JILL TRIES TO LEAVE THE LURE OF THE STREETS BEHIND
Portland, Ore. — JILL was molested by her stepfather when she was a child. She was a runaway at 14. She's sold herself on the streets of Portland. She's been in and out of jail more times than she cares to count. She's an alcoholic. Jill is 17 years old.
``I didn't feel anything when I was living on the street,'' says the fiery redhead. ``When I went out to work I just shut my feelings off. When you're out there you're selling your soul to the devil, to the pimps, and the johns.''
Jill (not her real name) is one of the fortunate few who have found a haven from the streets. At first glance, her room at the local YWCA doesn't seem like much. But all the stuffed animals are lined up in a row, all the cosmetics are neatly arranged on the desk, all the blankets are folded carefully on the bed. Jill is creating order out of her chaotic life.
``If I hadn't come here, I would have exploded,'' she says.
The Girls' Emancipation Program in Portland helps supply one of the greatest needs for street kids: long-term shelter. In this case, ``long term'' means 90 days. In that time, the girls here try to cross from a world of dependence - on pimps or on drugs - to a world of independence.
Residential programs like this one are at a premium - and they remain the greatest need for young people who can't go home. Two hundred girls are referred to this program each year, but there are only 30 openings, program director Ruth Herman Wells says.
``These kids are close to the legal age of majority, so the state's Children's Services Division doesn't respond to them,'' she says. ``It just doesn't have the resources and the options for the girls.''
If Jill hadn't agreed to come to the YWCA, she would have been under court order to serve 1 years at one of Oregon's two juvenile institutions. She says she's been tempted to run back to the streets - and there are no locked doors to stop her. But she has stayed, ``because I realized that the people here really did care about me. They're trying to help me understand why I did what I did.''
Her flight to the street, she says, was a quest for love and security. She thought she'd found them in a man 10 years older than her 14-year-old self, but he soon asked her to ``prove'' her love by becoming a prostitute in the seediest parts of Portland.
``It didn't have anything to do with material things, like money and stuff,'' says an older and wiser Jill. ``I needed security and to feel loved, and some man was nice enough to take me in. And that's how it happens. I used to see 11- and 12-year-olds out there.''
Less than 10 blocks from the YWCA, the youths hanging out at Pioneer Square one night in April were looking for some of the same things. And a couple of pimps, only about 18 or 19 years old themselves, were looking for some action. Knowing that the guys usually hustle on their own, the pimps circle the girls who don't have boyfriends nearby.
One of them hovers over a new girl and eventually settles in at her side. Almond-eyed, silver-tongued, he whispers of a warm place to stay, some drugs, a good time. He's smooth. Real smooth. If she's desperate enough, she's hooked.
Like Jill, most of these kids - as many as 150 on any given night - are Portland's own. Sixty percent of them are from the metropolitan area, another 20 percent are from other parts of Oregon, and only 20 percent are from out of state, says Lisa Burke of Project LUCK, which coordinates services for street kids through Tri-County Youth Services Consortium.
``These are not someone else's kids,'' she says. ``That's the hardest thing to get through to people. They are our kids, so we need to take care of them. They are not from Hollywood or some other faraway place.''
Across America, most street kids are local kids, studies show. A few ``magnet'' cities, however, attract a greater number of teen-agers from afar. Places such as San Francisco, Hollywood, New York, and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., attract kids who are looking for glamour, excitement, or just other teens who understand what it's like to be on the run.
Jill's goal is to be independent - and to stay off the streets. She wants to take business classes at the local community college, find an apartment, and hold down a job, even if it's only at a fast-food restaurant. She's started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for her drinking problem.
``We noticed the girls in our latest group have very, very serious drug and alcohol problems,'' says Ms. Herman Wells, noting that the program has recently added a class on substance abuse to its curriculum.
Janet and Casey (not their real names) are cases in point.
Janet, furnished with drugs by an older brother, began drinking, using cocaine, and smoking marijuana when she was only 11. Before Janet came to the Girls' Emancipation Program, she had already spent 28 days in a drug-rehabilitation center. She'd also been confined to another residential facility where, she says, ``they treated me like I was crazy and would put me in restraints.''
But to no avail. She soon withdrew all $900 in her savings account and blew it on cocaine for herself and three people she'd just met. Then she came here.
Casey, too, has combated a longstanding addiction to alcohol. Both girls have continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol months after leaving the YWCA for jobs and apartments of their own, Herman Wells says.
As for Jill, she's also working to rein in her hot temper. ``A lot of girls, like me, had a real bad attitude,'' Jill says. ``I was always saying, `___ this' and `___ that.' A lot of girls were scared of me. Some are still intimidated, but I've really been working on it.''
If she lasts the full 90 days with the Girls' Emancipation Program (as do 60 percent of the girls here), Jill's chances are pretty good. Nine out of 10 program graduates have kept their jobs and apartments a year after leaving the program, says Ms. Herman Wells. Only one in 10 has been charged with new offenses. Jill, with characteristic frankness and conviction, says the juvenile-justice system is too permissive with the girls who come into contact with it.
``They don't really do anything to the girls to make them stop'' prostituting and running away, she says. ``You get a slap on the hand. You have to be really bad to get sent to Hillcrest,'' a state correctional institution for youth.
On the other hand, the solution isn't to ``lock them up and throw away the key,'' she says. ``It's time we started putting our foot down for teen-agers and caring about them, rather than ignoring them.''
Otherwise, she says, kids will keep hitting the streets. ``The street is all we have,'' Jill says. ``Or it's all we think we have.''
Jill graduated from the Girls' Emancipation Program in May. But as this series went to press, she was again on the run. Program workers say she did not hold onto the apartment she eventually found and has disappeared. If she is ever arrested again, Jill, now 18, will be tried and sentenced as an adult. Her childhood - such as it was - is over.