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A lifeline in Hollywood for young homeless people

TheftCookingLifestyle and LeisureCalifornia Department of TransportationHarry Potter (fictional character)

Give thanks for the nearly new Nikes, left abandoned beneath the 101 Freeway overpass. They were just M.J.'s size. He had needed shoes, but had no money to buy them.

Give thanks for the tote bag, holding the Vienna sausages that Sam hands M.J. on Hollywood Boulevard. Sam is 4 1/2 months pregnant with her fifth child — their third together — and by April, when the baby is due, she and M.J. , both 26, hope to have a roof over their heads.

Give thanks especially for My Friend's Place, provider of the sausages and so much more.

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The privately funded center perched above the Hollywood Boulevard exit is a haven where young homeless people can nurture fragile dreams.

It gives them what food it can afford. It gives them clothes, clean underwear and socks, toilet paper, toiletries and hot showers.

If and when they are ready, it gently helps them head toward self-sufficient lives off the street. In the meantime, it is their daily lifeline, which they huddle close by to grab.

It's easy on this still-sad stretch of the boulevard to notice only the garish come-ons: from Atomic Tattoo, No Limit Tobacco & Accessories, Liquor to Go, Original Tommy's burgers and Palms Thai Restaurant (where Thai Elvis sings).

But scan the sidewalk, and Sams and M.J.s are everywhere — skateboarding around the edges of a parking lot, clutching cardboard signs on offramps, buffered from cold winds by bus-stop glass.

On the south side of Hollywood and Bronson, the bus stop serves as an all-day gathering place, where a 22-year-old who calls himself Lone Ranger can rest before heading to an offramp to "fly a sign" that reads "Vision of a Taco." Where Rancid, who chose her nickname for the band, can puff on a joint and swap bracelets with Sam. (Rail thin, in the shortest shorts, she says she's legal now but ran away from her Hollywood Hills home when she was 9.) Where those who "spange" — or ask for spare change — can feel safe enough to count their coins.

Behind the bus stop is a self-storage business whose windowless, temperature-controlled bays would be luxury shelter for Sam and M.J. As the sun readies to set on this chilly night, they do not know where they will sleep.

They lived for a while in a tent under the overpass. Then Caltrans workers carted off the shelter and many of their belongings.

Before election day, they had earned some cash handing out condoms for the Yes on B campaign, and spent a week in a low-rent hotel room.

More recently, they've been spooning under a Harry Potter blanket in the hollow beneath a flight of stairs, at the lowest level of the parking garage at Hollywood & Highland. But on this morning, they were rousted from that spot — which, post-discovery, will no longer be available to them.

Give thanks that the clothes they have gotten at My Friend's Place are warm.

Sam wears brown wool dress pants and three layers on top — a thick, hooded sweater buttoned over the small swell of her belly, on top of a gray tank top and T-shirt. M.J. has on gray suit pants and a thick, royal blue sweat shirt with the letters "CHELSEA FC" stitched on the back. When the sunlight starts to slip away, he takes it off, zips Sam into it, and stands on the curb, crossing his thin arms for warmth.

Sam and M.J. met in Pennsylvania 10 years ago, around the time she ran away from the Pennsylvania Dutch couple who had adopted her. They took off for the California sun in 2008, and lasted here for more than two years — until they were picked up by police and sent home to do time for stealing a relative's car to make their getaway.

In October, they returned to Hollywood, leaving much in their wake.

M.J. has a 5-year-old daughter who lives with her mom in Pennsylvania. Sam's brother has her 7-year-old son. Her 5-year-old daughter lives with that child's father. Sam and M.J.'s 3-year-old son, born when they were last here, went into the system and was adopted. Their 1-year-old daughter is with a Pennsylvania foster family, who send photos of the chubby, smiling baby.

They know they've made many wrong turns — drinking, doing drugs, stealing to survive. They've filched liquor and sold it by the shot on Venice Beach. They've plucked basic necessities off store shelves.

But they want better.

So this week, when My Friend's Place served up a big Thanksgiving meal — with more than enough home-cooked turkey, mashed potatoes and pie to stuff all the young people who came through its doors — Sam and M.J. skipped the feast and headed to Santa Monica. Sam had an interview for a program that, if she gets in, will care for her through her pregnancy and the baby's first months, and then help them find housing.

"We're going to live in Venice Beach and we're going to have a nice little apartment. Like I said, it's going to be little," she said, hugging M.J. "But it will be ours, and we're going to have our son."

Give thanks for the way hope hangs on against the odds, and for all those who work to keep it alive.

[View the story "Young and homeless on Hollywood Boulevard" on Storify]

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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TheftCookingLifestyle and LeisureCalifornia Department of TransportationHarry Potter (fictional character)
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