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Kicked out of Toussaine Teen Center

Homeless among San Diego hillocks.

When the rain makes its move on San Diego in January, the streets seem more lonely than in other cities; it is a broken promise. On the south Embarcadero on a Monday afternoon, in the leaden shadow of luxury hotels, children huddle in the open gazebos. Surrounded by the bobbing hulls and masts of yachts in blue canvas, the bay, the pasty color of drowned men rolling uneasily, George and Linette cup a roach wrapped in a matchbook and giggle. A third kid, a boy with a closely shaved scalp and a denim jacket with a St. Vincent De Paul’s laminated ID card pinned over his breast stands with his back to them. He is silhouetted against the bay, staring up and the lard and ash clouds. “What’s your name?” George calls to him. The boy turns and does not answer but lifts his green name tag. No one can read it from where they are standing. George lifts what’s left of the joint in a gesture of invitation and the boy returns his back to the gazebo, tripping on the smudged beauty beyond the sea wall. “Whatever,” George shrugs and smiles. He reveals a mouthful of braces.

George is 17 years old and looks older. Linette is 16 and seems more like 14. George has a home, such as it is, in East San Diego, where he stays with his mother, brothers, and sisters. Linette stays at a teen shelter called the Storefront downtown near City College. The shelter’s location needs to be vague because the staff and residents have an ongoing concern with pedophiles, drug dealers, and abusive, noncustodial parents.

“If you could give us more than just their names,” says Linette, “maybe we could help you find them. I think we know some kids by those names.” She is talking about my inquiries as to four homeless kids between the ages of 14 and 21. Someone had written to me about them. They said they were getting hassled by the cops and downtown security, according to their theory, because of the new ballpark to be installed in the Center City area.

“All I’ve got is their names,” I tell them.

“Well,” George inhales, pauses, “they’re probably around.” He gestures inland at the city. “Try Starbucks at Horton Plaza, Seaport Village, or Marioland.”

“Is Marioland a video-game place?”

George and Linette look at each other and laugh. They both nod, “Yeah, it’s just like a video-game place.” George asks me for a light and then a cigarette.

“Are you a dealer?” I ask him indicating the joint.

“Hell no. I’m a disc-jockey and I’m taking a course in public speaking. I’m just getting into it. I’m entering a speech contest.” Indeed, George’s voice is resonant and almost accentless. Between his voice, his height – at least six feet – Rasta-dread hair and his solid yet fluid street poise, eyes that take in his surroundings with a combination of marijuana merriness and cool assessment, George could be closer to 30 than 18.

I ask them if they would tell me their stories since I can’t find the kids I’m looking for. Linette looks to George as if for approval. George puts it back on her. “You’re homeless, not me. It’s up to you.”

The girl, hugging herself, pulls her windbreaker around her against the cold. She raises her hood, framing a pretty girl’s face that is becoming an exotic beauty’s. With one hand she fondles the crucifixes around her neck. She wears two of them, one silver, the other with bits of turquoise and rhinestone; between them is a brooch, a hollow silver heart. “I’ve been in a lot of group homes. I’ve been at the Storefront for about two weeks. See, I don’t get along with my mom. We’re fine if we don’t live with each other and just call each other on the phone.”

“Uh-huh. So you ran away, or what?” I was already losing interest in Linette’s story. Just a runaway: maybe spoiled, vain, too cool for school. Mom wouldn’t let her have colored boys over, smoke grass, and fuck, so she fades onto the street. I’m looking around the park for other lost souls in the rain. Some middle-aged men over by the bathrooms. They go inside when the cops cruise the parking lot. I’m searching for Wendy and the Lost Boys the woman wrote to me about: Wendy, Tito, Axel, Dopey, and Peter, they say their names are. “They pride themselves on not looking homeless,” the woman had said over the phone. But the only other kid out here is the denim jacket, crew-cut guy from St. Vinny’s. Linette is still talking.

“…moved into my girlfriend’s next door to my dad’s. My mom has custody of me but she lets me live with my dad, but he’s really violent and everything, so I went next door to this lady’s house that is my friend. I left his house last Thursday and she let me stay there and then I went to a friend’s house in L.A. I couldn’t stay there forever so…” She was all over the place. Her happily pot-wrenched brain is trying to track moves from Escondido to Tijuana to L.A. and back, making it sound like a series of whimsical turns off the freeway on the way to Disneyland. Her dad being “really violent and everything” is uttered dismissively, with a weedy smile. Maybe he smacked her, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell. She appears okay, and she isn’t taking it too seriously at the moment.

I ask her about any burning ambitions. “You know, do you wanna be a movie star or a model, a doctor, an astronaut?”

“I just want to survive,” she says without thinking too much and without smiling.

“So, are you guys boyfriend and girlfriend?” I ask. Linette giggles and retreats further into her sweatshirt hood. George exposes his braces again: silver on white in an amber face. “This is the first chance we’ve had to kick,” he tells me.

“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.

“We always try to get license-plate numbers, for example, and the police will run a check. Sometimes they [have priors for being] pedophiles, sometimes not. Sometimes it can be pretty hard to build a case against pedophiles because by the time we call in and give a description, whatever happened has basically happened – it’s over. The cops try as best they can to help us out, apprehend these persons.”

“Ever,” I ask, “catch anyone in the act?”

“Not exactly,” he says. Manson is leaning back in his chair, his hands folded. His manner is that of a tough uncle who will do difficult things for your own good. You will never thank him for it, and he doesn’t expect you to. “We have kids come in, identify the pedophile, and then we put them away.”

“What’s a common story you hear at the Storefront? Any one thing more than others?”

“Drugs and alcohol.” Manson doesn’t hesitate on this one, not like he did on getting kids to identify a pedophile. “With the parents or the kids themselves or both. They may have a stepfather, say, the mother caters to the stepfather, the kid runs away. Abuse of the stepfather, father, or mother. Could be a financial situation, a parent loses a job, abuse issues come up. A lot of families come here from different places in the world and can’t find jobs. Hardship issues, communication issues, abuse happens. Lots of issues. We always talk to the parents. We always let ‘em know what’s going on with us.”

I ask him about Linette, he knows who she is. “There must be some reason why she can’t go home with the mother. She may not be tellin’ the whole story. I’m not sure what it is. We have case managers here who deal with the issues, check out the situation…the father, see what’s goin’ on there. It’s not like she has a place to stay, and she chooses not to go there, she comes here, and then we find out she’s got a good place. Uh-uh, if that’s the case, we send them back home. If she’s here, there must be a reason why she’s here.”

