Sam Laidig knows the ropes of being homeless. He knows which public bathrooms and parks are the cleanest and which coffee or doughnut shops open the earliest. He’s become a pro at staying awake all night to guard his belongings.
He is 19 and one of the estimated 2,600 homeless youth in Marin County – one of the nation’s wealthiest regions.
“I hope that I’m a post-homeless youth of Marin,” Laidig said with a wry laugh as he worked on a mural intended to depict a rosier future. “I spent the last few nights in a park bathroom in San Rafael, but I think I just found a place to live.”
Laidig is part of a mural project organized by two Marin County nonprofits, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity, and Unity Through Creativity, and supported by organizations including the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art. Two days a week through July and August, youths gather in a home in San Rafael to paint, and to share their stories. They talk about what they’ve been through, and what they’d like for the future.
There are teenagers who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, and there are high school students who are involved because they want to make a difference and help a hidden population. The homeless and at-risk youth are paid for their work on the mural.
“It’s a community-wide mural project called ‘The Seasons of Hope Singing Tree,’ ” said Zara Babitzke, the founder of Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity, an organization begun to create a safety net of housing and guidance. “It’s for this overlooked or forgotten youth population.”
Babitzke’s program helps youth ages 16 to 25 who are “push outs,” abandoned by their parents, or who have “absent parents,” parents who are unable to parent because of mental illness, incarceration or drug or alcohol dependency. The program provides emergency shelter, rooms with host families or apartments with peers. It also links youth to jobs, scholarships for college, counseling, and legal and medical aid.
“I envisioned the whole community coming together as ambassadors of hope and opportunity for young people without families,” she said, as a group of teenagers painted and others created leaves and birds to be placed on the painted limbs.
Babitzke partnered with Unity Through Creativity’s Laurie Marshall, who started engaging at-risk youth in art in 1999, and over the years has spearheaded the creation of 24 murals, with four 8-by-8-foot freestanding panels showing the same tree in four seasons. The finished murals are expected to go on a traveling exhibition to nearly two dozen Marin County schools and other organizations.
Kaila McDonald, who is 21 and formerly homeless, serves as the program director for Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity.
“I became homeless at 17 when I was taken out of my home by child protective services,” said McDonald, who attends UC Berkeley. “We are not as visible as the adult homeless because we are couch surfing and we sleep in cars. I slept in my car. I was working three jobs. I just wanted to go to college. I was helped by Zara and her program.”
Laidig, working nearby, said, “Being a part of this is great. I get to do art, which I haven’t really had the chance to do. The sentiment is good. It’s nice to be around people who care.”
Article write by Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle, Aug 17, 2012 (used with permission)