Homeless youth look for – and find – a Safe Place in Monterey.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
“I kinda have a thing for running away,” says Street, a homeless 19-year-old who says he’s run away from every family he’s lived with since he was 15. Street, as he calls himself to a reporter, was born in Hartford, Conn., but says he “grew up here, there, everywhere. I never really had a stable living situation.”
Child protective services placed him in foster care back East when he was 11.
“They didn’t think my mom was capable of taking care of me,” he says. “They took me away from my mom – that’s kinda hard for a mama’s boy. I’d never spent more than one night away from her.”
Four years later he ran away. He says his foster family didn’t respect him. He returned a few weeks later. “This is too damn cold with all these damn crack fiends – and I don’t do crack,” he remembers. But the living at home didn’t work, either. Street ran away from his foster parents a handful more times before moving to Marina to live with his aunt at 17. “I was going to come to California, go to school, get a car, basically live the American Dream – before it turned to hell.”
Several months later, a week before his 18th birthday, Street says he got in an argument with his uncle, and his aunt chose her husband and kicked him out. He slept at the transit center that night, but only got about an hour’s worth of shuteye. It wasn’t because he was scared, Street says. “I’m never scared, to tell you the truth,” he adds. It was a cold February night, and his first time on the streets in a new state, on a new coast. At 6:45 the next morning, he went to an AA meeting to drink coffee and sleep.
“I WANT TO PLAY BASKETBALL IN SCHOOL, AND I CAN’T DO THAT IF I’M SMOKING. I WANT TO GET OFF THESE STREETS. I CAN’T WAIT.”
“And then,” he says, “my luck started to turn.” People he met at AA let him sleep on their couches. Another guy gave Street a sleeping bag and a comforter. He’d get loaded every night and pass out. “It was easier, and it kept me warm,” he says. “And there’s nothing else to do.”
He spent a few nights on the Monterey State Beach, and panhandled to make some money for the weekends: “You hold up a sign that says ‘Need Money for Booze,’ and all the alcoholics give you money. Who knows, you might even get some alcohol. Signs are the way to go.”
In addition to being a practical moneymaker, some of Street’s signs are pretty creative and show his sense of humor. “I’m not homeless, I’m residentially impaired,” one of his best efforts read. That sign brought in $30 in 15 minutes.
He’s not quite Huck Finn, but when Street describes his living situation, it’s tinted with adventure and freedom – not hopelessness and fear. But his leg doesn’t stop bouncing up and down, and when he’s not cracking jokes, his dark eyes, which dart around the room, look weary and sad.
According to street outreach counselors, as many as 800 runaway and homeless youth live on the Monterey Peninsula, crashing with friends when they can, camping, or sleeping in abandoned buildings, parks and beaches. Social workers call these kids the Peninsula’s “invisible children,” living along one of the most affluent coastlines in the world but fading into the scenery because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves – and we don’t want to see them.
Additionally, these teens are feeling the pinch from the recession, say social workers. Lost jobs and foreclosures put greater strains on family life, and as unemployment skyrockets, it gets more difficult for runaway kids to find jobs and make money.
“It’s trickling down to even the young ones,” says Felicity Smith, a street outreach counselor with Safe Place, which provides services for homeless and runaway youth. “Everyone was talking about the recession last year, but we weren’t really seeing anything. But slowly, in recent weeks, more and more families have been calling and mentioning that as an issue.”
“ONE HIGH IS NOT ENOUGH TO MAKE ME GO TO PRISON FOR THREE MONTHS.”
Safe Place is one of the many programs under the umbrella of Community Human Services, a nonprofit that provides mental health and substance abuse programs to Monterey County residents, funded by state and federal money and community donations. CHS helps hundreds of homeless youth and their families every year – the only such services for homeless teens on the Peninsula. Some of CHS’s other offerings include Genesis House, a residential drug treatment program; domestic violence intervention; anger management; the Parent Education Program; and several other mental health programs for adults, children and families.
Four paid staffers in Safe Place’s office – two in-clinic counselors, Smith, and another part-time street outreach worker – provide the kids with warm clothes and socks, deodorant, toothbrushes and food. Every Thursday night, they host Drop In at the Monterey Youth Center: Local restaurants (including Old Fisherman’s Grotto, Whole Foods, Wild Thyme Deli, Fish Hopper, Montrio Bistro, Rio Grill, L’Auberge and Cantinetta Luca) donate food, and teens come and hang out for a couple hours, eating dinner, shooting pool, watching movies, catching up with friends. Some ask for help – with school, family troubles and drug and alcohol issues. And when they do ask, CHS counselors do what they can to provide.
Later this month, CHS is scheduled to open the doors to Safe Passage, a transitional-living home with six beds for 18 to 21-year-olds – also the first of its kind in the area.