The Storefront has been in existence “…going on 10 years. Our agency, San Diego Youth and Community Services, has been in existence for 27 years.” Manson has been in the field of social services for the past 22 years, working with families in one capacity or another.

“We always need volunteers,” he says leaning toward the tape recorder. “Our volunteer number is 221-8600 extension #271. You’ll talk to a person named Steve, who is our volunteer coordinator. We always need things for kids like blankets, hygiene products like toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, under-clothing, socks, hairbrushes and combs, razor blades, things like that. There’s a screening process for volunteers, you have to fill out an application, get fingerprinted, and the police department will check it out. They’re looking for any high crimes and especially instances with kids.”

The capacity for the shelter is 20. “Seventeen beds and three emergency beds. Most of the kids who come in here are boys. The girls tend to be taken care of by pimps or pedophiles or a friend. Kids might find a squat somewhere, an abandoned building or car, under a bridge. Sometimes they don’t want to come in because of their drug use and some just want to be on the street. After a kid has been out on the street for a year to 18 months, they become ‘street kids.’ That is, they learn how to fend for themselves, how to hustle, turn tricks, or become perpetrators themselves. Sometimes, they’ll come in looking to recruit kids and turn them out. A new kid might come into town, and they show them how to make money with survival sex. They go downtown, the parks, or whatever, and they sell their bodies for sex. When you come into a shelter, you have a little bit of structure, but some kids don’t want structure. There is a hierarchy out there, and some kids don’t want to come in here and have rules and regulations. Some might come in for two or three days and then split.

“We go out on outreach six nights a week, 5:30 to 10:30. In the daytime from 1:00 to 5:00. Another shift comes in at five thirty. We know where to find the kids.” Manson is talking about the ground floor Starbucks at Horton Plaza and the bus station, the Fourth Avenue arcades, Marioland, and various abandoned buildings, to name a few locations. “One thing about homeless kids,” Manson says, “is that they’re always moving. Our main job is to locate them and maintain contact with the kids, give them resources for services they can get, information and education on HIV – because they’re out there having sex in high-risk situations. This sad, because on any given night you can find 1500 to 2000 homeless kids walkin’ down the street, you have to know how to look for them”

“Twenty, thirty years ago,” I ask him, “weren’t we just calling these kids runaways? Aren’t they the same kids, I mean with more or less the same story?”

“There are street kids who know how to survive, how to handle themselves,” Manson is trying to explain the difference between the juvenile delinquents of the ‘50s, the runaways of the ‘60s, and the children he deals with every day: the grandchildren of the Great Society. “Then there are the ‘system’s kids.’ The system’s kids are the ones who’ve been through the juvenile systems, the court systems, the foster-care programs, shelters, what have you. Then you have the ‘hidden kids.’ These are the ones who haven’t hit the streets yet. They go to one friend’s house and stay for the night, still could be in school up to that point, goes to another friend’s house until he burns all his bridges and becomes homeless.”

As for rules and regulations at the Storefront, “Like I said,” Manson continues, “they just need to say that they’re homeless: They do go to school at The Place from 8:30 to 12:30. Some kids come in, and they already have a school they go to, so we have a tendency to let them go back to their school as long as they come back here or the day program. The day program is a drop-in center for kids. It opens at 8:30 in the morning, but for the kids it’s open from 12:30 to 5:30. They can take showers, wash their clothes, do their homework, shoot pool, watch TV, or whatever. Once they leave there, they are transported from there to [the shelter], which opens up at 6:00 p.m. They have a chore they sign up for. They eat at 7:00 p.m. Metro comes in here, a church organization, they bring food here. We do not cook food here. At 8:00 they have a group meeting on survival, education on HIV, or whatever the counselor thinks they need to hear. After that they have free time.”

Manson himself, he says, was never homeless. “I came from a dysfunctional family. I came up with no father figure in the house and 11 brothers and sisters. My mother was the backbone of the family. I got in trouble at a young age, got help from my probation officer. That’s where my vision, so to speak, came from: when I saw him actually helping me, and he didn’t want anything from me. He wanted to show me that there was another way. I went into the service, and when I came out I started working for social services. Family counseling, drugs and alcohol, about 13 years. After working with so many adults, so many families destroyed by drugs and alcohol, I was looking to see how I could make a change. I thought, “If I could catch them at a young age, I could turn them around.”

Does Manson feel as if he has been effective? “Oh yeah,” he nods. “I feel there is always hope for a kid – for adults too, for that matter. I came up rough and tough and all that, but in my heart I really cared for people. My probation officer and his wife showed me a tremendous amount of care and concern and showed me that I had that in my heart. I didn’t really recognize it until I came out of the Marine Corps.”

Manson is on his way to a symposium on outreach programs in Washington D.C. He says neither he or anyone at the Storefront is directly associated with the Alpha Project Outreach Organization. “No, they have a contract to basically keep homeless people out of the doorways of businesses. They do a little clean-up downtown, but they don’t do the outreach that we do. I don’t want to bad-mouth them; they’re doing a good job. They’re just not doing the kind of outreach that we’re doing.”

Manson will ask kids if they want to talk to me but promises nothing. I make arrangements to check with him in a few days. In the meantime I take a walk down to First and Island to the odd, manicured postage stamp of an urban park called Children’s Park, more popularly known as Marioland.

The block-square oasis of contrived green might resemble the landscape of a repetitive children’s game. In the shadow of sterile, monolithic resort hotels, I find a trio of kids. Maybe it’s Wendy and Dopey and Peter. Close. Otter is the oldest at 21 and the only one that will offer his name – the name he goes by anyway. Friendly, not bashful, still healthy-looking, Otter is animated, partly with grass, and poses for a few shots. He is fine with being interviewed as he rolls a joint.

He’s from Madison, Wisconsin, he says. “A friend of mine was, like, ‘Let’s go to San Diego.’ I was all, like, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We’ll get an apartment and everything.’ This was about five months ago. He decided to disappear. I haven’t seen him since we got off the Greyhound. I’ve stayed with people off and on.”

What Otter does mainly to get by is “spange.”

“Spange?”

“Yeah. Spare change. I’m trying to get up the money to go back there. I got a job waitin’ for me whenever I get back. Cooking. See, I went to culinary art school to be a chef, but I need to get ID out here in order to work as a cook. That’s what I plan on doing.”

