Celebrating 20 years: A History of At The Crossroads

As At The Crossroads celebrates our 20th anniversary, we want to take a moment to reflect on the key moments that defined our organization’s work with San Francisco’s most disconnected youth, and to hear from some of the people that made the last two decades possible.

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Taj: I remember like having ... It was in the mission, it was the corner of 16th and I think it’s the first time I learned about what a cotton was. And this kid took out his gear—do you remember this? He was like showing it to us and being like, “Okay this is what you should do and this is why you shouldn’t reuse it, but this is why kids do.”

It was like a whole mini lecture on gear and I was just like—this is all new information. He was actually a really good teacher; it was like experiential learning at its finest.

Rob: Yeah. [Laughter]

Taj: I mean right? Here we are in the middle of 16th, who knows what could have happened to him but he took the time. And that says a lot about the fact that we displayed an adequate openness that he felt like we were willing to learn and needed to learn and took the time to help us learn what was important.

Rob: Well I think it was really just symbolic of what the young folks on the street wanted. They wanted people who respected them, who didn’t see them as less than, because they were on the streets, that didn’t make assumptions about their intelligence, their thoughtfulness, their integrity. It was always amazing to me how when we were able to convey that spirit to the kids we were working with, how quickly that trust started to develop. Sometimes it took ages and ages but in other cases just being treated and respected as a human being was enough.

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Jenn: When I saw the job at At The Crossroads, I was so excited, because I was like, "This is the job that I want. This is exactly the job that I want." It was for an outreach counselor and I remember that I rode—I lived about eight blocks away from where At The Crossroads was at the time, on Valencia Street. I lived right off of Valencia Street at 24th Street, and At The Crossroads was at 14th Street, so I guess it was like 10 blocks. I remember riding my bike down to drop off my application. I was actually crying on the way because I had just broken up with somebody, had this really painful breakup. I went and dropped off my application and met Rob and Taj and managed to not appear like I had just been crying.

And I was just like, "Wow." I walked into this room. The office was this tiny little room. It was just one room and it was filled with stuff everywhere. There was just stuff everywhere. As I recall, there were the two desks that they had and then—it was just Rob and Taj—and then there was a futon couch. There was no space for clients. It was purely an outreach program at the time. There was just supplies everywhere.

I was just so excited about this position and I think that I largely got the job because I spoke Spanish because they wanted somebody who spoke Spanish for the Mission. I'm half Cuban and so I speak Spanish fluently. The funny thing is that the whole time that I was at At The Crossroads—I only worked At The Crossroads for a little under two years—we only had one client who was monolingual Spanish speaking. We only saw him like four times or something on outreach, so my Spanish did not really come in handy as it turned out.

Alison: How was it—I'm so curious—like you being one of the first staff hires they ever made to expand beyond Rob and Taj? How was that to be in that first level of having more staff members and trying to get bigger?

Jenn: It was kind of interesting. In a way it was very un-hierarchical at that time, because there were just four of us and Rob and Taj and I were all the same age and the other staffer they hired at the time, Dan, Dan Walsh—he was a lovely human being—he was actually several years older than us. There wasn't a sense—it's partly the age and just we were all in the same place in life, and it was such a small organization that very quickly I wasn't just an outreach counselor. I was doing the newsletter. I've always been a writer and I already had some grant writing experience at that time, so I was doing all the grant writing very quickly and we did a strategic planning process that first year.

So it was really just the four of us digging in—Rob and Taj definitely had the expertise and they had worked with homeless youth for several years already and had designed this whole program and stuff like that. But I felt like they really valued our contributions and treated us largely as equals.

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Mary: When I was first hired by Pacific Foundation Services, which is a company that manages family foundations, there were two new family foundations that were thinking about what they wanted to support. So, part of my job was to find interesting organizations, new or old, for them to learn about. One of the ways that I did that was to read about Echoing Green, which was supporting interesting entrepreneurs in the non-profit sector. There were two in the Bay Area. One was in Berkeley and one was Rob Gitin here in San Francisco, and so I called him up. I said, “What are you doing? I’d like to know more,” and that was the beginning of a great friendship and a long time association with At the Crossroads.