I first meet Street at Safe Place’s office on Pearl Street in downtown Monterey, a gathering place for many of the Peninsula’s invisible children. Kids hang out here during the day, and many frequent the facility between classes, counseling sessions, coffee shops and panhandling. Street and his girlfriend, Ruby (not her real name), say they come here almost every day. Yesterday, they showed up for breakfast minutes before outreach counselor Smith arrived at 8:30am to unlock the doors. “See, look at my phone,” Smith says, pointing to the time on her cell. The two called her at 8:27am, demanding to know why she wasn’t at Safe Place. “I wasn’t late,” she says.
Street wears a black Yankees cap. He’s got light brown skin and wears black jeans, a hoodie and black fingerless gloves. He speaks softly, with a slight Hartford accent, dropping his r’s. Ruby’s dark eyeliner makes her eyes pop against her pale skin and red hair. The couple lives in a utilities closet in downtown Monterey. They share the 7-by-5-foot space with another street kid named Andreas.
“Technically we shouldn’t be sleeping there,” Ruby, 23, says. “It’s a safety hazard.”
Two rugs cover the floor, with three sleeping bags and pillows on top. Ruby and Street zipped their bags into one so they can sleep together, she says. Street stacks his books – The Da Vinci Code, The Outsiders, The BFG and anything else by Roald Dahl are among his favorites – in one corner, “for easy reading,” he says. His pile of junk, candy wrappers and garbage from the night before sit next to the makeshift bed. Ruby’s drawings decorate the walls, and visitors must remove their shoes before entering. “I do not like dirt on my carpet,” Street says. “I might be homeless, but ewww.”
Street and Andreas found the abandoned room three weeks ago. Ruby moved in a week later, after meeting Street at an AA meeting. “Wow, has it been that long, baby?” she asks, snuggling closer under his arm, resting around her shoulders.
Since moving to the area almost two years ago, “I’ve just been kickin’ it,” Street says. “I’m a street kid now.”
He traveled back to Connecticut to visit his mom, but returned to California when he learned a former fling had given birth to his son. He says he wants to take care of his boy, but the child’s mother won’t let him and Street doesn’t have any money to hire a lawyer.
His days blur together: “I usually walk around and do nothing,” he says. “I go to Seven Challenges [drug and alcohol group counseling for teens], movie night here on Wednesdays, Drop In on Thursdays, two AA meetings a day, spange.”
“That’s our term for panhandling,” Ruby explains.
“All the food I have is from here, Safe Place,” Street says. “That’s why I come here: It’s a safe place for me.”
Ruby says she’s been clean for nine months, and she’s on the waiting list to get into Genesis House. She wants to go to rehab because she’s currently on probation for drug use and she doesn’t want to end up in prison. “One high is not enough to make me go to prison for three months,” she says. “But I used to be a huge meth head. Most of Monterey is addicted to that shit.”
“I DO NOT LIKE DIRT ON MY CARPET. I MIGHT BE HOMELESS, BUT EWWW… ”
Street says he’s been clean “on and off” for a while. Most recently, he stopped using cocaine for 15 days. “I went downhill two days ago,” he says. “I’m still fighting it. There is no better or worse days. In my book, there is no good or bad. I use for mental and emotional issues, so I don’t have to live life and stuff. I don’t want to use for the sake that I have a kid.”
Street says he’d tried to get a job, and has filled out applications to work at Taco Bell, Round Table, RG Burgers and Peet’s Coffe. But it’s hard to get a job without a permanent address, and it’s risky for employers to hire a homeless teen. He starts classes in the next few days and says he plans to take the GED before summer, so he can travel and then attend MPC in the fall. He wants to major in marine biology and quit smoking cigarettes.
“I want to play basketball in school, and I can’t do that if I’m smoking. I want to get off these streets. I can’t wait.”
By the end of April, six young adults will move into Safe Passage. The newly remodeled bungalow on Pearl Avenue will be their home – drug – and alcohol-free – for the next 18 months. Here, they’ll have access to counseling and job training. Those who have a job will pay rent, a portion of their income, and some of the money will go into a savings account to help them move into a new place.
“Get them plugged in,” says program coordinator Veronica Lara. “Education, schooling, job placement. Independent living skills: How to manage their money. Cooking. Cleaning. Social skills. Conflict-resolutions skills. Helping them with those basic skills. Having faith in them when they don’t have it. Letting them know they are not alone.”
Lara’s been furnishing the home. She recently bought tablecloths, shower curtains, quilts, feather beds and pictures to hang on the walls, which still smell like fresh paint. She’s sitting in the kitchen, which has been outfitted with a new stainless steel dishwasher, refrigerator, electric range and oven. Sunlight streams through skylight onto the light-wood table. A plasma TV will hang in that corner, she says, pointing at the moss-green wall, with a desk underneath.
A few kids are currently on the waiting list to be interviewed for the Safe Passage program, she says. “The ideal candidate is somebody who wants to better themself,” she says. “Someone who needs a little bit of help getting back on their feet. Maybe they lived in foster care or in a group home until they were 18, or on the streets.”
They also have to be clean and sober, and without a history of violence. And they have to want to transition from the streets.