Otter keeps from getting busted “by luck. I just watch my ass. The most I’ve been busted for is just glass in the park. Glass container in the park. I could have gotten into so much more shit than that.”

The 19-year old girl with Otter is from Nassau County, Long Island, New York. Her hair is red and straight. She wears a nose ring and dresses like girls I knew in the 1960s: long paisley skirt and baggy, tie-dyed T-shirt. She has been in San Diego for two months. “I hitch-hiked,” she says. “No job, no friends.”

Otter pretends to cry, “I thought I was your friend.”

“Well, I have one,” she allows. She got as far as Colorado, stayed for a while until it got too cold. “I decided to come here>” How does she like San Diego? “It’s all right.” She’s been staying at St. Vincent’s “Unfortunately,” she adds and has nothing more to say about that. “I’m just chillin’ until summer.”

Moving the tape recorder back in Otter’s direction, since their companion has nothing to offer, the former cook says, “What was I sayin’? Oh yeah, I can get away with a bunch of shit. Like the glass container was E&J brandy, and I was stoned off my ass in Balboa Park. I just got a ticket. They could have gotten me for drunkenness, possession of over an ounce, vagrancy.”

His anonymous friend joins in now. “Good thing you weren’t in San Ysidro. That close to the border and over an ounce is trafficking.”

“Yeah,” Otter nods, he knows. Long term plans of Otter’s are “…to continue life as I see it needs to be lived.”

“How is that?” I ask.

“Smokin’ pot, getting’ drunk, goin’ to work. Right in that order. I love to cook when I get a chance. In the meantime there is all this other shit I can do for money. Spange, run scams, everyone has their own scams. Like say, someone grabs a shirt from a store and you return it. You get a profit off of that.”

“Are you any good as a thief?”

“No, I do not thieve very well. I got caught stealing a radio when I was 17. Hey, here’s the Alpha Project!” Otter announces the arrival of two bodybuilder types in navy windbreakers with Alpha Outreach on the back. One carries a walkie-talkie. Both wear matching blue baseball caps. There is something of the prison hack about them, patrolling the yard, looking for shivs. “Their gig is supposedly to help out the homeless, give them information,” says Otter.

One of the Alpha guys smiles at Otter, “Hey, you’re pretty good.”

“And they suggest you relocate to other areas,” Otter continues, “so they don’t have all these calls coming in saying,” his voice goes up to a falsetto, “Oh. We’ve got these vagrants out here.”

As the Alpha duo passes, I comment, “They seem pretty mellow.”

“Mostly they’re assholes. They’re all ex-cons.”

Otter’s companion points to the two men as they get into a late-model car. “Look, they’re boosting a car right now.” Everybody laughs with reefer joviality, and the subject changes to music, some band I never heard of. I say good-bye, go home and call Bob McElroy, president of the Alpha Project at the corporate office.

Is it, in fact, the primary job of Alpha employees to simply shunt the problem down the street?

“That’s just bullshit,” says McElroy. “That’s like the people sitting out in front of city hall for months saying they represent the homeless. They don’t. They don’t speak for any of the 600 people we have in our program at any one time. They don’t represent those views. If you’re talking to those kids and they have that perception, they are the ones who are out here jerkin’ everybody’s chain and havin’ a good time partying. But eventually when they get their ass whipped – and their time will come – they can come running to us. We’ll pick them up in a van, and we’ll take them to assistance. We’ve got statistics here; we’ve got videotape to prove it. There’s facts and there’s fiction. There are people who believe anybody who tries to have any kind of authority is bad. But they know that if they get in trouble, get on hard times, the first people to come to is us.

“Four of our outreach guys have gone out on their own times to Children’s Park and the bridges where the kids hang out and then bring them into the [Neil Good] day center. And it took a lot to get ‘em down there. This is night, after hours, what we call a special product. That’s where we hooked up with Stand Up for Kids – they’re an agency out of Denver, and we get a lot of kids from Denver – who specialize in kid’s issues. We’ve put kids on buses. We’ve had kids in Alpha Project jackets going out and bringing other kids in for food and clothing and that kind of stuff. We really want kids to hook back up with their families. We can help them get those Greyhound bus tickets back home. And if any of these kids just want to sit around and talk to our guys, that’s what they’re there for. These guys mentor probably 50 kids at a time, all the way up to San Diego State. They try to let these kids know what their experiences are and have been – what the end result is of doin’ stupid stuff on the street.

“Yeah, businesses employ us to police the streets. You can’t sit out there and piss in somebody’s doorway. Businesses have a right to do their thing. What we’ve found for the past 13 years, the people that are doing that kind of stuff, infringing on other people’s rights – blocking doorways, defecating on doorways, etching windows – that just makes it tougher for us to get people to believe that homeless people have any kind of ability. We’re the only group around town that actually pays people to clean up communities. If you look back in the archives of the San Diego Union-Tribune you’ll find we win community-service and community-enhancement awards because we transition people out of homeless situations to jobs. We do the same thing with kids, but they’re a tougher population to deal with; they’re still full of piss and vinegar.

“You should know who Stand Up for Kids are,” McElroy goes on. “Their headquarters are in Denver. They’ve met with us out here. These guys hit the streets, mostly women in vans. They’re seeking out the kids, like in the park. We don’t publicize it much other than saying that, because a crew from Channel 10 one time heard about it and tried to follow us into the park, and it compromised the kids. The kids thought they were set up, and so it took us months to get that back. We have a doctor that goes with us to do medical triage. A lot of these kids have AIDS. With pedophiles, for $20 extra they’ll have sex without a condom.

“We shower up about 40 kids a week at Neil Good. We completely shut down the showers just for them because they have AIDS. We take them to all their medical appointments, get them hooked up with AIDS foundations, stuff like that. There is a lot more that we can’t publicize, but it’s out there.

“Most of the kids that we are dealing with are down on the Storefront, they’re down on so many programs that are established for kids – Youth and Community Services. They don’t want that yet. They’re not ready for that. But if they’re doin’ something like pissing in a fountain, smoking pot in the park, well, we’ve got to do something about that too. We work under a community-watch-type situation. If the kids are doing that, what that does is reinforce what homeless kids and runaways are about. It reinforces a negative.”


