Los Angeles Times, Saturday February 20, 1993
COPYRIGHT (c) 1993 Times Mirror Company
A New Breed of Homeless
By MACK REED, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Shaved to stubble but for a long, silken topknot, Chase’s head shows ragged pink scars he has picked up living on Hollywood streets off and on for two of his 15 years. Crashed on a shelter couch, he pops a downer–prescription Benadryl he scored somewhere–and drags a blanket over his clunky black Doc Martens, rip-hemmed jeans and plaid flannel shirt, tucking it under his blissed-out grin.
“I’ve done every drug, everything I ever wanted to do,” Chase says cheerfully, refusing to give his full name. “Anything and everything that’d get me high to make me forget my problems, I’ll do it.”
Chase is one of a new breed of homeless youth landing on the streets of Los Angeles in vastly increasing numbers; some forced out of their homes by violent parents, others drawn by threadbare fantasies of rock stardom or movie fame. Rootless, shortchanged by dwindling public aid and forced to fend for themselves longer than they ever have been, they have grown hardened.
Some are full of attitude: Their clothes, pierced body parts and stark haircuts bind them together in a rebellious fraternity that collectively sneers at conventional attitudes about morality and homelessness. Some are scarcely teen-agers, operating in a street society that is a vicious cycle of drugs, prostitution and petty crimes. It is a world that has become increasingly violent.
“I remember years ago, the things that came up used to be fistfights,” said Liz Gomez, executive director of the LA Youth Network, which focuses on the most hard-core, difficult kids. “Now there’s stabbings, shootings, gangbanging.”
Chase, who takes classes toward his high school equivalency diploma by day and rattles around Hollywood at night, confirms the reality from his street-level perspective.
“Homeless kids come to Hollywood. Nobody wants to take care of ’em,” he says. “They ain’t got s—, man, but the clothes on their back. They’ll get their things taken, ripped off. They’ll get beat up. If I don’t do it, my homeboys’ll do it.”
Dank, soiled carpets reek of urine in the squat house, an abandoned Hollywood building that the punks have broken into, spattered with graffiti and made their home. Someone has brought candles, strawberries and drugs.
The punks have dined on sandwiches proffered by Brian Bob, a burly, jovial outreach worker from Covenant House, one of Hollywood’s largest youth shelter-outreach programs. Bob prowls the streets by van and sometimes visits the squatters.
A party soon begins. The girls huddle shivering in one room over a glowing pipe of marijuana. The boys stomp around another room, fencing with lit candles, bellowing punk lyrics at each other and screaming “Chaos!” Some cough. A flu has been going around.
Carl’s father booted him out five years ago over his punk lifestyle. Now 20, Carl is among the more levelheaded here. He wears an Army fatigue jacket inscribed with anti-racist slogans and his curly hair is furrowed into twin Mohawks. Carl says he lives in the “squat,” eats shelter food and cadges coins from passersby to spend on drugs and beer.
“A lot of people think we’re slime of the earth,” Carl says. “They’re afraid of us and they have it in their mind we’re, like, violent creatures. We’re all human too.”
Carl says he would get a job, but he has a record: He admits serving four months for a felony strong-arm robbery and attacking “only people who really deserve it, people who are ass—–.”
“Society doesn’t owe me anything,” Carl says, but he adds that “it would be nice” if more people would spare change for the punks. “It’s just out of being nice,” he says. “You should help people without expecting something in return.”
After lecturing them on AIDS, drug use and job hunting, Bob gives up and readies to leave. Drugs make the kids too hard to talk to.
Better to come back when they are sober. He crawls out of the squat house, clambering over cinder blocks the punks busted through to get in. He did what he could: fed them, offered to bring condoms next time, peppered them with pop quizzes on rehab programs, GED classes and drug use.
Some mouthed the correct answers about bleaching hypodermic needles to prevent AIDS infection and went right back to shooting up, Bob says.
“I’m very confrontational,” Bob says. “It’s a reality check to them. I say: ‘Do you realize you are homeless?’ They shake their head and go: ‘I know, I know, I know,’ and ‘Well, I’m young.’ And I say: ‘No, it’s not like you’re gonna be young forever. What you are now will affect you later in life.’ “
The number of homeless kids has swelled 50% since 1981–an estimated 15,000 youths now live on the streets of Los Angeles County, said John Peel, associate director of Los Angeles Childrens Hospital’s division of adolescent medicine. In the summer months, the youthful homeless population increases to 30,000.
The number has swelled, in part, because of an influx of young illegal immigrants from Latin America. Those youths are seeking work or fleeing broken families, said Father Richard Estrada, director of Jovenes, a homeless outreach program for young Latinos.
The same factors contribute to the increase in the number of teen-agers running away from home in the United States, social workers say. As the economy puts more pressure on families, parents increasingly are abandoning children or lashing out at them, social workers say. And once the youths start living on the streets they are staying there longer.
“There are kids who are growing up out there on the streets,” Peel said. The average age of homeless youths in Los Angeles County, he said, has risen from 15 in 1986 to just over 17 today.