“It gets controversial with kids because they haven’t hit bottom yet,” Lara says. “If you’ve been homeless, and you’re older, you eventually get tired. If you’re a kid, it can be an adventure every day.”
But sometimes the choices kids make aren’t the right ones, and often the adventure doesn’t end as planned.
It’s late February and 20-year-old Andreas, a former Arabic student at the Defense Language Institute, has recently been discharged from the Navy. He says it was for psychiatric reasons that had been misdiagnosed. His girlfriend, whom he had thought he was going to marry, dumped him. And he’s been living on the streets for the past five months.
Andreas’ family lives in Alaska. They adopted him from an orphanage in Bucharest, Romania, when he was 18 months old. “Have you heard of the tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu?” Andreas asks, referring to the communist dictator who, before being assassinated in 1989, carried out social experiments on orphans. “Instead of using lab rats, he would use unwanted children from orphanages,” Andreas says.
But he says he can’t return to Alaska because of family problems, and he doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
“I stayed in the hostel a couple of nights,” he says. “After that I started sleeping in electrical closets, tool sheds. I slept on the beach once. All I had was a thin, wool blanket. I’ve been homeless the last three nights.”
Andreas wears tall black boots, black and green striped shorts, and a black t-shirt with a white skull. Dog tags and a crystal necklace hang around his heck. His eyes are bright blue, framed by skinny metal glasses, and his strawberry blond hair curls at its ends.
He says he worked for a while on Cannery Row, but that only lasted six weeks. All the money he earned went to pay for his phone bill. He’s angry about being discharged from the Navy – that was supposed to be his ticket to seeing the world. He says he should be in Iraq.
“The fact is: I was serving my country,” he says. “I still go out and break things because I’m so angry about having to rethink my career. I enlisted for eight [years] but was going to do 20 at least.”
A couple months later, Andreas is taking classes at MPC: Arabic, history of the Middle East and ballroom dancing. He’s staying at a friend’s apartment in Monterey. Things are looking up.
Street’s still living with Andreas. He got the two of them and Ruby kicked out of the abandoned building because he snores too loudly. Street, too, was taking classes, working towards his GED, but says he had to drop out because Ruby’s pregnant. He’s thinking about joining the Navy, but Ruby doesn’t want him to enlist. He says he’s hoping for a baby girl. Then he goes outside for a cigarette.
Smith spends much of her days driving around the Peninsula, frequenting places where homeless kids hang out, looking for her “little ones,” as she calls them.
“I hand out snack bags, sandwiches now and again,” she says. “Normally the connection is, ‘I’m hungry, can I have some food?’ Normally it takes a good few times before they trust me.
“I’m kind of like the carrot. I encourage these kids to seek help, counseling. I work with them to meet their basic needs.”
When she’s not in the white Community Human Services van, she’s usually at Safe Place. Every Tuesday, she hands out boxes of food, donated by the Food Bank. She’s working on adopting a beach so that the teens will have something else to do, and she hopes this new project will help instill a sense of ownership in the kids who frequent Safe Place.
On Thursday nights she runs Drop In, which usually brings upwards of 30 kids to the Monterey Youth Center. Before the program began working with local restaurants, which donate food for the three-dozen or more teens who show up on a weekly basis, Smith cooked the meals herself.
She began working as a street outreach counselor a year and a half ago. “This is my dream job,” she says. Before CHS hired her, she spent a year wanting to work for the program, e-mailing the former outreach counselor, offering to volunteer, hoping for employment helping at-risk youth. Once she got the gig, Smith wanted to help the teens find jobs and mentors. The recession has made that more difficult than she had imagined. “All of my kids want jobs. Some of my kids have criminal records, and jobs aren’t hiring. What are they going to do, take a chance on a kid with a record?”
Smith has worked with about 1,000 kids during the past year, she says, and of those, about 800 didn’t have a permanent bed to sleep in.
“They have different living situations,” she says. “Kids who sleep at their friends’ houses don’t consider themselves homeless.” Others, she says, raise enough money to rent a campsite at Veteran’s Park. “So again, they’re camping. They’re not homeless.”
Kids end up living on the streets for an array of reasons, Smith says.
“If it’s not basic abuse, it’s not enough parental supervision in their lives. They make bad decisions. What I’ve seen with my little ones: They start with skipping school, then probation, then parents kick them out. There’s also mental illness, both kids and parents.”
We drive by Monterey Conference Center and Smith sees a young girl walking by the outdoor fountain. She’s got long brown hair and it looks like she’s wearing pajama pants. I didn’t notice her until Smith says, “there’s a little one.
“Before I took the job, I didn’t realize all these kids were out there,” she says. “Now I go anywhere – I went to Good Old Days – and see kids I know. They don’t want to be found, is what it comes down to. Neighbors, people in the community will say, ‘We don’t have a problem in Monterey. I don’t see any homeless kids.’ We do have a problem. It’s just that you don’t see them.”