Manson at the Storefront invites me down to the day program so I can try my luck with any of the kids there. He drives me the few blocks to the facility and introduces me to some of the staff. Only three or four residents are hanging around at this time of day. One of them I recognize. Linette gives me a big smile and a wave. “How’s it goin’?”

“Fine, how’s George?” She laughs. There’s something funny between the two of them about the name George.

“He’s good.” I tell her what I’m up to, and she’s eager to tell me more of her story. We walk outside and sit on a sun-warmed patch of concrete surrounded by chain-link fence. We’re blocking the doorway, but no one seems to mind. She pulls out her cigarettes and lights one. I light up one of mine to show her I’m a regular guy and everything, I suppose. Besides, I haven’t had one yet today.

“It all started when I was 12,” she laughs and squints against the smoke. She looks like she should be blowing pink, gummy bubbles instead of dragging on a coffin nail.

“Uh-huh,” I say (she doesn’t need much encouragement).

“I got taken away from my dad when I was 11. We lived in El Cajon. I got taken away because I was molested by my dad. I was molested between the ages of 7 and 11. I didn’t even know what was happening; they told me what it was called at school, they said ‘That’s molestation.’ I was taken away and I stayed at the Polinsky Center for about two weeks – that’s lock-down in there – and then I went with my mom, and everything was fine for about a year. Then my dad called me up one day and said, ‘Hey we’re going to Mexico, why don’t you come along?’ He knows I have a weakness for going to Mexico. I love going down there. I went with him and all the problems started again.

“He wanted me to move in with him. He started to influence me to move out of my mom’s. I started fighting with my mom about just anything. She didn’t like my clothes; she always wanted me wearing long skirts because she is Christian. I used to be in the church back then so I didn’t have any problem with long skirts, but then I got with my dad and started wearing pants again and getting with my old friends and meeting new friends, friends that smoked weed, and then I started doing that. I started smoking weed when I was 11.

“I went to group homes, and then I stayed with my dad for about a year, and then from there he started hitting me a lot. He’s always been violent. HE almost killed my mom. I seen him beat my mom. I saw him hit his second wife and then his third wife. I haven’t seen him hit his girlfriend that he has right now – I don’t know if she’s still with him. He drinks a lot. He used to do coke.

“Every time I went back to my mom’s I ended up going to group homes and running away a lot. I went from friend to friend to friend. When I turned 14 in September of ’97, that’s the first time I came downtown and stayed at the Storefront. From there I went to TTC [Toussaine Teen Center]. It’s a long term home, but I got kicked out of there the first time because they thought I was using drugs, but I wasn’t. I came back to the Storefront, and then I started to talk to my dad again. He wanted me to come livge with him. So I went back to my dad, but I ran away because he would keep hitting me. He’d come home drunk and he’d make a big old deal about something little, like I left my makeup in the bathroom or something. I’d mouth off like, ‘You’re drunk. Go pass out or something!’ Then it would be all, like ‘Shut up!’ whack, whack and he’d hit me. It was hectic over there.

“I went back to TTC, but I got kicked out of there for a guy. I had a boyfriend in there, and we were kissing, and they kicked me out. The third time I got kicked out was for the same guy. After I went there, I stayed with my best friend’s sister, and then I stayed with my boyfriend ‘cause he ended up getting kicked out for that same incident. His mom didn’t approve of me staying there, so she called the cops, they came and got me, took me to the station, and my mom came and got me. I stayed there for two weeks, then two weeks at my boyfriend’s again… After that I went to my grandma’s n National City, but I didn’t want to put a burden on her so I asked my aunt in L.A. if I could stay with her and she said yeah. I started getting in trouble at school in L.A. ‘cause I ditched. My aunt told me to leave. My dad came and got me…”

Linette is puffing furiously on her second cigarette and narrating quickly as if trying to catch up with events in her mind. If she can just order the series of moves over the past five years, she can make sense of it; she will be able to explain herself to herself, what has happened and why.

“I thought he had changed after the five months I was in L.A., but after a week reality struck. He was all drunk and nothing had changed. Still drunk. I made a long-distance call from his house in Tijuana to L.A., and he got really furious. He hit me really bad, I mean, really bad; my face was just…all…crazy. His girlfriend would always be out of the room when it was happening, and then she’d hear me screaming and come in and separate him from me. She was the one who would look out for me. If I had a big old fat lip, she would come and put ice on it. She was like a mom to me. Finally, like January second or third, I moved in right next door to my dad with this lady for a week, then L.A. for another week. My dad came and got me and beat me up in the car.” Linette then stayed at a hotel in El Cajon for a weekend with a friend before coming to the Storefront.

She is trying to get back into TTC, but their beds are full and they have lost her file in a move from Union Street. “Meanwhile,” she says of the Storefront, “it’s cool and everything, but what I don’t like about it is the fact of living in a shelter.”

“How do you feel about your father?” I ask her flatly.

“He’s my father, that’s pretty much it. I don’t really have any feelings for him.” Linette is putting her cigarette on the concrete in front of her. She tilts her head as she hears a Jewel song coming from the radio of the parked Storefront van. My hands are small I know, but they’re not yours, they are my own… “He’s my dad that’s all. I sometimes think how can he do that? That’s not a father role. It totally sickens me. I mean, I was his daughter. I am his daughter. It makes me feel lower but then I think, well, he’s low, he’s nothing. But he’s my dad. That’s all I think about him.”

I ask Linette is she considers the world a good place or a bad one. “If you could only pick one word, good or bad, what would it be?”

“Um, I’d say it’s good.”

“Do you think life is long or short?”

“It’s really short. I just lost a friend who dies young. He was depressed, and his friend gave him some happy pills – they’re an upper – and he took too many of them. They said it was a suicide.”

“Do you feel 16?”

“I feel like I’m right in the middle of my life.”

“An adult or a kid?”

“Right now I have to be an adult, but I know I’m a kid.”

“What would you be if you could be anything you wanted?”

“I’d be a set person. I would be taking care of myself where I don’t have to depend on anybody, nobody, nothing. I’d have my own place, my own job, and everything.”

“Do you think you’d be a good parent?”

“Yeah, not right now, but I think I’d know what not to do. Hey, did you ever find your friends, what’s their names?”

“Wendy, Axel, Dopey, Tito, and Peter? No, I didn’t find them.”

“They’re probably out there somewhere,” Linette gestures at San Diego’s downtown skyline. I think about how much more of it there is than there used to be.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Probably out there somewhere.”

