Sherrie Ross, a real estate agent, was looking for ways to persuade kids to stay away from San Diego gangs. So she was happy two years ago to meet Travis Stocking at a community-organizing event. Stocking is the owner of Gladiators School of Martial Arts and Boxing, a nonprofit organization he founded in Southcrest to help young men and women develop independent and productive lives. Together, Ross and Stocking have staged seven antigang rallies in southeastern San Diego. They held one at Greenwood Cemetery, where kids filed past a coffin that symbolized burying old habits. Inside the coffin was a mirror in which they could see their images as they passed by.
"Several former known gang members," Ross tells me, "got up at the rally and said, 'Look, we were wrong.' One of them announced that gangbanging was over and done. Afterward, young men started coming to Stocking's gym and asking to get out of gangs."
Of course, Ross realized that the rallies could reach only so many and that gangbanging is still rampant throughout the city. That may be why she decided two months ago to spend her own money helping a young man who was being "kicked to the curb" on his 18th birthday, the age when California no longer pays for the care of most teens in foster care. Kids who "age out" of foster care and have nowhere to go often end up in gangs.
Ross wants the young man to remain anonymous to avoid causing trouble for him with his biological family and adoptive parents. She met him a year and a half ago, when she took a $7.50 per hour job at an organization that owns foster-care group homes she'd also like to remain nameless. The boy lived at one of them. "Group homes are different than the foster-care homes some people bring kids into to raise almost as their own," says Ross. "The group homes are run by paid staff, like I became. Different staff like to play different roles at the homes. The thing I like is cooking."
When the teen aged out, Ross worried what would become of him. She calls him "a good boy," though later she confides that his placement in the foster-care system was due to a number of factors, including his troublesome behavior at home. Five years ago, his adoptive parents, who had raised him from the age of two, decided they couldn't cope with having him around the house any longer. So they sent him to a Mississippi "boot camp" for unruly teens.
In recent years, several boot camps in Mississippi have been prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for their use of corporal punishment. The young man is ambivalent about the discipline. "They had real drill instructors there," he tells me. "And it was hands-on, meaning corporal punishment was used. There are boot camps in California, but they're not permitted to lay hands on you here. So I don't see the point of them, to be honest. But the Mississippi boot camps are the most extreme you can go. They're worse than juvenile hall."
The youth stayed a year in Mississippi. When he came back to San Diego, he lived a while with friends and then tried going back to his adoptive parents. But he couldn't get along with them, especially his mother, who he says was abusive.
So at 15, he ended up in the first of four local group homes. Ross says that people who care for foster children in their homes often don't want teenagers. Teenagers, therefore, usually end up in the group homes.
When there is conflict at the group homes, the young man wants me to know, "people always think it's the kid. And it can be. But a lot of times, the problem starts with jerk staff. Kids don't just go off -- cussing out a staff or whatever -- without a reason. The kids want to get along, because they've got trouble enough."
Group homes must send children to school, and some of them encourage the kids to look for jobs. While staying at his most recent group home, however, the teen says his main focus was on therapy he was receiving. He started to get A's and B's at a good local high school, though he never earned enough credits to graduate. "Drugs were rampant at the school," he says. "There was a narc on campus, but he was too afraid to do anything. And I'm not going to lie; I have taken drugs."
A provision in state law does allow kids to stay one more year in foster care after reaching their 18th birthdays. But it requires an advance application, which the teen missed due to a mix-up over whether he might move into his biological father's home. "I met my daddy in January," he tells me. He has never known his mother.
Sherrie Ross has kept the young man off the streets since he left foster care, primarily by paying for his stay at Trinity House, a transitional living facility for the homeless. Both Ross and Trinity House's director are now encouraging him to enroll in Job Corps, where he can live free and receive training in a trade.
So far, the teen has been lucky. Luckier than most kids who age out of foster care, say Travis Stocking and two of his collaborators in the struggle at the Gladiators gym to steer kids clear of gangs. Sixty boys and 20 girls show up regularly to work out and socialize.
In their youth, the three fortysomethings, who act as trainers and counselors, all got into trouble with the law through involvement with gangs. Now Rodney Smith owns Rightway Landscaping and runs a nonprofit effort to help kids. Darryl Charles owns the Chicken Shack on Imperial Avenue. He was recently appointed to an advisory committee established by Governor Schwarzenegger to counteract gang activities.
I am speaking with the men outside Stocking's gym. Each of them has seen kids coming out of foster care go straight into the arms of gangs. "The kid has no money, nowhere to stay; he's just out on the street every day," says Charles. "So gangs are going to make the kid feel like they're family and somebody to get connected to. Once the kids are put out, they've got to go somewhere, and the homeboys might have a room they can stay in at their parents' house. So that becomes a safe haven. And then they're hungry. Hungry makes you do things you don't want to do."
Charles is critical of the group homes. He thinks they don't do enough to help kids get jobs when they leave. "To them," he says, "the kid is a check. Once he reaches 18, they want to replace him with someone else who can bring in another check.
"And if the kid's not work-ready, what's he going to do? As businessmen, we're trying to be role models and show the kids they don't have to sell dope to have a nice truck. You don't have to pimp; you just need to go out and work hard every day," says Charles, who says that the drug trade is what got him into trouble once upon a time. "I saw the money other guys were making and the things they were able to have. I wanted to have a car with the candy on it. I wanted to have rims and stereos, and the drug trade was the only way I could get it."
Rodney Smith says he did prison time for things he did with gangs. "I want to go on record," he says, "that joining a gang was the biggest mistake I've made in my life." It wasn't as though he sought gangs out, though. When he was young, his father bought a house in Skyline Hills, and that set him and his more affluent friends up for resentment. "After we graduated from high school, we started going to house parties. Because of the economics, we dressed different. When we pulled up to a party sometimes, guys would know we weren't from their part of town. They were stealing cars, and we were driving our parents' cars. And because we dressed better, the young ladies were attracted to us. Suddenly we found ourselves being escorted out the back door before being jumped for something we didn't know about," says Smith. So he built up solidarity with the kids in his own neighborhood, fighting together with them whenever one was attacked.
Smith says he found it painful to turn his life around because his old friends rejected him for "squaring up." Now, individually and in group meetings at the Gladiators gym, he exhorts dissatisfied gang members to change their environments and former foster-care kids to stand on their own. He calls his nonprofit Reach One, Teach One.
Stocking began gang life in his own neighborhood, hardly knowing it was happening. "Throwing rocks became breaking windows, became breaking into cars, became stealing stereos," he says. He thinks that former foster-care kids have already experienced an aspect of gang life. "They are used to having somebody in their face, ordering them what to do," says Stocking. "And the gang structure is a lot like the military. You've got to go through steps to get ranking. It's all about what you do for the gang. The gangs want to see what you're willing to do, not just what you say. But if you do it, they'll give you a lot of acceptance."
Stocking, Smith, and Charles want to give kids a different acceptance. They recall a former foster-care kid who came to Gladiators and beat up one of the workers there. The newcomer had to be thrown out. But he came back later to participate within the gym's guidelines. "We require every kid that comes in to go around and greet every other kid that's in the gym at that time," says Stocking. "It's to teach respect. And we don't just train the kids. We tell them we love them."