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.
``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.
At any one time, at least 25,000 kids aged 12 through 17 are on the streets in California, says Jed Emerson, director of the Larkin Street center. More than 1,500 of them roam in San Francisco, but the city's 40 shelter beds for youth are seldom filled. Reaching these kids, bringing them back from the edge of oblivion, can be a herculean task, he says.
``Most of the kids we see have been hurt, and I mean really damaged,'' he says. ``They don't trust the system, and they certainly don't trust adults.''
In the past, social-service agencies in the city have squabbled over which one will serve this most troubled group of kids.
The child-welfare system says it can't find group homes or foster homes that will take these teens. The probation department says the kids are not candidates for juvenile hall because they are more victims than criminals. Mental-health services say the kids' emotional problems can't be treated until their drug-abuse problems are resolved. Substance-abuse clinics are overcrowded, and there is no detoxification facility especially for adolescents in the city.
No agency in the system has the extra resources or the inclination to work with this most troubled group of youngsters, Mr. Emerson says, noting that the problem extends beyond San Francisco.
``We pay a cost for letting our kids go like this, as a country,'' he says. ``There's a certain moral de-struction at work, and it eats at a society internally.''
In some cities, such as San Francisco and Portland, the help that does exist is a remarkable network of privately run youth shelters; drop-in centers; counseling and medical services; and longer-term residential programs designed to aid kids who can't go home.
Most get some federal, state, or local funding, but a sizable chunk of their support comes from private donors, such as churches, businesses, and volunteers. Nonetheless, they are usually scrapping for money, particularly to add more beds in costly but effective residential programs.
A recent study casts a shadow on the premise that runaways should always be sent home as soon as possible. A University of Connecticut survey at a Toronto shelter concluded that 86 percent of runaways there had been physically or sexually abused at home - a much higher proportion than expected.
``I know for a fact that most of my kids are never going to go home,'' Emerson says. ``This is not `Huckleberry Finn.' Sixty-eight percent of the time parents won't even come in to talk about reunification. We call them, but they say: `You've got him, you keep him.'''
MEET Shannon, 16. One spring evening in Boston, the doe-eyed blonde found herself on the street, duffel bag in hand. Shannon (not her real name) had been kicked out by her heroin-addicted mother.
Shannon's history is a rocky one. Her parents separated when she was a preschooler, she saw her mother's hypodermic needle when she was 6, and she started running away from home at age 11. Shannon also became an addict - to PCP (pentachlorophenol), codeine, Valium, marijuana. And she started shoplifting in department stores.
It wasn't long before the girl came to the attention of the child welfare probation departments. After several years of receiving special services that enabled her to live at home, she finally told them of her mother's addiction.
Once, after ``Ma beat the ___ out of me just before Thanksgiving,'' Shannon says, she was placed in a foster home where drug use was also occurring. Her love for her mother would eventually draw her home.
The night Shannon was kicked out, she heard that a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous had died. Shannon had been going to AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and she'd been clean for five months. Upset, she confronted her mother about her heroin addiction - only to find herself out on the street.
Shannon has had several social workers and probation officers over the years, but none was available to help her that night. Desperate, she telephoned Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Worker Maura Pensak drove over and picked her up. Shannon now lives with other former street kids in a house run by Bridge staff, and she and her mother are in family counseling.
``It's clear that Shannon's mom was abusing heroin, and it's clear that Shannon was being neglected,'' Ms. Pensak says. ``But she was being just as neglected in [the child welfare agency] as she was in her home. Her social worker had left and no one had been reassigned to her case, until we called up and started demanding it.''
For years, the US has been in a quandary over what to do with teen-agers like Shannon and Michelle. They are called status offenders. Their offenses are running away, skipping school, and being ``incorrigible'' - actions that would not be criminal if committed by adults.
Although some of them also engage in illegal activity, usually their crimes are the self-destructive ones of prostitution and drug abuse. These troubled teens used to be locked up. In 1974, however, Congress urged states to remove status offenders from jails and institutions, in the interest of separating them from hard-core delinquents. As a result, the average daily population in America's training schools fell from 38,000 to 26,000 by 1978.
But the deinstitutionalization of status offenders has been hotly debated ever since.
``We've gotten that class of kid out of state care, so the law has been successful to that degree,'' says Rich Gable of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. ``But whether it's progress or not is still undetermined.''
As an example he cites Pennsylvania, which in 1977 reclassified status offenders into neglect cases. Delinquency cases appearing before court dropped dramatically, as expected.
``But child welfare caseloads, the people you'd expect to see picking up these cases, stayed absolutely flat,'' Mr. Gable says. ``So what happened to all those kids?''
No one knows for sure, but almost everyone in the juvenile-justice field has an opinion. Many experts say these are the children who hit the streets. Some say status offenders are responsible for the huge influx of adolescents into private psychiatric institutions, where they stay until their parents' insurance coverage runs out. Others charge that status offenders, because they can no longer be detained and treated, become criminals and spiral even deeper into the delinquency system.
``There's a general failure of the social-service system to deal with runaway and homeless youth,'' says June Bucy, executive director of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services. These are not the children whose faces peek at us from the backs of milk cartons, she says.
``No one has reported these kids missing. No one is looking for them. And no one wants them when they are found,'' she says.
MEET Tigger, 22. Raised in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Tigger stopped living at home when he was nine and started hanging out with a street gang. By age 14, after he'd done time in ``training schools,'' his parents sent him to Oregon to live with an uncle. He promptly stole a wallet and spent a year in Oregon's correctional institution for delinquent boys. He was sent back, several times, but in between he raised Cain on Portland's streets.
Street life was ugly, gritty, and dangerous. Tigger, in his own words, has been a drug dealer and a user. He's danced in strip joints, he's pimped, he's hustled, he's been shot at, stabbed, and done time in jail. He's dueled to the death, and he's still standing. He loves to fight, and he learned early how to do it. He's survived.
``You want to know about the streets. I'll tell you about the streets,'' he says. ``It's no place to be.''
Locking him up didn't help, either, Tigger says. ``This is their idea of rehabilitation. They tell you when to get up, when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, when to line up, when to go to work or to school, when to answer your name in roll call. All they teach you to do is to follow orders.'' A sound peculiar to institutions - that of the steel door slamming shut and locking - still reverberates in his mind. ``It'll never go away my whole life,'' Tigger says. ``I'll always hear that sound buried deep inside me.''
Tigger talks about his life as if he's talking about someone else, and, in a way, he is. He lives now in two worlds. In one, he's the hard-edged street tough who has seen and done it all. In the other, he's an energetic, engaging young man who rides the bus, holds a job, channels his love for fighting into karate lessons, and struggles to make ends meet legally.
He's been off intravenous drugs for three years, he says, thanks to a former Greenhouse counselor who never gave up on him.
``I'll tell you why the system doesn't work,'' Tigger says. ``You're just a case. I was a single case to them. I was not a human being. But what they don't realize is that they are your parents, and that you gotta talk, hold, hug. But to them it's just a job.''