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When the rain makes its move on San Diego in January, the streets seem more lonely than in other cities; it is a broken promise. On the south Embarcadero on a Monday afternoon, in the leaden shadow of luxury hotels, children huddle in the open gazebos. Surrounded by the bobbing hulls and masts of yachts in blue canvas, the bay, the pasty color of drowned men rolling uneasily, George and Linette cup a roach wrapped in a matchbook and giggle. A third kid, a boy with a closely shaved scalp and a denim jacket with a St. Vincent De Paul’s laminated ID card pinned over his breast stands with his back to them. He is silhouetted against the bay, staring up and the lard and ash clouds. “What’s your name?” George calls to him. The boy turns and does not answer but lifts his green name tag. No one can read it from where they are standing. George lifts what’s left of the joint in a gesture of invitation and the boy returns his back to the gazebo, tripping on the smudged beauty beyond the sea wall. “Whatever,” George shrugs and smiles. He reveals a mouthful of braces.

George is 17 years old and looks older. Linette is 16 and seems more like 14. George has a home, such as it is, in East San Diego, where he stays with his mother, brothers, and sisters. Linette stays at a teen shelter called the Storefront downtown near City College. The shelter’s location needs to be vague because the staff and residents have an ongoing concern with pedophiles, drug dealers, and abusive, noncustodial parents.

“If you could give us more than just their names,” says Linette, “maybe we could help you find them. I think we know some kids by those names.” She is talking about my inquiries as to four homeless kids between the ages of 14 and 21. Someone had written to me about them. They said they were getting hassled by the cops and downtown security, according to their theory, because of the new ballpark to be installed in the Center City area.

“All I’ve got is their names,” I tell them.

“Well,” George inhales, pauses, “they’re probably around.” He gestures inland at the city. “Try Starbucks at Horton Plaza, Seaport Village, or Marioland.”

“Is Marioland a video-game place?”

George and Linette look at each other and laugh. They both nod, “Yeah, it’s just like a video-game place.” George asks me for a light and then a cigarette.

“Are you a dealer?” I ask him indicating the joint.

“Hell no. I’m a disc-jockey and I’m taking a course in public speaking. I’m just getting into it. I’m entering a speech contest.” Indeed, George’s voice is resonant and almost accentless. Between his voice, his height – at least six feet – Rasta-dread hair and his solid yet fluid street poise, eyes that take in his surroundings with a combination of marijuana merriness and cool assessment, George could be closer to 30 than 18.

I ask them if they would tell me their stories since I can’t find the kids I’m looking for. Linette looks to George as if for approval. George puts it back on her. “You’re homeless, not me. It’s up to you.”

The girl, hugging herself, pulls her windbreaker around her against the cold. She raises her hood, framing a pretty girl’s face that is becoming an exotic beauty’s. With one hand she fondles the crucifixes around her neck. She wears two of them, one silver, the other with bits of turquoise and rhinestone; between them is a brooch, a hollow silver heart. “I’ve been in a lot of group homes. I’ve been at the Storefront for about two weeks. See, I don’t get along with my mom. We’re fine if we don’t live with each other and just call each other on the phone.”

“Uh-huh. So you ran away, or what?” I was already losing interest in Linette’s story. Just a runaway: maybe spoiled, vain, too cool for school. Mom wouldn’t let her have colored boys over, smoke grass, and fuck, so she fades onto the street. I’m looking around the park for other lost souls in the rain. Some middle-aged men over by the bathrooms. They go inside when the cops cruise the parking lot. I’m searching for Wendy and the Lost Boys the woman wrote to me about: Wendy, Tito, Axel, Dopey, and Peter, they say their names are. “They pride themselves on not looking homeless,” the woman had said over the phone. But the only other kid out here is the denim jacket, crew-cut guy from St. Vinny’s. Linette is still talking.

“…moved into my girlfriend’s next door to my dad’s. My mom has custody of me but she lets me live with my dad, but he’s really violent and everything, so I went next door to this lady’s house that is my friend. I left his house last Thursday and she let me stay there and then I went to a friend’s house in L.A. I couldn’t stay there forever so…” She was all over the place. Her happily pot-wrenched brain is trying to track moves from Escondido to Tijuana to L.A. and back, making it sound like a series of whimsical turns off the freeway on the way to Disneyland. Her dad being “really violent and everything” is uttered dismissively, with a weedy smile. Maybe he smacked her, maybe not. It’s impossible to tell. She appears okay, and she isn’t taking it too seriously at the moment.

I ask her about any burning ambitions. “You know, do you wanna be a movie star or a model, a doctor, an astronaut?”

“I just want to survive,” she says without thinking too much and without smiling.

“So, are you guys boyfriend and girlfriend?” I ask. Linette giggles and retreats further into her sweatshirt hood. George exposes his braces again: silver on white in an amber face. “This is the first chance we’ve had to kick,” he tells me.

“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.

“We always try to get license-plate numbers, for example, and the police will run a check. Sometimes they [have priors for being] pedophiles, sometimes not. Sometimes it can be pretty hard to build a case against pedophiles because by the time we call in and give a description, whatever happened has basically happened – it’s over. The cops try as best they can to help us out, apprehend these persons.”

“Ever,” I ask, “catch anyone in the act?”

“Not exactly,” he says. Manson is leaning back in his chair, his hands folded. His manner is that of a tough uncle who will do difficult things for your own good. You will never thank him for it, and he doesn’t expect you to. “We have kids come in, identify the pedophile, and then we put them away.”

“What’s a common story you hear at the Storefront? Any one thing more than others?”

“Drugs and alcohol.” Manson doesn’t hesitate on this one, not like he did on getting kids to identify a pedophile. “With the parents or the kids themselves or both. They may have a stepfather, say, the mother caters to the stepfather, the kid runs away. Abuse of the stepfather, father, or mother. Could be a financial situation, a parent loses a job, abuse issues come up. A lot of families come here from different places in the world and can’t find jobs. Hardship issues, communication issues, abuse happens. Lots of issues. We always talk to the parents. We always let ‘em know what’s going on with us.”

I ask him about Linette, he knows who she is. “There must be some reason why she can’t go home with the mother. She may not be tellin’ the whole story. I’m not sure what it is. We have case managers here who deal with the issues, check out the situation…the father, see what’s goin’ on there. It’s not like she has a place to stay, and she chooses not to go there, she comes here, and then we find out she’s got a good place. Uh-uh, if that’s the case, we send them back home. If she’s here, there must be a reason why she’s here.”

