Oakland's DreamCatcher program aims to help at-risk teens

OAKLAND (KTVU) -- For the past 17 years, DreamCatcher Homeless Youth Services has been working to help young victims who have been sexually exploited. Now, the group is preparing to open the doors on a new facility in downtown Oakland that administrators hope will strengthen the safety net for at-risk teens.

Amba Johnson, executive director of the Alameda County group, said the shelter's new, $2 million expanded facility will help the agency serve more in need.

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"I'm really, really excited," she said about the new Victorian building in downtown Oakland that will house the expanded facility. "Conservatively, (we will be able to serve) about 1,500 youth on any given night in this county that are not safe."

The new building in downtown Oakland is adjacent to an older, cramped Victorian house that the agency has outgrown. The older building only has enough room for eight beds.

But thanks to additional funding from the city of Alameda, Oakland, a state grant and other donations, DreamCatcher now has the resources to move next door to an expanded building that will offer three times the capacity of the previous building.

The new safe haven is named Nikka's Place and it will provide three meals a day, on-site laundry services and job placement. It will also offer counseling and some medical services.

"The new facility has the potential for 24 beds," Johnson said. "That's three times the capacity (so) that's huge."

The group was formed in 2000 to help homeless teen girls who were runaways and considering life in the sex trade, often becoming victims of human trafficking or being exploited by pimps. And minority and young girls of color are often disproportionately impacted by exploitation, officials say.

"People of color represent 25 percent of the population and 75 percent of kids on the street," Johnson said, adding that exploitation is the biggest risk for runaways because they are often targeted by those involved in the commercial sex trade.

Many teens who end up being served by DreamCatcher have few options for help and getting back on their feet.

Said Johnson: "When they turn to us, they are making the only choice other than the potential of losing their lives on the street."

Jazmyn Brown has ample experience with foster care. She said she is trying to help other young girls by sharing her rocky experiences with them.

"I always encourage them to focus on what interests them," said Brown, 25.

Officials at DreamCatcher are trying to retain their existing building, which will allow them to further expand their services.

Johnson said her agency can make a difference. She would like to create a cul-de-sac in downtown Oakland that functions as a safety zone that serves at-risk teens.

"You can always change anything around you if people are there for you," Johnson said.

By KTVU reporter Rob Malcolm.