STOCKTON — “Transcending the Generational Impact Violence and Trauma Has on Youth” is a mouthful. Dealing with the reality — the long-term effect violence has on young people — is even more daunting.
That’s why it’s the subject of the Women’s Center-Youth & Family Services 38th annual luncheon Wednesday at Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium.
When the Women’s Center, which has provided shelter to women and children victimized by domestic violence abuse since 1976, merged in 2012 with Youth & Family Services, which has sheltered homeless teens since the 1990s, the staff was jolted by a revelation.
“We had youth we were seeing in the youth shelters who had a history of sexual abuse or a history of witnessing domestic violence and potentially stayed at our Dawn House,” said Jennifer Jones, chief executive officer of the Women’s Center-Youth & Family Services. “We also are seeing youth we’d previously serviced in the runaway youth shelters now with their own children in tow at our domestic violence facilities.
“A lot of studies have shown that children who have been mistreated or witnessed violence are likely to become perpetrators or victims moving forward.”
If the agency that now has four shelters — two for domestic violence victims and two for homeless youth — is seeing the cycle of abuse repeated, there are exceptions, as proven by keynote speaker Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.
Homeless off and on from the time she was in middle school, Hyatt is devoted to helping the next generation of homeless young people.
“I feel so many young people have that same aspiration,” said Hyatt, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees studying alcohol and substance abuse and social work. “For me it was so healing. It helped me intellectually process and learn academically what gets people into this crisis. Healing and helping the community does create a sense of passion and fire. I want to improve the community to be a better place to live.”
Hyatt advocates for public policy in the halls of the state Capitol as director of the California Homeless Youth Project, but she also spends time with homeless youth.
“They are bright shining stars,” Hyatt said. “They have passion and enthusiasm about changing the world for the better. They want to help each other and their own community.
“They started an outreach program even though they’re homeless. They bring snacks, hygiene supplies, tarps and things like that to people. That compassion and humanity is from people who are struggling and in crisis. It’s so inspiring, so moving.”
A lack of compassion for homeless in general is something Hyatt has seen in her years with the agency, which began in 2009 when she was a student intern.
“I feel like people feel like it’s OK to make fun of homeless people, that it’s the last group of people you can make fun of and not be challenged about,” Hyatt said. “There’s general ignorance and blame that people place on people who can’t afford a place to live. That’s one of the biggest things I grapple with. I feel the pain. I feel responsible to help in a systemic way to keep people from being homeless.”
She understands why her own parents, with whom she has a good relationship, were unable to care for her and struggled to make ends meet.
They were living in a motel with their four children, and the 12-year-old Hyatt, the second-oldest, was sent to live with her grandmother. Through the next decade, she lived out of her backpack and couch-surfed, sleeping in the homes of friends. She was with one family for a while, but when the parents divorced, they took her to a youth shelter.
“It was so strict and punitive,” Hyatt recalled. “You were under 24-hour surveillance. If you wanted to go for a walk you had to get a pass and could only go for 10 minutes, then build up time with good behavior. To think about asking an adult for permission to go for a 10-minute walk is unfathomable. It was an infringement on my freedom.”
She left the shelter and found a place to sleep with different friends.
Education was her lifeline. A cousin, 10 years older, had earned a Ph.D., and Hyatt saw the value of going to school. She earned her own advanced degree and once she interned with the California Homeless Youth Project, she found her calling.
Speaking at a benefit for an organization that helps homeless youth was an easy request to accept.
“They’re doing life-saving work,” Hyatt said. “That’s the kind of thing I want to support.”
Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lorigrecord.