'Getting Seven Kids Off the Street Is a Fantastic Start' : Helping Teen-Age Runaways, Teams in a Van Cruise N.Y.

Times Staff Writer

At 3 a.m. Christmas Day, Jeanie was far from the glittering tree and warm memories of home.

Barely 18, three weeks ago Jeanie ran away from her parents' comfortable house and strict rules in Palm Springs to live amid the glitter and glamour of New York.

Within a week, the heavyset teen with bright red hair and a winning smile was working as a prostitute in an X-rated movie theater on Times Square. Most of her money, she said, goes to a pimp who beats her and a "crack" habit that's killing her.

Avoiding Cold, Hard Rain

She spent Christmas Eve--as she has spent most nights here--sprawled on a newspaper on a grimy concrete entrance ramp at Grand Central Station, near more than 80 other homeless teen-agers, hookers, drunks, junkies, bag ladies, madmen and just down-and-outers avoiding the night's cold, hard rain.

"Today is Christmas, and I'm used to spending it with my parents," said Jeanie, dressed in black stretch pants, a thin yellow shirt and wet sneakers in the 42-degree chill. "You know, it was a real holiday. We'd go to candlelight services, then go to my grandmother's, open presents around the tree.

"I thought of that today, I mean, I really was sad," Jeanie said. "I even thought of calling them. But I just had to put it out of my head. So I got drunk."

Though it was their first meeting, Jeanie's grim Christmas tale was a familiar story to Anne Donahue and her two assistants. Parked outside Grand Central in a plush blue van, they listened and offered help for more than an hour as part of a new and unusual outreach program by Covenant House, a nationally recognized center near Times Square for homeless teen-agers.

Beginning at 9 p.m. Christmas Eve, Donahue drove the custom Dodge van up and down Manhattan's seediest streets, seeking teens like Jeanie to offer hot cocoa, cold sandwiches and on-the-spot counseling about living and dying in the gutters of New York.

By 5 a.m. on Christmas Day, the van's team had talked with about 20 street kids--male and female prostitutes, junkies, hustlers, runaways and throwaways. Each was fed, each was given a carefully wrapped Christmas present of gloves, hat and scarf. Young mothers got a toy animal for their children.

"We're basically the only people out there after midnight," said Donahue, 30, a Covenant House lawyer who began the 'off the streets' roving all-night van program on Sept. 17. "It gives us a chance to start building a relationship to convince these kids to get off the streets."

It is a grueling but rewarding job.

The van's staff has met male prostitutes as young as 11, and transvestites as young as 14. They've helped a young man crawling half naked and apparently drugged in the gutter in the slush. They've called police three times after witnessing pimps' beating young prostitutes.

In all, teams going out six nights a week have met about 250 different street kids in more than 1,000 encounters. So far, they've persuaded seven teens to quit the streets.

"It may not sound like much, but it's way beyond our expectations," said Donahue. "When you consider these are the hard core of the hard core, getting seven kids off the street is a fantastic start."

Infamous Minnesota Strip

In 1977, an elfin-looking Franciscan priest named Father Bruce Ritter filled a former chapel with beds on the infamous Minnesota Strip off Times Square. In recent years, he has opened similar shelters for homeless teens in Toronto, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, New Orleans and Guatemala. In 14 years, Covenant House has helped 100,000 kids, Ritter says.

But New York is the first to try the roving all-night van. Predictably, problems have occurred. On Oct. 13, two men robbed the van's driver, Bob Marnalse, 32, an aide, and three girls sipping cocoa in the van. Teams now leave their wallets behind and carry a mobile phone.

"But it's worth it," said Marnalse. "It's the only way to meet these kids."

And so they do. The van cruises first to the "loop," a two-block area known for young male prostitutes in the East Fifties. Despite the rain, six youths soon stopped looking for johns to gratefully accept coffee and Christmas presents.

"Thanks a lot," said Mark, 18, a male prostitute with blond hair and a ratty leather jacket, putting a wool cap on his wet blond hair. "Now it really feels like Christmas."

Sleeps in Theaters

Doug, 21, says he sleeps in all-night movie theaters and shows the knife he uses to roll his johns. Joey, 23, spent last Christmas in jail. So did Chris, 20. And Greg, 27, pulled out a faded copy of his birth certificate from his wallet.

"If something happens to me, they'll know who I am," he explained. "They won't cut me up and sell the parts."

Later, down on the rain-swept, nearly deserted docks along the Hudson River, three other male hustlers climbed into the van. All three worked by meeting johns in cars cruising the docks.

Soaked through his leather jacket, Jimmy, 19, accepted the gloves, hat, coffee and sandwich with shy thanks. He said he'd take his two candy canes home to his mother in Brooklyn.

"It's tough," he shrugged, playing with a bedraggled rabbit's foot. "My brother died of AIDS six days ago. So I got to work."

Angelo, 22, managed to eat four thick baloney and cheese sandwiches and stuff another into his pocket. He said the men's shelters scare him, so he sleeps on the subway--the A train usually--after a night on the docks.

"It's warmer on the subways," he said. "Plus, it's safer."

Mother Kicked Him Out

Only one youth, a thin, nervous 20-year-old named Vincent, agreed to return to Covenant House in the van. He said his mother kicked him out of her Bronx home eight months ago because he used drugs. He's been living in Manhattan's two train stations ever since.

"I smoke crack, but come New Year's, I swear, no more," Vincent said. "I'm gonna stop."

Perhaps he will. Perhaps Louis, 16, fuzz still on his cheeks, will stop soliciting older men in the Playland all-night video arcade. Perhaps Nicole, pretty, shy and 16, will leave the homeless in Grand Central for her parents in Connecticut.

And perhaps Jeanie will really call her parents in Palm Springs, or talk to folks at Covenant House, as she tells Donahue before walking back out into the rain and her cold spot on the wet floor at Grand Central.

"It's sad," Donahue said. "But there's nothing you can do with a kid like that but wait until she hits bottom, and then be there ready to help."

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