy away from services run by and for adults," said Mattison, adding that many are former foster children, who may have been treated abusively or dropped precipitously, when they reached age 18, by the adults in their lives.
Mattison's passion to serve the homeless got him out of bed at 5 a.m. on this Monday morning to collect 400 pounds of supplies from a local food bank for the dinners that students and clients prepare together at the clinic.
As a result of consistent efforts to win trust and offer more services, the UC Berkeley students are able now to bring more lasting help to the street youths.
Besides acupuncture, foot washing, artistic expression, referrals and dinner, the clinic provides medical evaluations and some treatment (a doctor is present or available by phone at all times), legal counseling, and veterinary service for clients' pets. It helps the youths find clothes, housing, and whatever else they need through a method called the "social model" as opposed to the "medical model."
The undergraduates call themselves "case workers." They talk to each homeless client who walks in the door, finding out what he or she needs and pairing them up with other clinic staff - including law, medical school and social work students - who can help.
"It's like walking around in a Sunday market. Someone comes up and talks to you and pretty soon you get taken to the person you need to see," said Dr. Alan Steinbach, M.D., a UC Berkeley clinical professor of public health and faculty advisor for the Youth Clinic.
Steinbach said homeless youths are the people most critically in need of services, not only because of their vulnerability, but because they and society have the most to lose if these young people don't have productive lives.
"These are basically healthy people, not set in their ways, not mentally incompetent," said Steinbach. "They are a group in transition and are very open to influence."
Especially when that influence begins with a footwash.