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Landlords Leery of Counseling Center : Teen Post Facing Eviction Again

Times Staff Writer

The robot, reduced to little more than a metal skeleton with eyes, plowed through the inferno in pursuit of the woman it had come through time to destroy.

They had seen it all before, probably half a dozen times or more, and they knew the woman would escape. But that didn’t matter. The eight teen-agers stared intently as the movie, “The Terminator,” flashed on the television screen from a videocassette recorder in the cramped office on Frampton Avenue.

Sam Enriquez, 14, clutched a worn paperback book, “Space Station 7th Grade,” as he shared a sinking couch with his younger brother, Jose, and another boy crunched between them.

When the movie flicked off, Sam opened the book and started reading. “I need to read it for a book report at school,” the eighth-grader explained. “John gave it to me.”

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Home Away From Home

John Northmore is supervisor of the Harbor City Teen Post, a federally funded nonprofit agency that serves as a home away from home for dozens of youths in the area. Northmore helps them with their homework after school, lets them watch TV and use the telephone, counsels them when they run into problems at home or school, and takes them on trips and outings throughout the Los Angeles area on weekends.

“I am giving the kids something to do that keeps them off the streets and out of trouble,” said Northmore, who has headed the Teen Post, one of seven in Los Angeles, since 1965. “You just can’t tell kids not to hang out with gangs without giving them something to take the gang’s place.”

But the Teen Post is in trouble. The group has been evicted twice in the past five years, and it may soon be forced out of the tiny office it has used for about a year. Northmore has been searching for a permanent home--one that will be large enough to house a pool table, some weights and other recreational facilities--but nobody seems to want the group as a tenant.

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The problem apparently is the teen-agers themselves.

‘Made a Bad Taste’

“They are absolutely crappy people. Just hideous,” said one former landlord who asked not to be identified. “There was rotten food all over the place, broken furniture, and the kids spit and urinated on the floor. . . . They have made such a bad taste in the mouths of landlords in Harbor City, that I don’t know of anyone that will lease to them.”

V. J. Vannucci, the group’s current landlord who spent $400 last week to have graffiti sandblasted from the side of his building, said the Teen Post is more like a “nursery for young adults” than a constructive learning environment for teen-agers. In addition to graffiti, the building’s rest rooms have been damaged, the shrubbery trampled and interior walls marred since the Teen Post moved in, he said.

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“It has not been a good relationship,” Vannucci said. “We haven’t resolved what I am going to do, but it doesn’t look favorable. . . . I felt a certain moral obligation, but it is fast being diminished by the damage they are doing.”

Northmore said the graffiti was not done by Harbor City youths but by rival gangs from Wilmington. He said the Teen Post has tried to be a good tenant but the agency could not afford to pay for repairs.

Vannucci said he agreed to rent to Northmore with the understanding that the office would be used for counseling and administrative work--not as a hangout for kids. But Northmore said he finds it difficult to turns kids away who come to the office to do homework, watch television or “simply stay out of trouble.”

Few Teen Facilities

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“He is concerned about the number of youngsters coming and going, but it is hard to tell the kids that they can’t come in,” Northmore said. “The kids are packed in here like sardines. There is a lack of space in Harbor City for kids to get off the street and do something.”

Sam and the other boys had come to the Teen Post one day last week to watch television, get some of the books that Northmore picks up from the local libraries when they have surpluses, and get help with their homework.

Some of the teen-agers belong to the local Harbor City gang, and some don’t, but they said the Teen Post is neutral ground where all of them come to relax or get some work done. Most of them live at the nearby Normont Terrace housing project, come from poor families and don’t have the money to take advantage of city recreational programs and other activities that charge fees, Northmore said.

“Coming here keeps you out of jail,” said Freddy Soto, 16, who said he has belonged to the Teen Post for five years. “I get help here. If I have problems at home, I can talk about them.”

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Roughest Element

Northmore acknowledges that the boys and girls he deals with are often the roughest element in the community. But, he argues, the community has an obligation to provide services for them. In an effort to publicize his group’s plight, Northmore has begun writing letters to elected officials, community leaders and service groups, local churches and Los Angeles city officials.

Northmore said he has launched a dozen letter-writing campaigns in his 21 years at the Teen Post, with little success. He said he hopes this effort will be different.

“We get people who offer us a room one night a week, or say we can share a facility with another group,” Northmore said. “Or we find someone who offers something that is too far away. I have to be near the (housing) projects where the kids are. They have to be able to walk here, and they have to be able to know that it will always be here--every day of the week.”

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Early this month, Northmore took his problems to the Harbor City Coordinating Council, an organization of residents who attempt to tackle community problems. Members of the council said they would try to help Northmore, but the group’s president, Joeann Valle, summed up the group’s mixed feelings about teen facilities when she told Northmore, “I don’t want them next to my house.”