“They’re more physically beat up,” said Fred Ali, who runs Covenant House. “There’s more upper respiratory infection, for example. They seem dirtier, they seem hungrier, emotionally they seem a little bit more upset. . . . They just seem needier than they did a couple years ago.”
Covenant House’s street contacts in fiscal 1992 show the damage toll: 70% had histories of physical, sexual or emotional abuse and 47% had been away from home more than a year. More than 41% were found to be depressed, 19% as suicidal and 32% had attempted to kill themselves.
About 60% abused drugs or alcohol, and 46% were found as being at high risk of catching the human immunodeficiency virus, Ali said.
An estimated 4% of homeless youths–10 times the national rate–are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, said Peel, who compares the rehabilitation of street youths to treating combat veterans or battered women for post-traumatic stress.
“They’re seeing terrible violence,” he said. “They’re seeing totally inequitable situations where they’re not treated by people on the streets or treated by society as regular citizens. And they’ve had to adapt their lifestyle to one of survival.”
Budget cuts and declining donations to agencies such as United Way that help support youth shelters have made the work harder. Travelers’ Aid suffered a cutback this year of $200,000 in the United Way contributions, which is 37% of its budget. The agency also had its federal McKinney Act money cut from $10,000 to $6,000, said Susan Edelstein, executive director.
“People are not as willing to donate as they were in the past,” Edelstein said resignedly. “It tends to be trendy on who you give money to. This year it may be AIDS, while last year it may have been the homeless.”
Some of the youths on Los Angeles’ streets deal drugs. Many more use them–more than 60%, by some estimates.
Crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine–speed–are the most popular, social workers say. Marijuana, heroin and LSD are widely used.
“If there’s something that will alter their consciousness, they’ll take it,” Peel said. “In the last eight years, I’ve only heard of three kids who have not used.”
Quiet, 19, remembers how most youths around him ridiculed speed users in the summer of 1991.
“Now they use it,” says Quiet as he hangs outside McDonald’s. He is a self-appointed street preacher to the Hollywood youths who stand around joking, killing time and panhandling. “Some dealers out there will give it to them for free to get them started,” Quiet says.
“Until they decide they want to quit themselves, they’ll never quit, till they’re dead, sick or in jail.”
Sex with predatory adults also is common.
“Quite frequently, kids are involved in survival sex,” Peel said. “It may be for a place to stay, it may be for a meal. We’ve had kids do anything somebody wants them to do for a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, any type of sex you can imagine.”
Seven years ago, when she was 13, Krisha’s mother forced her into prostitution. When her mom went to prison, Krisha stayed on the street, acquiring the work name “Tigress” and numerous tattoos.
“It’s no big deal to me,” says the blonde, blunt 20-year-old. She still turns tricks–although she quickly points out that she now lives in a motel, not on the street.
She refuses to get a job and a home because “it’s not something I’m used to. I’m used to a very hard life.”
Jesse works the same game on a different street.
He began turning tricks eight years ago, at 13, after running away from his Midwest home. Now, rust-colored lesions pock his black complexion. Jesse says he is sick with “the HIV, the No. 1 thing anybody has out there now. I’ve lost a lot of friends out here. I’m getting kinda nervous that I’ll be next.”
When he could not stay at a trick’s home or hotel room, he sometimes tried to get himself arrested, “just to get off the street.” Police ignored him.
Now, gazing steadily over rhinestone-studded shades, he is resolute: “I’m getting ready to get myself together. I wanna go back to beauty school.”
Before running away, he says, youths should think about having to “jump in a guy’s car they don’t even know, and what they have to do for their money. . . . At least try to find help, talk to a teacher, get help in school, talk to somebody they really trust.”
One problem is that there are few opportunities at legitimate work, and prostitution is a quick fix for strapped teen-agers.
Detective Rick Papke of LAPD’s Hollywood juvenile division summed it up: “The kids learn as soon as they get into Hollywood that the quickest way to make some money is walk up and down the street. The girls go out on Hollywood and the boys go out on Santa Monica Boulevard, and they make a pretty good living.”
Von, a waif-like 16-year-old, sits in the Hollywood shelter where he landed recently after fleeing his Wilmington home and, he says, his stepfather’s frequent beatings. He nervously eyes the cracked plaster, the scuffed, patchwork linoleum floor and the louder, more carefree long-timers slouching around him in battered chairs waiting to be fed.
“This is all we got,” he says numbly, hunched on a folding chair with arms wrapped around his ribs. “Where I live, (gang territory) all you gotta worry about is being shot. There, at least I’m outta my misery. . . . I don’t like living on the street.”
Leslie, 13, homeless for six months, is a little more comfortable, ribbing and insulting the other youths before lunch.
He says he left home in Riverside County when he could no longer take his mother’s beatings.
“I heard all the little kids run away to Hollywood and life’s better there because there’s a whole bunch of little kids your age,” Leslie says, kinked black hair dyed blond and etched with a single razor stroke. “I took the bus and I never stopped.”
