I owe an incredible debt to Huckleberry House.
I’ve always considered myself an open person, but this is not a part of my life I am comfortable talking about. It’s taken me several tries to get my thoughts out, but I believe that if my story can shed light on the need for our government to invest in social services, and soften the heart of even just one of our legislators, perhaps my experiences were not in vain.
My relationship with my family has always been complicated. I grew up as the oldest of four in the Outer Mission in San Francisco. My parents were very strict, Conservative, and deeply religious. As punishment my father would hit us with a large stick he used to keep on the window sill, but one day that stick broke while he was hitting my brother and he began to use a black braided belt instead.
The physical punishments became a lot worse once I started high school. I attended George Washington in the Richmond District, which is on the other side of the City from where I lived (and an hour and a half bus ride). Oftentimes after a long day at school and exhausting bus ride home, I didn’t want to do anything except take a nap before diving into my homework and repeating it all over again the next day. But that was unacceptable to my father, who demanded that I finish my chores before I start on any homework.
In retrospect things would have been a lot easier had I just listened, but I was a stubborn, outspoken adolescent. My brothers were much more obedient and didn’t prioritize school as much as I did, so the bulk of my father’s wrath was saved for me.
One day I came home and my father was waiting for me. He had closed off all the doors in the dining room and said I wasn’t allowed to leave the room until I had finished doing the laundry for the family. When he reached to grab me, I dove under the dining room table to get away from him. He grabbed my legs to try to pull me out, but I held onto the center divider with all my strength. Eventually the table broke and he put all his weight on me. As he sat on me, I looked up and watched my mother pick up my little sister and exit the house, leaving me alone with him.
Another time I came home and my father didn’t like the pants I was wearing. In a fit of rage, he tore them off of me and then proceeded to rip them to shreds. I never knew what was waiting for me when I got home and it was beginning to affect my grades and mental health.
I was at school one day when I realized that I didn’t want to return home. In Health class, I had learned about a place called Huckleberry House, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth. The first of its kind, it was started in 1967 during the Summer of Love right here in San Francisco. While on my lunch break, I met with the school nurse and asked her to help me make an appointment with Huckleberry. I did not return home that afternoon.
Things got better for a little while. Huckleberry connected me with a social worker who made my father sign paperwork promising not to hit us anymore. Eventually he resorted to taking my belongings. He began confiscating my textbooks and schoolwork, and eventually started to take my clothes and shoes too. By this time, my family had a relationship of sorts with the local police department. When I disobeyed, my parents would call the police, and asked them to send certain officers who they knew would take their side. I stayed at Huckleberry House two or three more times.
I’ll never forget the day I stopped living at home. I got up early that morning to meet with a childhood friend who had just returned from a summer in China. When I got back home, it was still early so I went back to sleep and put my cell phone on my pillow next to me. While I was asleep, my little brother gave my phone to my mom, who tried to use it as leverage to get me to do some chore I hadn’t completed yet. Eventually someone called the police, and so I decided to sit in the bathroom while I waited for them. Thinking nothing of it, I took a cutting board, cantaloupe, and knife into the bathroom with me; I figured I’d have a snack while waiting for the police to show up. To this day I still shudder when I think about how badly this could have ended up.
When the police arrived, they separated us into different rooms and I went into my bedroom. One cop was particularly nice to me. He told me that he could tell I was a smart kid and that I just needed to use my parents and their resources for a couple more years until I made it to college. He allowed me to pack a bag with some clothes, and looked through it to make sure I didn’t pack any contraband items. When it came time for me to leave for Huckleberry House, he motioned for me to lead the way, and so I grabbed my bag and walked toward the front door of the house.
Then in one swift motion, Mr. Nice Cop slammed me against the wall, made me drop my bag, and placed me into handcuffs.
And then just like a common criminal, I was escorted out of the house I grew up in, and placed into the police car waiting out front, for the entire neighborhood to see.
The police took me to Huckleberry House, and I wore the pajamas I arrived in for three days before I was able to access any of my clothing. This ended up being my final and longest stay at the shelter. My social worker tried to convince me to return home with my parents, but I adamantly refused; anything was better than living at home. He warned me that there was a good chance I would end up in a group home. He made the appointment and I braced myself for what was going to happen next.
Thankfully my grandmother across the bay in the city of Richmond allowed me to come live with her. And even though it meant I had to wake up at 4:15 every morning to make it to school on time, I was incredibly grateful that I was able to continue going to Washington High. I knew that getting into college was my best shot at bettering my situation, and two years later I left San Francisco to attend UCLA.
Many times I have wondered, what if I was half Black, instead of half white? What if I had lived in a different city, or even a different neighborhood? What would have happened if I never put my foot down and instead suffered silently in my chaotic home situation? Where would I have gone if Huckleberry House didn’t exist?
I am telling my story for a few different reasons:
- I am committed to authenticity, transparency, and education in my work.
- I want to have some control of the narrative to prevent any manipulation or twisting of my experiences: I was never sexually abused growing up, nor was I ever incarcerated, and although I’ve slept in some interesting spots, I’ve always had a roof over my head. I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate.
- I have the opportunity to advocate for the homeless LGBTQ and BIPOC youth, many of whom make their way through San Francisco, and many of whom were not offered the opportunities I was.
- Finally, I’d like to make a plea to our elected officials for the necessity of social services such as Huckleberry House. It is frightening to see that abortion rights, paid leave, affordable child care and healthcare are not priorities to the people we put in office.
When you invest in billionaires and corporations, stockholders see the returns. But when you invest in the American people, they turn around and re-invest in their families and communities. At a time when we are experiencing the highest level of wealth inequality in history, I hope our elected officials realize this before it’s too late.
Eric Curry is an author, activist, and small business owner. Follow him on Twitter @ericcurrysf and Instagram @ericcurryco