The Storefront has been in existence “…going on 10 years. Our agency, San Diego Youth and Community Services, has been in existence for 27 years.” Manson has been in the field of social services for the past 22 years, working with families in one capacity or another.

“We always need volunteers,” he says leaning toward the tape recorder. “Our volunteer number is 221-8600 extension #271. You’ll talk to a person named Steve, who is our volunteer coordinator. We always need things for kids like blankets, hygiene products like toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, under-clothing, socks, hairbrushes and combs, razor blades, things like that. There’s a screening process for volunteers, you have to fill out an application, get fingerprinted, and the police department will check it out. They’re looking for any high crimes and especially instances with kids.”

The capacity for the shelter is 20. “Seventeen beds and three emergency beds. Most of the kids who come in here are boys. The girls tend to be taken care of by pimps or pedophiles or a friend. Kids might find a squat somewhere, an abandoned building or car, under a bridge. Sometimes they don’t want to come in because of their drug use and some just want to be on the street. After a kid has been out on the street for a year to 18 months, they become ‘street kids.’ That is, they learn how to fend for themselves, how to hustle, turn tricks, or become perpetrators themselves. Sometimes, they’ll come in looking to recruit kids and turn them out. A new kid might come into town, and they show them how to make money with survival sex. They go downtown, the parks, or whatever, and they sell their bodies for sex. When you come into a shelter, you have a little bit of structure, but some kids don’t want structure. There is a hierarchy out there, and some kids don’t want to come in here and have rules and regulations. Some might come in for two or three days and then split.

“We go out on outreach six nights a week, 5:30 to 10:30. In the daytime from 1:00 to 5:00. Another shift comes in at five thirty. We know where to find the kids.” Manson is talking about the ground floor Starbucks at Horton Plaza and the bus station, the Fourth Avenue arcades, Marioland, and various abandoned buildings, to name a few locations. “One thing about homeless kids,” Manson says, “is that they’re always moving. Our main job is to locate them and maintain contact with the kids, give them resources for services they can get, information and education on HIV – because they’re out there having sex in high-risk situations. This sad, because on any given night you can find 1500 to 2000 homeless kids walkin’ down the street, you have to know how to look for them”

“Twenty, thirty years ago,” I ask him, “weren’t we just calling these kids runaways? Aren’t they the same kids, I mean with more or less the same story?”

“There are street kids who know how to survive, how to handle themselves,” Manson is trying to explain the difference between the juvenile delinquents of the ‘50s, the runaways of the ‘60s, and the children he deals with every day: the grandchildren of the Great Society. “Then there are the ‘system’s kids.’ The system’s kids are the ones who’ve been through the juvenile systems, the court systems, the foster-care programs, shelters, what have you. Then you have the ‘hidden kids.’ These are the ones who haven’t hit the streets yet. They go to one friend’s house and stay for the night, still could be in school up to that point, goes to another friend’s house until he burns all his bridges and becomes homeless.”

As for rules and regulations at the Storefront, “Like I said,” Manson continues, “they just need to say that they’re homeless: They do go to school at The Place from 8:30 to 12:30. Some kids come in, and they already have a school they go to, so we have a tendency to let them go back to their school as long as they come back here or the day program. The day program is a drop-in center for kids. It opens at 8:30 in the morning, but for the kids it’s open from 12:30 to 5:30. They can take showers, wash their clothes, do their homework, shoot pool, watch TV, or whatever. Once they leave there, they are transported from there to [the shelter], which opens up at 6:00 p.m. They have a chore they sign up for. They eat at 7:00 p.m. Metro comes in here, a church organization, they bring food here. We do not cook food here. At 8:00 they have a group meeting on survival, education on HIV, or whatever the counselor thinks they need to hear. After that they have free time.”

Manson himself, he says, was never homeless. “I came from a dysfunctional family. I came up with no father figure in the house and 11 brothers and sisters. My mother was the backbone of the family. I got in trouble at a young age, got help from my probation officer. That’s where my vision, so to speak, came from: when I saw him actually helping me, and he didn’t want anything from me. He wanted to show me that there was another way. I went into the service, and when I came out I started working for social services. Family counseling, drugs and alcohol, about 13 years. After working with so many adults, so many families destroyed by drugs and alcohol, I was looking to see how I could make a change. I thought, “If I could catch them at a young age, I could turn them around.”

Does Manson feel as if he has been effective? “Oh yeah,” he nods. “I feel there is always hope for a kid – for adults too, for that matter. I came up rough and tough and all that, but in my heart I really cared for people. My probation officer and his wife showed me a tremendous amount of care and concern and showed me that I had that in my heart. I didn’t really recognize it until I came out of the Marine Corps.”

Manson is on his way to a symposium on outreach programs in Washington D.C. He says neither he or anyone at the Storefront is directly associated with the Alpha Project Outreach Organization. “No, they have a contract to basically keep homeless people out of the doorways of businesses. They do a little clean-up downtown, but they don’t do the outreach that we do. I don’t want to bad-mouth them; they’re doing a good job. They’re just not doing the kind of outreach that we’re doing.”

Manson will ask kids if they want to talk to me but promises nothing. I make arrangements to check with him in a few days. In the meantime I take a walk down to First and Island to the odd, manicured postage stamp of an urban park called Children’s Park, more popularly known as Marioland.

The block-square oasis of contrived green might resemble the landscape of a repetitive children’s game. In the shadow of sterile, monolithic resort hotels, I find a trio of kids. Maybe it’s Wendy and Dopey and Peter. Close. Otter is the oldest at 21 and the only one that will offer his name – the name he goes by anyway. Friendly, not bashful, still healthy-looking, Otter is animated, partly with grass, and poses for a few shots. He is fine with being interviewed as he rolls a joint.

He’s from Madison, Wisconsin, he says. “A friend of mine was, like, ‘Let’s go to San Diego.’ I was all, like, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘We’ll get an apartment and everything.’ This was about five months ago. He decided to disappear. I haven’t seen him since we got off the Greyhound. I’ve stayed with people off and on.”

What Otter does mainly to get by is “spange.”

“Spange?”

“Yeah. Spare change. I’m trying to get up the money to go back there. I got a job waitin’ for me whenever I get back. Cooking. See, I went to culinary art school to be a chef, but I need to get ID out here in order to work as a cook. That’s what I plan on doing.”

