OUT OF `THE SYSTEM' AND ONTO THE STREETS
NEON lights cast a red haze across Pioneer Square in downtown Portland. A drug pusher and a few pimps lurk in the shadows, staying just outside the circle of white light that rings the bus stop. Inside the fluorescent pool, the kids all congregate. These are the children of the night - teen-agers who have run away, been thrown out of their homes, or otherwise discarded on the streets. They assign themselves tough-sounding street names, such as Tammy's moniker ``Fang,'' but really they are prey.Skip to next paragraph
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``You think I like it out here? It's hard being out here,'' says 16-year-old Tammy, adding that she wanted to go home after two weeks on the streets. But when she got across town, her mother and two younger sisters had moved out. Tammy says she doesn't know where they are.
The best guesses are that at least 1 million children take to the streets each year in the United States. They are in bus stations in big cities. They are on Main Street in small towns. Some stay away for a night or two before returning home. But at least half of them leave for good, fleeing homes that can often be just as abusive as the streets they run to.
A 1983 report by the US Department of Health and Human Services, which surveyed 345 youth-service workers in 12 states, estimated:
36 percent of the youngsters fled homes where they were physically or sexually abused.
44 percent left because of other long-term problems, such as drug use in the family or failure in school.
25 percent of the runaways, or at least 250,000, are ``hard-core street kids.'' Of these, 75 percent are engaged in some kind of illegal activity; half have worked as prostitutes.
Evidence is also mounting that a majority of street children, perhaps as many as two-thirds of them, have had extensive involvement with the foster-care system or the juvenile-justice system. Their presence on the street is silent testimony that they have failed the system - and that it has failed them.
``Most of the kids we see have had involvement with [Oregon's] Children's Services Division,'' says Molly Worthley, director of Greenhouse, a privately funded drop-in center for street kids in Portland. ``These are the kids that the system has failed for. It's difficult, when kids are 16 or 17, to find people who will take them into their homes [in foster care]. These kids have a lot of problems, so they fall through the cracks.''
A lot of them land on the street. There, kids may turn to pimps to protect them, to prostitution to make money, and to drugs to numb the pain. Sometimes, they overdose, commit suicide, or succumb to AIDS. ``The year before last, we lost 17 kids,'' Ms. Worthley says. ``Kids die on the streets.''
MEET Michelle, 17. Pretty and lightly freckled, Michelle grew up in a home with an alcoholic father who beat her and her sisters. A drug user at age 10, raped at age 12 during a runaway episode, the girl was shuttled by social workers between home, an emergency shelter, and a Texas institution during her early teens.
At 15, just after she returned home to Austin, her family life disintegrated for good.
At first Michelle lived with her dad and his new girlfriend. Then she caught a plane to California and lived with her oldest sister. Next, she moved in with a friend. At 16, she was engaged to a fellow in the military, but when they went to South Carolina to marry ``he went AWOL,'' Michelle says. The wedding did not take place.
On a bus back to California, she heard about the Larkin Street Youth Center in San Francisco and decided to check it out.
The streets of San Francisco are beautiful, but they can be cruel. Runaways find the sidewalks there are not paved with gold after all. Instead, some of them are lined with peep shows and seedy bars where adults loiter looking for kids.
Soon, Michelle turned to prostitution to pay for a hotel room.
``The only reason I did it was for food and a place to stay,'' she says. Initially ``not interested'' in Larkin Street, the only drop-in center for hard-core street youths in the city, Michelle ultimately went there.
``It's hard to leave the streets,'' says Michelle, now living in an apartment with other young people who are ``transitioning'' into independent living. ``You make friends out there, kids who are like you, and you don't want to leave your friends.''
The dinner conversation is weapons. Over spaghetti the girls at Diamond Youth Shelter in San Francisco trade advice about how to use them. The talk is raw, of muggings, of betrayals, of customers who agree to buy the girls' bodies and then refuse to pay.