To the casual observer, this sunny, windswept corner of Bayview-Hunters Point seems like any other neighborhood in San Francisco, with a nearby espresso shop hinting at gentrification and the city’s signature hills rising in the distance.

There’s no way to tell that the Third Street Youth Center & Clinic, which presides on this corner, was the site of a notorious liquor store that injected prostitution, petty crime, and drug dealing like a toxin into the surrounding neighborhood. Or that these problems, now seemingly neutralized, remain local facts of life.

Today the corner is an oasis of security for local teens, whose numbers are higher in this crime-plagued community than in any other neighborhood in the city. And the Third Street Youth Center & Clinic, a grantee of the Hewlett Foundation’s Population Program, is bringing new hope to a population that has known too little of it.

“It’s always hard to be a teenager, but it’s a lot harder when you’ve seen your friends killed by guns, and you’re still expected to hit all the appropriate developmental milestones,” says Whitney Wright, a consultant to the clinic and its former director of behavioral health. “It’s all about helping teenagers create an identity. Without that, they identify with their street. And it’s their street against other streets.”

The Third Street Youth Center & Clinic is a full-service adolescent health and youth development center that offers everything from routine physicals to birth control, testing for pregnancy, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases to personal counseling-all at no cost to clients. For many of these teens, a clinic appointment marks their first trip to a doctor since a pediatrician visit long ago.

Of course they are children no more. The clinic conducts pregnancy tests for all teenage women who visit and say they are sexually active. Fully 13 percent of them are found to be pregnant. Five percent have chlamydia. Both are unusually high numbers for teens.

For Hewlett’s Population Program, the clinic represents a broad-based approach to reducing unplanned pregnancies and improving reproductive health among teens and young adults. By providing a welcoming place where teens can access birth control and youth development activities aimed at changing the attitudes and self-images of the teens who come to the Center, Hewlett program officers and the Third Street staff hope to change those statistics-and life on the surrounding streets-for the better.

Created with and by the Neighborhood

Informed by interviews and focus groups with more than 500 neighborhood residents, today the Center has partnerships with a broad range of other community organizations. It has eleven staffers; offers its health clinic services three days a week, from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.; and, thanks to new support it recently received from the City of San Francisco and private donors, hopes to expand that service to five days a week.

“It’s an exciting approach,” says Population Program Officer Peter Belden. “They are providing family planning services where few were available, and in the context of a youth center that the teens themselves helped to shape.”

And it seems to be effective with the kids-typically fourteen to eighteen years old-who come through the Center’s doors and flop on the comfortable and well-worn paisley couches that line its large, sunny, main room.

Some, like “Dwayne,” were steered in this direction by a probation officer. Three years ago, when he first appeared at the Center at age fourteen, Dwayne had already been in and out of San Francisco Juvenile Hall for petty theft and drug offenses. With an alcoholic single mom as his only anchor, he was clearly adrift. Wright says she tried to get him involved in a youth leadership program there, but it was clear he couldn’t cope with it. So she invited him to join a boxing class that she runs.

Wright, who learned to box at the Brooklyn gym where Muhammad Ali trained, went on to win a flyweight Golden Gloves title in 2002 in San Francisco. Now she shares those skills with the kids-mostly boys-of Bayview-Hunters Point as a way in. Wright’s empathy with them is palpable, and her trust in them genuine. How else to explain that she would climb into a boxing ring with them when she was eight months pregnant and let them throw punches at her padded hands? The kids know what’s real, and that trust is reciprocated.

Today, three years after he first appeared, Dwayne’s life is changed. He’s getting good grades and helping Wright teach younger boxers. And he has a part-time summer job.

Boxing “stretched his attention span and taught him impulse control,” says Wright, who describes the boxing classes as a violence prevention program. “You know, if you’re a professional, you don’t need to fight on the street.”

Connecting Beyond the Ring

Her work with Dwayne went beyond the ring and demonstrates the core philosophy of the Center. The young man would have been an unlikely candidate to attend any of its psychological counseling sessions. So Wright invited him to help her with office work, and they’d sit and talk.

“That’s how we see mental health,” she says. “It’s not a fifty-minute hour in a room. We might have a kid keep a journal or write a personal code of ethics. It’s all strength-based: what do we have here in this kid, and how can we build on it?”

There’s also a young mothers’ support group that meets weekly at the Center, a girls’ leadership program, and plans to start a drumming group, among other offerings.

The regulars realize what’s being offered and respond. One, “Janelle,” started dropping in nearly four years ago, when she was fourteen. She lives with her mother who drives a bus for the city. Janelle puts it this way:
“When I’m at the Center, I can be myself. And having people to talk to helps me to better my personality.”
Through the art and design programs at the Center, Janelle has developed an interest in Web design.

Together with teachers there, she is redesigning the Center’s Web site. This fall she is on her way to college, aiming to be the first in her family to get a college degree.

“It can’t just be about medical services or the programs we offer,” Wright says. “We need to be involved in other aspects of kids’ lives. Our hope is that they come in here, and we meet them where they are. We try to hold them together while they navigate adolescence. We can follow up with the job training and other stuff later.”