Every weekday afternoon, teenagers, some with punk hairstyles and pierced bodies, begin to congregate at the front door of a house across from the University of Washington campus in Seattle.Skip to next paragraph
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No one lives here, although many of the young visitors may wish they did. They are runaways who have come to the University District Youth Center to pass the time, enjoy the welcoming environment, and perhaps take a shower or grab a snack in a homey setting.
With the help of the center's small, dedicated staff, drop-ins can work toward a high-school equivalency certificate, avail themselves of employment services, and receive drug and alcohol counseling.
At 5 p.m. the doors close, and from here many of the teens wander off to their only square meal of the day, served free on a rotating basis at local churches. Eventually, they may head to one of two youth shelters.
If this sounds like the life of freeloading adventure, think again, says Nancy Amidei, who coordinates a town-gown alliance to assist homeless street youths in Seattle's University District, known as the U District.
Yes, she says, there is always a tiny percentage of teens who show up in the district just because they think it's really cool to live with no rules.
"Usually in the summer we see the kids who have nice-looking backpacks and Docksider shoes and who call their moms every day to check in," she observes. "We're not worried about them."
The regular clientele, says Ms. Amidei (pronounced AHM-uh-day), consists largely of "badly traumatized kids" who have been severely abused or neglected at home. They constitute two-thirds to three-fourths of the district's homeless youth population, or an estimated 80 to 100 youths on any given night, based on shelter statistics.
A small percentage of these young people, Amidei says, may have been forced from home by basically loving parents who find their children too wild to control or by parents angered when their children identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual.
How they wind up on the street varies, but one constant is their attraction to the University of Washington campus and its neighboring business district, especially University Avenue, the thoroughfare known as "The Ave."
Shilo Murphy, a former runaway foster child and street youth worker, says he will always call the University District home, because, despite the rough times there, that's where he made lasting friendships. "My closest friends were all on the street with me," he says. "It's like the Army. You would die for them. It's our support network; we never lost it."
Mr. Murphy believes there is a certain standard of living below which the neighborhood - with its safety net of volunteer-run church shelters, a drop-in center, soup kitchens, and social services - won't let young people sink. Several years ago, however, it became increasingly evident that this network lacked one key player.
"The biggest neighbor was the university, and we weren't even at the table," says Amidei, who works in the UW School of Social Work. "These youngsters were sleeping in our alleys and hanging out in our libraries."
In 1993, Josephine Archuleta, a local activist working for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, helped start a grass-roots community-university alliance known as the U District-University Partnership for Youth.