He panhandled enough to buy hamburgers and sometimes worked as a movie extra before fi
nding his way to a shelter that is caring for him until something more permanent can be arranged.
“I don’t want to stay here. I want a family . . . with some rules. I think that’s all that homeless kids want–they want a family and they want something they can do,” he says. “I’m like a goofy kid, I goof around all the time. The kids in here are tough. They’re bad.”
Nearby, 18-year-old Rick sways back and forth.
“I smoked about an ounce of weed, and drank a six of Coronas,” he slurs, by way of introduction.
Rick left Miami four years ago because, he says vaguely, “I got tired of my mom’s s—.”
He tried living with his father in North Carolina, but tired of that as well and came to Los Angeles.
“Big city, bright lights, that kind of thing,” he mutters, hunched over a GameBoy’s buttons, cursing at the electronic Contra he shoves around the tiny yellow screen. “Young, dumb fool going somewhere where there was a lot of people.”
The street introduced Rick to a few vices–such as speed, a drug habit that took more than a year to kick. And auto theft, which put him in Juvenile Hall for two months, then three months, then another three months before he turned 18, he says.
Nikki, 20, with long blonde hair and a satchel full of drawings, has been bouncing between friends’ homes and the street. She has no use for drugs, she just wants work.
Nikki said she was kicked out of her home in Fullerton more than a year ago because she flushed her mom’s dope–“crack, speed, LSD, coke, everything”–down the toilet. She drifted to Hollywood, where she is seeking work as a dancer or model while living with her boyfriend.
He is unemployed, too, and the apartment may not be theirs for long, she says. She is ready to beg if she must, but she will not sell drugs or her body.
“I fell into the trap that the movies make it out to seem like Hollywood is so cool. They make Hollywood out to be all glitz and glamour,” Nikki says sniffling, fighting off a cold.
“In reality, Hollywood is really hell.”
Options for Homeless Youths
Although funding is spread thin, there are a number of shelters operating specifically for homeless youths in Los Angeles County.
Angel’s Flight: Shelter for homeless youths ages 12 to 17, geared to reunite them with parents or guardians or find long-term foster home placement. Shelter, 357 S. Westlake Ave., Los Angeles; Drop-In Center, 1777 1/2 Ivar Ave., Hollywood.
Aviva Diagnostic Shelters: Shelter for youths ages 12 to 17. Psychiatric, psychological, medical and educational assessment, followed by treatment. Boys’ shelter, 7786 Cherrystone Ave., Panorama City. Girls’ shelter, 6603 Whitman Ave., Van Nuys.
Children of the Night Inc.: Shelter and outreach service for juveniles with a history of involvement in prostitution or pornography, with 24-hour hot line. Shelter, 14530 Sylvan St., Van Nuys.
Covenant House California: Shelter and outreach program for youths under age 21. 5353 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.
Gabe Kruks/Jurgen Tilsner Youth Shelter: Shelter and outreach program for gays and lesbians ages 13 to 23. Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, 1625 N. Hudson Ave., Los Angeles.
Immigrant Refuge Children’s Shelter: Shelter and drop-in center, job and other training, specializing in recently arrived Latinos ages 14 to 17. 252 S. Rampart Blvd., Los Angeles.
Info Line: 24-hour, seven-day hot line for information and referral to community services such as runaway shelters, hot lines, mental health resources, health services and legal resources. Toll free for all Los Angeles areas: (800) 339-6993. Los Angeles, (213) 686-0950; San Fernando Valley, (818) 501-4447; Burbank-Glendale, (818) 956-1100; West Los Angeles, (310) 551-2929; South Bay-Long Beach, (310) 603-8962; airport area, (310) 671-7464; San Gabriel Valley (818) 350-6833; TTD line for the hearing-impaired (800) 660-4026. Jovenes: Shelter, job and language training, especially for Latino youths ages 12 to 18. 1218 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Youth Network: Shelter for youths ages 12 to 17 and drop-in center offering counseling, showers, food and laundry service for youths ages 12 to 23. Shelter, 1550 N. Gower Ave., Hollywood. Drop-in center, 1944 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles. Options House of Hollywood: Shelter for youths ages 12 to 17. 1754 Taft Ave., Hollywood.
Rosemary Cottage: Residential treatment program for runaway girls, ages 12 to 18. 3244 E. Green St., Pasadena.
1736 Family Crisis Center, Youth Shelter: Shelter with counseling, hot line and referral services for youths ages 10 to 17. 1736 Monterey Blvd, Hermosa Beach.
Stepping Stone Youth Crisis Shelter: Crisis intervention and shelter for youths ages 7 to 17. 1833 18th St., Santa Monica.
Teen Canteen: Drop-in center with clothing, laundry, counseling and food for homeless youths ages 12 to 23. 6363 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
YWCA/Los Angeles Job Corps Center: Shelter, training and employment program for youths ages 16 to 21 who meet poverty guidelines. 1106 S. Broadway, Los Angeles.