Street youth: Who are they? What can be done to help them?

Under the garish lights of Times Square, a man in a fur coat and high felt hat peers out from a darkened doorway keeping close watch on his employees - two teen-age prostitutes hustling customers from the theater crowd.

Not long ago, Linda (not her real name) was one of those desperate young women. She was 12 years old when she ran away from her foster home and ended up in a New York coffeehouse. Tired, hungry, and frightened, she was picked up by a pimp who offered her food and shelter.

For nearly a year she worked the streets as a prostitute and suffered physical abuse before seeking help from Covenant House, a private, nonprofit shelter here for runaway and homeless children. There, she received immediate care and was later placed in a group home. As a result of coordinated efforts between Covenant House and the police department, the pimp was picked up, prosecuted, and is now serving a jail term.

Despite her harrowing experience, Linda is one of the more fortunate runaways who are able to escape the street and find a safe living situation. According to conservative estimates, there are 700,000 to 1.5 million homeless and runaway youth in the United States. In New York City alone, police estimate there are from 10,000 to 20,000 runaways aged 15 or under on the streets on any given night. Increased numbers of homeless children are also turning up in other urban centers, particularly Sunbelt cities. Most of these runaways do not run far; shelters nationwide report 70 to 80 percent of their adolescents come from nearby areas.

The federal Runaway Youth Act helps finance 228 of the 400 service organizations nationwiHe. Funds provided under the act increased from $10.5 million in 1981 to $23.25 million in 1983. But professionals who serve homeless and runaway youth agree that government assistance alone will not solve this complex problem. Who are these children?

Last month, Covenant House and the UPS Foundation cosponsored a three-day conference, ''Shelter the Children '83: An International Symposium on Street Youth,'' to address the plight of homeless young people worldwide. More than 150 participants (not including Covenant House staff) gathered here to discuss the challenges faced by street youth and to develop plans for future action.

Among the issues they considered:

In the US, homeless and runaway youth are a mixed group, including children from poverty-stricken homes, families that have split apart, single-parent homes , and children who are dropouts from the social welfare or juvenile-justice system. Many street children are undereducated and come from poor families. But abused and neglected young people come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Once on the street, they often turn to prostitution or drug dealing to survive.

Ron Williams, a Covenant House staff member, describes these youngsters as ''survivalists who have fled abuse and exploitation. They're not leaving home to become urban nomads or to escape their responsibilities. They are escaping a home life they cannot tolerate.''

Linda Rippond, executive director of the Shelter, a nonprofit agency providing outreach and residential services for runaway and homeless youth in Seattle, says the most prevalent common denominator in the children they help is that about 78 percent have been physically or sexually abused at home.

''These are not kids who are out there for adventure or fun,'' says Mike Murphy, a staff member at Covenant House. ''Most are out there running for their lives and from destructive family homes. The majority of kids we see at Covenant House have been abandoned or pushed out by their families.''

He mentions a young man, ''Jack,'' a ''tough street hustler'' whose alcoholic mother threw him out of the house when he was 14. Jack turns up periodically at Covenant House, but so far he has resisted its efforts to help him establish a more stable life style.

''He's in his 20s now and he's not making it,'' Mr. Murphy says.

Of those who do make the decision to come off the streets, only about 20 percent canm go home, according to Mr. Murphy. For the rest, with the exception of a handful who could return home with some staff intervention or assistance, going home is not an option. The family has dispersed, the parents are not fit to care for the child, or else they refuse to take the child back. In these cases, a long-term alternative to street life must be worked out. The need for long-term assistance

While developing countries are struggling to meet the most basic needs of their vast numbers of street youth, the US has made significant headway in supplying its destitute children with short-term help in the form of food, shelter, clothing, health, and legal assistance. The great challenge now, many American symposium participants agreed, is to find permanent housing, jobs for older adolescents, and ways to provide educational and other opportunities for growth and development.

''While survival services are very important, unless we tie these services into a system of ongoing care we do those young people a great disservice,'' said Linda Rippond in her address to the symposium. She sees the need to develop more long-term residential options for these children, such as professional foster care in individual homes rather than in group institutions.

''The important thing is to let them know they have a future: that they will be here five years from now,'' she says. ''We also must remember the forces that impact these children in the street continue to exert a strong, seductive pull back to the street as they try to leave it.''

At Covenant House, these forces have prompted security measures to ensure safe sanctuary.

''Many girls who come to us have recently been beat up by boyfriends or are in fear of some man threatening them because they've left the street,'' explains Greg Loken, a Covenant House senior staff attorney who arranges legal protection if necessary.

Mr. Loken has also worked for increased federal legislation protecting the rights of children, but he believes governmental measures have limited effectiveness.

''International declarations of children's rights do not solve problems for kids,'' he says. ''What solves problems for children is the presence of people who care for them close by.'' What can be done

At the core of the homeless- and runaway-youth issue are the family conflicts that force children to flee.

Possible preventive steps explored at the symposium were aimed at helping parents in distress and strengthening family ties. Suggestions included expansion of social services already in place such as the Head Start program, easier access to day care, and increased family counseling and vocational training.

On a more fundamental level, participants agreed that positive change will ultimately come from a renewed commitment by both parents and communities to basic child-rearing values.

According to Mr. Loken, many American families today are isolated from an extended family network and from the community. ''People aren't staying in one place long enough to form relationships,'' he says, noting the high relocation statistics in recent years. Without caring people to turn to, ''small problems can grow steadily more intense.

''If parents felt the presence and support of other family members and from neighbors, they would feel less need to resort to physical violence and there would be easier detection of the problem,'' he continues. ''It's really going to take a change in the national will to care about each other and each other's children.''

The National Directory of Runaway Youth Programs lists and describes the 400 centers serving homeless young people nationwide. To obtain a copy send $9.95 to the National Youth Work Alliance, 1346 Connecticut Ave., Wash. D.C., 20036.m

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