Portland, Ore. — FOR 17-year-old Tia, the blue-and-white bungalow on a quiet street in southeast Portland is home. It's the only place she hasn't run from since she began running at age 14. This is the Willamette Bridge house. As its name implies, it is a place where street kids live while they try to cross back into mainstream America.
Tia (not her real name) has been at Willamette about nine months, making her one of the kids who has been off the street the longest. Her eyes are wider, her voice is softer, and she is calmer than most of the others. For her, the hard edges of street life are starting to fade. ``What did I used to be like? I was a little bitch,'' Tia says of her early adolescence. ``I'd always be smarting off to anyone.''
Tia's childhood forced her to harden her defenses. Until she was 13, she lived in Coos Bay, Ore., with three little brothers and a father who routinely beat her. Because her parents were divorced, many of the responsibilities of running the household fell to Tia. But the abuse dragged her down, and she moved to Portland to live with her mother, stepfather, and an older stepbrother.
Then she started running. A long-simmering resentment of her mother had surfaced, Tia says. She also ``got heavy into drugs.''
After several runaway episodes, Tia says, she was caught shoplifting tennis shoes.
At wits' end, her mother surrendered custody of the 15-year-old girl to the state child-welfare agency. Tia's odyssey through the system had begun.
Over the next few years, Tia says, she lived in nine foster homes and group homes. And she continued to abuse drugs and to run away.
``Most of the places were too strict, and they were always punishing us for minor things we'd do,'' Tia says. ``I usually didn't get along with the staff. They weren't as caring as the people here.''
Tia's continuing problems drew her deeper into the system, until she arrived at a state institution for troubled girls. ``I was supposed to be there for a year, but it kicked me out because they said I was too unmanageable,'' she says, rolling her eyes.
The next step was an institution that was more of the same, only stricter and harsher. Tia hated being locked up so much she devised a plan ``to con my way out.''
``I kept telling them I needed my drugs, so they agreed to put me in a drug-treatment program,'' she says. ``My mom put me in, and she's still paying it off.''
In the end, the state closed Tia's case, determining that it could do nothing else for her. And she eventually went back to the streets.
``It's really hard to leave the streets. Out there you're totally free to do whatever you want,'' she says. ``I was one of the youngest, so I was sort of everyone's little friend.''
Tia, like many of her street friends, dresses in basic black, and strands of blond hair are smoothed behind her ears. At 5 feet, 2 inches, she would be petite except that, at the time of this interview, she was five months pregnant.
BRINGING kids back from the streets - mentally as well as bodily - is a slow process requiring a human touch that a locked room cannot provide, says Jerry Fest, program coordinator of Willamette Bridge.
``So often these kids see themselves as just a body to be used and abused,'' he says. ``Sometimes, we're the first people who care about them for who they are, not for who we want them to be.''
The rules here are simple: no drugs on the premises, no overnight guests, and no weapons. The kids make up all the other regulations, and they've added plenty, governing everything from doing chores to using the VCR.
The goals of the Bridge are for kids to get jobs, to earn their GEDs (the equivalent of a high-school diploma), and to find and keep apartments. But piecing kids' lives back together cannot always be measured in such concrete ways.
``If you came to us in a body cast, and we started talking to you about whether you should be getting a job or studying for a GED - never mind that you're broken to bits - you'd think we were crazy,'' says staff member Janet Gordon. ``Real progress is when the kids' defenses start to come down, when they learn to trust, when they start to show their feelings.''
Crank, speed, coke. Tia's drugs of choice kept her high most of the time she was on the street, she says. Her weight dropped to 90 pounds, and she came down with hepatitis. But she'd somehow find a way to survive.
``I'd stay with a guy who was a dealer, and I'd use his drugs,'' Tia says. ``Or, I'd sell crank [crystal methamphetamine] for a dealer and use the money to get a place to stay. Or sometimes I'd just be high and wander around all night.''
Tia's first try at leaving the streets for The Bridge didn't work out. ``She came but she didn't do well at all, so she left,'' Mr. Fest remembers. ``You couldn't even talk to her, she was so closed off.''
But after a while, Tia wanted to try again. ``I remember standing downtown and talking with her about returning,'' he says. ``I just asked her to please not make me look like an idiot for taking her back.''
Now, he says, Tia has changed so much it's hard to believe she's the same kid.
For Fest, the key is not to give up on kids. ``For a lot of them, the only thing they're successful at is being a failure,'' he says. ``But maybe, on the 74th try, they'll make it. Every time they ask to try again, I'll try.''
The two-year-old program was scheduled to close at the end of this month, when its federal grant expires. But the community, in a strong show of support, contributed $20,000 in donations to keep it going another few months. Its future is still uncertain, but Fest is hoping a private foundation grant will come through.
As for Tia, she stayed clean during her pregnancy, and she has a baby daughter now. She's taking parenting classes and is going to be getting child-welfare payments. Soon, she'll move out into her own apartment, and decide whether to go to school or get a job.
Her departure will make room for another street kid to join the Bridge family. ``You know,'' she says, ``there needs to be more places like this.''