SEATTLE — 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.
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.
Over time, the university, with its wealth of resources, has become more involved. Students majoring in social work have developed a training program for volunteers and arranged for homeless teens to shower in a university building.
Members of the university hospital staff and health-sciences department have worked to conduct a street youth "census" and assist local health providers. Undergraduates do community service and earn academic credit, and law students at the University of Washington and other area colleges run a legal-assistance program to help runaways acquire IDs, birth certificates, and other records.
Acquiring such documents can make youngsters uneasy, because they are frightened that adults will find them and compel them to return home. But the information is required for them to transfer from one school to another.
Some residents worry that by adding youth services, the U District might become a magnet for street kids. Amidei, however, says the numbers show no pattern of growth. "Kids," she reminds, "didn't come [to the U District] because there were services, but services came because there were kids."
And street kids, the Partnership for Youth has discovered, often turn up on college campuses, with or without social services.
"We've learned this is happening in university towns all over the country," Amidei says. "The reason is simple. If you were 15 and on the run and you had really terrible experiences with adults, you're not going to gravitate toward the business section of a downtown area. You're not going to hang around with a lot of suits. You're going to go where you can blend in and not be conspicuous."
College campuses are youth-friendly areas that are often tolerant of different lifestyles and fashions. They also have a lot of facilities and attract businesses that stay open late at night. Libraries can be especially good places for spending hassle-free hours in a safe, warm, and dry building.
During his years on the streets, Murphy says he remembers winters in which his clothes never dried out, partly because he had to wear his wardrobe, including five long-sleeve shirts and two pairs of corduroy pants, nearly all the time. One of the greatest needs of street kids, says Rachael Myers, a former social- work student with extensive U District volunteer experience, is finding socks.
"We never have enough," she says. "It's so soggy here and kids constantly have problems with their feet."
Local churches, allied as University Street Ministries, have from the beginning been key players in the Partnership for Youth. For the most part, says The Rev. Katie Ladd, urban minister of the University Temple United Methodist Church, they substitute tangible evidences of caring - a shelter program and Teen Feed dinners - for theological language.
"We are less interested in telling people what we think than simply trying to bring about the kingdom of God as we understand it," she says.
While acknowledging that teen homelessness is still a problem, Ms. Ladd is encouraged by what is happening in the U District. "Kids are starting to be cared for in a more comprehensive way, in a way that isn't merely bureaucratic," she observes.
"We don't think anybody should be living on the street if they can avoid it," Amidei says. "We want to get them [home] as fast as possible so they don't get acculturated to the street."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society