Otter keeps from getting busted “by luck. I just watch my ass. The most I’ve been busted for is just glass in the park. Glass container in the park. I could have gotten into so much more shit than that.”

The 19-year old girl with Otter is from Nassau County, Long Island, New York. Her hair is red and straight. She wears a nose ring and dresses like girls I knew in the 1960s: long paisley skirt and baggy, tie-dyed T-shirt. She has been in San Diego for two months. “I hitch-hiked,” she says. “No job, no friends.”

Otter pretends to cry, “I thought I was your friend.”

“Well, I have one,” she allows. She got as far as Colorado, stayed for a while until it got too cold. “I decided to come here>” How does she like San Diego? “It’s all right.” She’s been staying at St. Vincent’s “Unfortunately,” she adds and has nothing more to say about that. “I’m just chillin’ until summer.”

Moving the tape recorder back in Otter’s direction, since their companion has nothing to offer, the former cook says, “What was I sayin’? Oh yeah, I can get away with a bunch of shit. Like the glass container was E&J brandy, and I was stoned off my ass in Balboa Park. I just got a ticket. They could have gotten me for drunkenness, possession of over an ounce, vagrancy.”

His anonymous friend joins in now. “Good thing you weren’t in San Ysidro. That close to the border and over an ounce is trafficking.”

“Yeah,” Otter nods, he knows. Long term plans of Otter’s are “…to continue life as I see it needs to be lived.”

“How is that?” I ask.

“Smokin’ pot, getting’ drunk, goin’ to work. Right in that order. I love to cook when I get a chance. In the meantime there is all this other shit I can do for money. Spange, run scams, everyone has their own scams. Like say, someone grabs a shirt from a store and you return it. You get a profit off of that.”

“Are you any good as a thief?”

“No, I do not thieve very well. I got caught stealing a radio when I was 17. Hey, here’s the Alpha Project!” Otter announces the arrival of two bodybuilder types in navy windbreakers with Alpha Outreach on the back. One carries a walkie-talkie. Both wear matching blue baseball caps. There is something of the prison hack about them, patrolling the yard, looking for shivs. “Their gig is supposedly to help out the homeless, give them information,” says Otter.

One of the Alpha guys smiles at Otter, “Hey, you’re pretty good.”

“And they suggest you relocate to other areas,” Otter continues, “so they don’t have all these calls coming in saying,” his voice goes up to a falsetto, “Oh. We’ve got these vagrants out here.”

As the Alpha duo passes, I comment, “They seem pretty mellow.”

“Mostly they’re assholes. They’re all ex-cons.”

Otter’s companion points to the two men as they get into a late-model car. “Look, they’re boosting a car right now.” Everybody laughs with reefer joviality, and the subject changes to music, some band I never heard of. I say good-bye, go home and call Bob McElroy, president of the Alpha Project at the corporate office.

Is it, in fact, the primary job of Alpha employees to simply shunt the problem down the street?

“That’s just bullshit,” says McElroy. “That’s like the people sitting out in front of city hall for months saying they represent the homeless. They don’t. They don’t speak for any of the 600 people we have in our program at any one time. They don’t represent those views. If you’re talking to those kids and they have that perception, they are the ones who are out here jerkin’ everybody’s chain and havin’ a good time partying. But eventually when they get their ass whipped – and their time will come – they can come running to us. We’ll pick them up in a van, and we’ll take them to assistance. We’ve got statistics here; we’ve got videotape to prove it. There’s facts and there’s fiction. There are people who believe anybody who tries to have any kind of authority is bad. But they know that if they get in trouble, get on hard times, the first people to come to is us.

“Four of our outreach guys have gone out on their own times to Children’s Park and the bridges where the kids hang out and then bring them into the [Neil Good] day center. And it took a lot to get ‘em down there. This is night, after hours, what we call a special product. That’s where we hooked up with Stand Up for Kids – they’re an agency out of Denver, and we get a lot of kids from Denver – who specialize in kid’s issues. We’ve put kids on buses. We’ve had kids in Alpha Project jackets going out and bringing other kids in for food and clothing and that kind of stuff. We really want kids to hook back up with their families. We can help them get those Greyhound bus tickets back home. And if any of these kids just want to sit around and talk to our guys, that’s what they’re there for. These guys mentor probably 50 kids at a time, all the way up to San Diego State. They try to let these kids know what their experiences are and have been – what the end result is of doin’ stupid stuff on the street.

“Yeah, businesses employ us to police the streets. You can’t sit out there and piss in somebody’s doorway. Businesses have a right to do their thing. What we’ve found for the past 13 years, the people that are doing that kind of stuff, infringing on other people’s rights – blocking doorways, defecating on doorways, etching windows – that just makes it tougher for us to get people to believe that homeless people have any kind of ability. We’re the only group around town that actually pays people to clean up communities. If you look back in the archives of the San Diego Union-Tribune you’ll find we win community-service and community-enhancement awards because we transition people out of homeless situations to jobs. We do the same thing with kids, but they’re a tougher population to deal with; they’re still full of piss and vinegar.

“You should know who Stand Up for Kids are,” McElroy goes on. “Their headquarters are in Denver. They’ve met with us out here. These guys hit the streets, mostly women in vans. They’re seeking out the kids, like in the park. We don’t publicize it much other than saying that, because a crew from Channel 10 one time heard about it and tried to follow us into the park, and it compromised the kids. The kids thought they were set up, and so it took us months to get that back. We have a doctor that goes with us to do medical triage. A lot of these kids have AIDS. With pedophiles, for $20 extra they’ll have sex without a condom.

“We shower up about 40 kids a week at Neil Good. We completely shut down the showers just for them because they have AIDS. We take them to all their medical appointments, get them hooked up with AIDS foundations, stuff like that. There is a lot more that we can’t publicize, but it’s out there.

“Most of the kids that we are dealing with are down on the Storefront, they’re down on so many programs that are established for kids – Youth and Community Services. They don’t want that yet. They’re not ready for that. But if they’re doin’ something like pissing in a fountain, smoking pot in the park, well, we’ve got to do something about that too. We work under a community-watch-type situation. If the kids are doing that, what that does is reinforce what homeless kids and runaways are about. It reinforces a negative.”


