“Well, I’ll leave you two my alone,” I say and give them my card. I urge them to give me a call if they see Wendy and the boys.
“They’ll be, like the same as anybody else,” George shrugs again. “Everybody’s gonna be crawled into some hole, a day like today.”
“Uh-huh. Thanks.” From there I walk to Seaport Village and give the popcorn guy and the security guards the same names. No one else is around. It’s cold and the rain is getting insistent. The popcorn guy directs me to the video arcade and that too is deserted. Pinball machines, Killer Instinct, Time Crisis II, and Virtual Cop screens wink, glitter, rattle and jabber in a creepy parody of hostile fun. Not a soul in sight, not even an attendant with an apron full of change. I don’t see any Mario Brothers games so maybe this isn’t Marioland anyway. The security guys tell me they recognize the lost boys’ names; they’ve seen them tagged on the bathroom walls, but they don’t have a description.
At Fourth and Broadway I approach one of the guys carrying walkie-talkies in front of Planet Hollywood. His nay-blue slicker bears the words “Alpha Outreach Project.” He doesn’t give me his name, and he isn’t even sure if he can talk to me. We go into Sam Goody, where a half dozen men with bedrolls and backpacks are killing time listening to CD samples beneath headphones. Mr. Outreach asks his partner about talking to the press and then calls into headquarters. “I have some kind of reporter here,” he says. After a few “uh-huhs” and “okays”, he signs off and gives me a phone number for Alpha. “They’ll answer your questions,” he tells me. “Basically all the cops and security guys and store owners will try to move these [homeless] people along somewhere else, anywhere else. Just no one says so.”
I find “The Place,” the school where George and Linette attend, in a funky area of town. “The Place” is locked up. Classes are over for the day. Peering in the window I see some Xeroxed textbook pages about Leonardo Da Vinci hanging on the wall.
The Storefront is a few blocks away. No one is there wither. Through the window I can see a row of seven single beds that look like they fold into the wall, a pool table, a shelf full of paperback books and board games. On the door facing the street is a sign that reads PLEASE DON’T USE OUR DOORWAY FOR A TOILET.
After walking around between Fourth and Broadway, over to Market, up to 12th, and then back down to Broadway, talking to a few kids in doorways who hit me up for change and cigarettes but don’t know or say they don’t know Dopey, Axel, Wendy and the gang, I head back to the shelter where my car is parked. Someone is home this time.
Daniel Manson is a counselor at the Storefront. A sturdy, serious looking black ma, he takes the times to discuss the Storefront project. “We get funding from the state, the county, the city, private funds. We have about 13 kids at the moment. All they have to do to qualify is say they’re homeless or runaways; all they have to do is come to the door and state that. If they are over 17 and don’t say so, we’ll find out later. The Storefront is for kids 12 to 17 years of age.
“The average stay,” 49 year old Manson says, “depends on the kid. It depends on if we’re trying to get the kid back home or if the kid wants to be emancipated or we’re trying to find other resources for him or her. Being emancipated means the kid doesn’t need his parents in his life at this point. He wants to have a job, to support himself. We normally help them do that.”
I ask Manson about the complaint from kids that they’re being hassled more than usual because of the ballpark going in.
“I don’t think it’s so much because of the ballpark. They [business owners, police, and the city agencies] have made a big stink about moving homeless people out of the particular area and toward the inner city and residential areas. A lot of people are complaining about them being in their backyard, hanging out in the community. But the police have always harassed – well, I shouldn’t say harassed because in some instances they help them. But you get some hard-nosed police officers and sometimes the kids get hassled – but it’s not because of the ballpark. Just being out after nine, ten, or eleven o’ clock at night, maybe trying to find shelter, maybe smoking marijuana or doing intravenous drugs or crystal – of course the police will bother them.
“I know one location, it’s at First and Island, the kids call if Marioland because it looks like the video game Mario Brothers. If you look at that video game it looks like the little hills of the park – you know what I’m sayin’? It’s one of the places where they come together, hang out. You don’t find them sleeping there because it’s pretty cold. They find places, someone’s house, maybe a pedophile is out there, and they’ll put them up in exchange for sex. Survival sex they call it.
“Sometimes the kids will even call these pedophiles and say, ‘Hey pick me up here. I don’t want to spend the night in a shelter.’ At one point we had pedophiles calling us, using this phone right here on the corner, calling and saying, “So and so left his books on the bench in the park.’ They want the kid to come out of the shelter so they can basically have sex with that kid. We’ve had encounters with them, we’ve sent a few to jail because of the seriousness of the crime. A couple of them were hanging out too much, tryin’ to see what’s goin’ on in the shelter. They cruise around here, downtown, Balboa Park, El Cajon Boulevard, the beach areas. They’re all over. You don’t know exactly who they are. All sorts of people. We work closely with the police sex-crimes unit.