Rob was passionate, and really only a couple of years out of Stanford. He was convinced that what he had seen when—he was actually working as a volunteer as a part of one of his courses, for a shelter for young people in San Jose. He realized that the way that they were doing it was helpful to some of the kids, but many of them were being turned off by what they were being asked to do. The fact that it wasn’t a client-centered, [client]-driven, organization. And so he was really keen to try this new client-centered model that he was imagining and that he and his co-founder Taj were experimenting with in those early days.

I stayed around long enough to become an actual board member, but we were kind of making it up as we were went along. A number of us had had some board experience before, but trying to meld our previous experience with what Rob wanted to do and how he wanted the organization and the board to operate was a really interesting experience for me. I’ve been on other boards, but having the chance to kind of start from scratch was an interesting opportunity.

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Demaree: Reaching our youth, I feel, is a especially challenging. We have so many clients that come to us, we have so many people that trust us, but there’s still a core of young adults we work with that won’t call the office or come to the office. We see them primarily on outreach when we go out on the streets and hand out supplies, and we have a good relationship with, them. But for one reason or another, they don’t feel comfortable accessing services directly.

And it’s hard because our mission as an organization. Is to reach these youth that are the most mistrustful of services. So one thing we do is we do On-The-Spot counseling where we go out and make ourselves accessible on the streets rather than wait for clients to come to us. We come directly to them. We walk through the neighborhood; we take people to get hot food; we just kind of hang out on the block; discuss things, maybe when we can, on an individual basis; take someone inside a restaurant and then we start counseling. The main goal is to build these counseling relationships with people we can’t reach.

But the longer I’ve been here, the more I try to think about this community and how to establish ourselves there in a firmer way. And how to stay true with the organization’s philosophy and give this base of clients what they want, what they need. And trying to figure out how we position ourselves to do that.

Anna: But I think some of the tangible answers—like you and I have talked about this before—there’s something we’re not doing. There’s something that we’re not doing that is going over the heads of the people we mean to serve. Right? Currently in program we have a rotating call of clients who are able—who have telephone numbers, number 1. Know how to access, know what time of day it is, know where the office is. And they’re able to come through. But those are not the kids that we say we mean to serve. They do need support, they are client-appropriate. But the ones who are not calling, the ones who don’t have phones, the ones who don’t know where the office is, will never come here. Those are the ones that I feel like are the frustrating part of our work.

We have great relationships with them on outreach and some of them have made strides in terms of coming one block up to our office that used to be on Mason Street. And now that we’ve moved another few blocks, that challenge is there again. And so like, what can we do now to get them to come two blocks down to our office? Aside from going to them. And our kids really enjoy—especially black and brown youth on the street—are really into the music scene. We thought about, like, studio time. How could we get some? We thought about—like we said—the pizza party. What could we do that At the Crossroads cares and that At the Crossroads is here? We’re out here, we got this nice new office, we have a full staff, and so what?

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Mary: You know, they continue to be the one program that I truly respect. I know anytime a youth is like, “Oh I met the folks from ATC,” I'm like alright you're good. I know that youth will be taken care of and respected and that the staff will be consistent, and go the extra mile with them.

Maurice: Yeah I think, I would second all the things you said. And my first encounter with ATC was with Shawn and she walked a client into the drop-in center to come and see me. I was like, this is amazing. This is not casework that everyone does. They give you a token and tell you to get on the bus or something like that. I think what they do is incredible, as well. They are one of the places that definitely is, I would call them harm reduction friendly, or harm reduction people in that they work with the clients that no one else can work with.

Mary: You know, and I think ATC has obviously gotten much bigger over the years. I'm just really grateful that, despite the intense gentrification and transformation of a city that I hardly recognize, that ATC has continued on and actually grown. And I hope that they are forever a part of the landscape as long as they need to exist in this city.