Manson at the Storefront invites me down to the day program so I can try my luck with any of the kids there. He drives me the few blocks to the facility and introduces me to some of the staff. Only three or four residents are hanging around at this time of day. One of them I recognize. Linette gives me a big smile and a wave. “How’s it goin’?”

“Fine, how’s George?” She laughs. There’s something funny between the two of them about the name George.

“He’s good.” I tell her what I’m up to, and she’s eager to tell me more of her story. We walk outside and sit on a sun-warmed patch of concrete surrounded by chain-link fence. We’re blocking the doorway, but no one seems to mind. She pulls out her cigarettes and lights one. I light up one of mine to show her I’m a regular guy and everything, I suppose. Besides, I haven’t had one yet today.

“It all started when I was 12,” she laughs and squints against the smoke. She looks like she should be blowing pink, gummy bubbles instead of dragging on a coffin nail.

“Uh-huh,” I say (she doesn’t need much encouragement).

“I got taken away from my dad when I was 11. We lived in El Cajon. I got taken away because I was molested by my dad. I was molested between the ages of 7 and 11. I didn’t even know what was happening; they told me what it was called at school, they said ‘That’s molestation.’ I was taken away and I stayed at the Polinsky Center for about two weeks – that’s lock-down in there – and then I went with my mom, and everything was fine for about a year. Then my dad called me up one day and said, ‘Hey we’re going to Mexico, why don’t you come along?’ He knows I have a weakness for going to Mexico. I love going down there. I went with him and all the problems started again.

“He wanted me to move in with him. He started to influence me to move out of my mom’s. I started fighting with my mom about just anything. She didn’t like my clothes; she always wanted me wearing long skirts because she is Christian. I used to be in the church back then so I didn’t have any problem with long skirts, but then I got with my dad and started wearing pants again and getting with my old friends and meeting new friends, friends that smoked weed, and then I started doing that. I started smoking weed when I was 11.

“I went to group homes, and then I stayed with my dad for about a year, and then from there he started hitting me a lot. He’s always been violent. HE almost killed my mom. I seen him beat my mom. I saw him hit his second wife and then his third wife. I haven’t seen him hit his girlfriend that he has right now – I don’t know if she’s still with him. He drinks a lot. He used to do coke.

“Every time I went back to my mom’s I ended up going to group homes and running away a lot. I went from friend to friend to friend. When I turned 14 in September of ’97, that’s the first time I came downtown and stayed at the Storefront. From there I went to TTC [Toussaine Teen Center]. It’s a long term home, but I got kicked out of there the first time because they thought I was using drugs, but I wasn’t. I came back to the Storefront, and then I started to talk to my dad again. He wanted me to come livge with him. So I went back to my dad, but I ran away because he would keep hitting me. He’d come home drunk and he’d make a big old deal about something little, like I left my makeup in the bathroom or something. I’d mouth off like, ‘You’re drunk. Go pass out or something!’ Then it would be all, like ‘Shut up!’ whack, whack and he’d hit me. It was hectic over there.

“I went back to TTC, but I got kicked out of there for a guy. I had a boyfriend in there, and we were kissing, and they kicked me out. The third time I got kicked out was for the same guy. After I went there, I stayed with my best friend’s sister, and then I stayed with my boyfriend ‘cause he ended up getting kicked out for that same incident. His mom didn’t approve of me staying there, so she called the cops, they came and got me, took me to the station, and my mom came and got me. I stayed there for two weeks, then two weeks at my boyfriend’s again… After that I went to my grandma’s n National City, but I didn’t want to put a burden on her so I asked my aunt in L.A. if I could stay with her and she said yeah. I started getting in trouble at school in L.A. ‘cause I ditched. My aunt told me to leave. My dad came and got me…”

Linette is puffing furiously on her second cigarette and narrating quickly as if trying to catch up with events in her mind. If she can just order the series of moves over the past five years, she can make sense of it; she will be able to explain herself to herself, what has happened and why.

“I thought he had changed after the five months I was in L.A., but after a week reality struck. He was all drunk and nothing had changed. Still drunk. I made a long-distance call from his house in Tijuana to L.A., and he got really furious. He hit me really bad, I mean, really bad; my face was just…all…crazy. His girlfriend would always be out of the room when it was happening, and then she’d hear me screaming and come in and separate him from me. She was the one who would look out for me. If I had a big old fat lip, she would come and put ice on it. She was like a mom to me. Finally, like January second or third, I moved in right next door to my dad with this lady for a week, then L.A. for another week. My dad came and got me and beat me up in the car.” Linette then stayed at a hotel in El Cajon for a weekend with a friend before coming to the Storefront.

She is trying to get back into TTC, but their beds are full and they have lost her file in a move from Union Street. “Meanwhile,” she says of the Storefront, “it’s cool and everything, but what I don’t like about it is the fact of living in a shelter.”

“How do you feel about your father?” I ask her flatly.

“He’s my father, that’s pretty much it. I don’t really have any feelings for him.” Linette is putting her cigarette on the concrete in front of her. She tilts her head as she hears a Jewel song coming from the radio of the parked Storefront van. My hands are small I know, but they’re not yours, they are my own… “He’s my dad that’s all. I sometimes think how can he do that? That’s not a father role. It totally sickens me. I mean, I was his daughter. I am his daughter. It makes me feel lower but then I think, well, he’s low, he’s nothing. But he’s my dad. That’s all I think about him.”

I ask Linette is she considers the world a good place or a bad one. “If you could only pick one word, good or bad, what would it be?”

“Um, I’d say it’s good.”

“Do you think life is long or short?”

“It’s really short. I just lost a friend who dies young. He was depressed, and his friend gave him some happy pills – they’re an upper – and he took too many of them. They said it was a suicide.”

“Do you feel 16?”

“I feel like I’m right in the middle of my life.”

“An adult or a kid?”

“Right now I have to be an adult, but I know I’m a kid.”

“What would you be if you could be anything you wanted?”

“I’d be a set person. I would be taking care of myself where I don’t have to depend on anybody, nobody, nothing. I’d have my own place, my own job, and everything.”

“Do you think you’d be a good parent?”

“Yeah, not right now, but I think I’d know what not to do. Hey, did you ever find your friends, what’s their names?”

“Wendy, Axel, Dopey, Tito, and Peter? No, I didn’t find them.”

“They’re probably out there somewhere,” Linette gestures at San Diego’s downtown skyline. I think about how much more of it there is than there used to be.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Probably out there somewhere.”

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