Hard Life for ‘Throwaways’ in Polk Gulch : Hundreds of Homeless Youths Hustle in Gay Bars, Sidewalks of S.F.'s Polk St.
Shortly before his 17th birthday, Glen Ostergard told his parents that he is a homosexual. He says they ordered him out of their home.
Ostergard, who grew up east of here in Castro Valley, knew how to survive. Like hundreds of similar youths, he went to a San Francisco area known as Polk Gulch and started hustling tricks as a teen-age prostitute.
The slight, blond youth spent two years on the streets, mired in hustling and drugs, before he pulled his life together with the help of counselors at a local youth center. Now, at 19, he is trying to help other kids whose lives revolve around the neon-lit sidewalks and gay bars of Polk Street.
Many have run away from home, choosing to live on the street. But many are people like Ostergard whose parents have kicked them out. Social workers call them “throwaways.”
“They’re not away from home because it’s glamorous,” said Greg Day, chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Advocacy Council. “It’s not the old Huckleberry Finn idea or the ‘60s ‘flower child’ idea where young people are running away to urban centers because that’s the place to be. These young people are fleeing untenable situations at home.”
San Francisco, with its reputation as a city that accepts homosexuals, often is their destination.
Paul Seidler, gay liaison officer for the police, tells of a throwaway youth from Montana he met in Polk Gulch.
“I asked him why he made his way to San Francisco and he said, ‘Every gay kid in the country knows about Polk Street and Austin Alley,’ ” Seidler said. “That’s where they head.”
“There is support here for people who are openly gay,” Day said. “But the economics of life on the street are just as precarious here as they are across the country, and the reality of it is that survival for youth on the street is a very desperate and dangerous situation.
“Kids come to San Francisco and to other big cities thinking they’re going to become adults. They’re going to survive on their own. That’s their fantasy. Some manage to survive. Some don’t.”
One of the biggest threats to survival is the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, said Day, who also works at the youth center. He says the street hustlers are highly susceptible to AIDS because they have many sex partners and some abuse intravenous drugs.
Jed Emerson, executive director of the Larkin Street Youth Center, said police estimate the number of street youths in the city at between 1,500 and 2,000. Many end up in the Polk Street area, roaming the sidewalks in search of the necessities of street life--food and shelter, drugs and money.
“What kids do is they’ll go out, they’ll stand on the corner and what they’re looking for is eye contact . . . where they’ll see a john or a trick staring at them,” Ostergard said. “They drive around or walk by a couple of times and then they’ll stop and say, ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so.’ That’s where most of your business takes place.
“They’ll get into the car. The john’ll say, ‘How much do you charge and what do you do for that amount?’ The kids make their money. Then they go pay their rent if they need to pay it, or eat if they haven’t eaten or go buy their fix. Then they’re pretty well set until the next day.”
Methamphetamine, or speed, is the drug of choice on Polk Street. Ostergard said some young hustlers are so dependent that they “find some guy who’s got drugs and they’ll do the trick for the drugs and not the money.”
Richard Hunter, a 22-year-old from Boston who has been hustling in the area for three years, said in a sidewalk conversation that he worries about friends who are ruining their minds with the drug. But he continues to use it himself.
“Because of my stupidity on drugs, I can’t even remember my own phone number,” he said. “It’s that bad.”
Hunter says some of his friends have lived on the street for 10 years as hustlers or drug dealers.
Youth Center Founded
For years, no social service agency focused on the street youths. But in January, 1984, several community and church organizations founded the youth center a block from the bustle of Polk Gulch.
It is a counseling and referral center, providing medical and tutorial help, aiding youngsters in locating shelter, and providing “a drop-in center where kids can come and just hang out,” Emerson said.
Much of the work involves gaining the youths’ confidence.
“You don’t run away from home to go into a shelter the next day,” Emerson said. “So we try to work with the street kids on a long-term basis to help them see that ultimately they have to confront the fact they have to get off the street. We ask them, ‘What are you going to do when you’re 18? What are you going to do when you’re 23?’
“It’s hard because the street kids themselves get into a real short-term mind-set. You can hardly find out what a youth will be doing in a week, much less what their plans are six months to a year from now.”
Because of that mind-set and because the youths tend to migrate up and down the West Coast, “a lot of what we do is what we call ‘slash and burn counseling,”’ he said. “It’s crisis intervention in its finest form.”
Success With Burn-out Cases
Emerson said his counselors have the most success with youths who arrive fresh in the city, before they learn the ropes of hustling, and with those who have been on the street for six months to a year or two. “Those are the kids who suddenly are burning out, who are saying, ‘My God, I’m going to die on the street.’ ”
Outreach workers like Ostergard wander Polk Street nightly, talking with hustlers, trying to encourage them to visit the center. Emerson says the center contacts 1,200 to 1,300 street youths a year.
But the actual counseling caseload is about 30 a month, the same number of beds available in the city for homeless youths, he said. The center’s $270,000 annual budget doesn’t allow for more staff or more beds.
About half the youths contacted are “sexual minority youth,” meaning homosexuals, transvestites or “youth who really aren’t sure at this point,” he said. The last group includes otherwise “straight” males who hustle tricks to survive.
He says about 80% of the youths contacted are from outside San Francisco. Two-thirds have attempted suicide.
About 75% of the youths who get counseling and shelter through the center are successfully diverted from the street, Emerson said. Some are reunited with parents, others are placed with foster parents, still others are helped in locating jobs and apartments.
Only 30% Return Home
“Of all the kids who come through the center, only 30% are returned to their home of origin,” Emerson says. “Often we make parental contact and the parent will say, ‘You take the kid. We don’t want to deal with him.’ ”
In Ostergard’s case, counselors placed him in an employment development program and into shelters while he gathered enough money to find his own place. Simultaneously, he was in a drug rehabilitation program to beat his dependency on speed.
After he got squared away, he started doing volunteer work at the center.
“It was sort of like giving back what I took from the situation,” he said.
Late last year, Ostergard was one of five Californians chosen to receive the U.S. Department of Education’s International Youth of the Year Award. In March, he became one of six paid staff members at the center.
“My life, I guess you could say, is full speed ahead,” he said.