BERKELEY -- Youth Spirit Artworks is changing young lives one brush stroke at a time.
In a cramped storefront on Alcatraz Avenue comes the smell of acrylic paint and sweat as homeless and near-homeless teens and young people, often struggling to find a couch to sleep on and a daily hot meal, work to create one-of-a-kind art to share and sell.
Making the art is therapeutic and a positive outlet for their emotions, the young people say. It's also fun, and a way to put a little cash in their wallets. And now, with a newly purchased "art cart" that they park outside of two Berkeley supermarkets and a farmers market, the level of exposure for the program, and, more importantly, the art, is increasing.
"It's a good pastime and a good stress reliever. I just feel better (doing art)," said Toryanna Finley, 17. A friend told her about the program about two years ago, and since then she's improved her skills. "I love color so much. I love to mix and match and see what I can come up with on paper. Over time I learned to draw lifelike faces and body figures."
She is just one of more than 125 young people who will work at the nonprofit organization this year.
"The level of creativity and the ability to learn is stunning," said Youth Spirit Artworks senior artist and instructor Victor Mavedzenge, who has a master's degree in fine arts. "I have students whose ability has really shot up over time."
The teens and young adults -- ages 16 to 25 -- draw and paint, create unique T-shirts, mugs and tote bags in the shop mornings and afternoons. Between 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekdays, some artists stow their supplies and head out with the tricycle-powered art cart to the Berkeley Bowl on Shattuck and Whole Foods on Telegraph. On Tuesdays, the art cart can be found at the farmers market on Adeline and 63rd streets. The cart was purchased from donations, and they hope to add more to the fleet in coming months.
The cart looks like something an ice cream vendor might ¿use, except it's not decorated with posters of sweet treats but rather colorful tiles made from the original artwork of about 15 artists.
"This is very much a youth-led program, so the youth have decision-making power in the program and with the art cart," Executive Director Sally Hindman said. "We have youth that are working toward a variety of vocational goals and they can develop their strengths through involvement in our program."
Youth Spirit Artworks, or YSA, teaches homeless and those at risk of being homeless how to draw and paint, but the young people also learn tools needed to run a nonprofit organization -- teamwork and business skills, said Hindman, who founded the program with a $20,000 grant from the city in 2007 as a response to the challenges homeless and low-income youth were having finding work.
The need for jobs and job training for young people is clear. Nationwide, unemployment among people ages 16 to 24 was 16.3 percent in June, the last month for which statistics are available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. Teens receive a small stipend from YSA and earn money selling art, said Hindman.
"It's cool that we can sell stuff and make money," said Finley. "But I want to keep all my originals because if I ever do become famous I want to have (those)."
In Alameda County, there are no firm numbers that show how many teens and young people are without permanent residency, but DreamCatcher, the only teen shelter in the county serving homeless youth ages 13-18, receives an average of six calls per day from youth in need of safe shelter, or more than 2,000 calls per year, according to Reed Connell, the executive director of the Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance.
Clearly, there is a need for job training to get youth off the streets. Young people come to YSA from foster and transitional homes, homeless shelters and friends, said Hindman. About 15 percent of the participants live in shelters and another 65 percent "couch surf," she said. The remainder are housed.
They must be living below the poverty line to be part of the program, said Hindman, who has worked with homeless people for 25 years and is the co-founder of Street Spirit, the San Francisco East Bay homeless newspaper.
For more information about Youth Spirit Artworks, call 510-282-0396 or go to http://youthspiritartworks.org. The store is open between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekdays and noon and 3 p.m. Saturdays. The store is at 1769 Alcatraz Ave. but will move across the street to a larger spot at 1740 Alcatraz Ave. in Berkeley in the fall.