In an interview later, Valle said she understands why residents and businessmen are reluctant to open their arms to teen groups like the Teen Post, given the type of youngsters they target.

“I understand they need a spot, but let’s face it: Some of these kids could be good kids, but they still look very intimidating. It is not the kind of thing you want in your neighborhood.”

Valle, Northmore and others say the answer to the Teen Post’s problems lies with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. The community has been lobbying for years for an expanded recreational center at Harbor City Park on Lomita Avenue, but so far no money has been set aside for it. The current center is a small, antiquated two-building complex that park director Liz Adams said is booked to capacity every day of the week. “This place is like a Cracker Jack box,” Adams said. Diane Gill, who oversees all city parks in the harbor area, said Harbor City could fill a new building tomorrow if it were built. “We have all kinds of activities we could move in there,” she said.

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Dave Peterson, who handles grants for the Los Angeles parks department, said that in the last two years the city has applied for $1.5 million in state parks money to build a new recreation center, which would include a gymnasium and offices and meeting rooms for groups like the Teen Post. The department has been turned down both times, but the city has applied again for next year, he said.

“There is no question that the recreational center would provide an awful lot of opportunity for the kids in the area,” said Peterson, who said the city has already set money aside to design the proposed 10,000-square-foot center.

“We need a much larger facility there.” If the state turns down the request again, Peterson said the project will be placed in the Los Angeles capital projects program, meaning it will have to compete for funding with other proposed buildings and renovations in the city. He predicted, however, that it will be just a matter of time before Harbor City gets a new recreational building, which is supported by Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the Harbor area.

In the meantime, the Teen Post’s problems persist--and worsen. Raphael Harris, executive director of Teen Posts Inc. in Los Angeles, which is funded through the city with federal community block grant money, said federal funding is getting increasingly difficult to obtain.

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He said the Harbor City post has an annual budget of about $50,000--meaning the group cannot afford rent at most facilities in the area once fixed expenses such as Northmore’s salary, supplies, travel costs and utilities are covered.

“At one time we had 150 sites in Los Angeles, but it has gradually been cut,” Harris said. “When we cut down to seven, we tried to put them in key places where the Teen Post was most needed. We consider Harbor City very important.”

Harris said community opposition to the Teen Post is not directed at the agency itself, but rather is a reflection on the types of youngsters that take advantage of its services.

“Landlords seem to think they are undesirable for the area,” he said.

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Indeed, another service organization with a teen program, Toberman Settlement House Inc., has been looking for a facility in Harbor City for nearly two years.

The San Pedro-based organization, supported primarily through the United Methodist Church, the United Way and private donations, has money to expand into Harbor City but has been unable to find more than a small office in the same building as the Teen Post.

“It looks real bad,” said James Davis, who supervises the Toberman youth programs. “There has been no available space that anyone is willing to rent to us.”

Davis said Toberman has been forced to confine its counseling and outreach program to the streets of Harbor City since its office must close at 5 p.m. “When our office is open, the kids are in school, so my staff is basically on the street,” he said.

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Davis said Toberman has invited Harbor City youths to participate in programs at the organization’s main facility in San Pedro, but gang territorial claims have made that all but impossible.

“Our place is a neutral territory and no gang activity is allowed, but they are worried about their transportation to and from here,” Davis said. “We can guarantee their safety on the premises, but we can’t guarantee it to and from here.”

Gill and Adams of the parks department said Los Angeles has attempted to provide programs at Harbor City Park for teen-agers in the area, and they said youths from the housing projects do play football, basketball and baseball at the park. Adams said, however, that her efforts to work with the youngsters at the Teen Post have usually failed.

“I have set things up and the kids just don’t show,” Adams said. “I have tried to work with John, he is a very nice person, but they (the teen-agers) criticize the programs but won’t take part in the planning.”

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Adams said some teen-agers complain that dances at the park end too early, that the lights are too bright, or that there are too many chaperones. Adams said she is willing to accommodate some of the teen-agers’ requests, but she said they need to know that there are regulations that must be followed.

But Northmore said most of his kids steer clear of park activities because the athletic programs cost money that they don’t have and because the park’s other programs do not appeal to kids.

“The dances would end at 9 o’clock, but for the kids we are talking about, they don’t even start their evenings until 9 o’clock,” Northmore said. “The parks are in competition with the streets. They have to offer something that is equally exciting and that is free.”

As for the kids themselves, they say they just want a place to go where they can have some fun, hang out when they have nothing to do, and get some help when they need it.

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“If we weren’t here, we’d be in the streets,” said Sam, holding up the book for his book report. “And I wouldn’t be reading this.”


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