Staying Alive : For Hollywood’s Castoff Teens, Selling Themselves Is More and More a Matter of Simple Survival
It is evening, and Hollywood Boulevard is wrapped in a deceptive tranquility. On the sidewalk a teen-age prostitute, clutching a giant stuffed teddy bear (a prop provided by her pimp) waits for a trick near the Chief Crazy Horse Saloon.
There is limited action at the corner of Hollywood and Las Palmas, a magnet for amateur pornographers and assorted pimps and prostitutes and street kids, but the pay phone outside George’s cafe is busy. There are always drug deals to be made.
Still, these star-studded streets are largely deserted. The word is out about Hollywood, and that word is that this traditional mecca for teen-agers seeking sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is no longer friendly. With the aid of a sophisticated fingerprint-tracing system, police have let it be known that the pimps who prey on kids are no longer safe here.
“I think the numbers have pretty much stayed the same,” said Lois Lee, founder-executive director of Children of the Night, a Hollywood-based social agency that for nine years has been rehabilitating teen prostitutes. “They’ve just moved out to other areas,” including Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, a trend she identified last year.
Haven’t Stopped Prostitution
“I don’t think we’ve stopped prostitution,” agreed Lt. E. T. Hocking, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood area detective division, but the combined efforts of citizens and police have had “a tremendous impact on the visible prostitution in the Hollywood area.”
But, he added, “if it’s survival sex were’s talking about . . .”
Survival sex . It is a phrase that is repeated in conversation by those who work with the runaway, throwaway and homeless kids who make their way to Hollywood. By consensus definition, it differs from commercial prostitution in that it is sex in return for that which one needs immediately: warm shelter for a night, drugs or perhaps a few Big Macs.
“We have literally thousands of kids who are out on the street (in Hollywood) and about half of them are turning tricks,” said Gary Yates, director of Children’s Hospital’s High Risk Project, which funds the Los Angeles Youth Network, an emergency shelter and counseling center on Franklin Place. “Most of that is survival sex.”
His group coined the term, he said, in the belief that “it wasn’t fair to call them prostitutes,” for whom turning the most tricks for the most amount of money is often the goal.
A kid’s introduction to survival sex not uncommonly comes with a ride into town with a cross-country truck driver. That’s how DeeDee, a teen-age dwarf, got to Hollywood. By the time police rescued her, she had become a $3 plaything for the “johns” whose thrills came from dressing her in little girls’ clothes and having her pose lewdly.
But the term “survival sex” grates on Lois Lee: “It’s like a 1980s yuppie term. It softens it. And it’s putting the responsibility on the kids,” somehow justifying the actions of those who convince them to barter their bodies for food and shelter. Whatever you call it, Lee said, “it’s sexual exploitation, and it’s criminal.”
She fears, too, that calling it “survival sex” will “somehow make it OK for the kids, make it alluring. It’s sweeping it under the rug, like calling a drug addict ‘chemically dependent.’ ”
Still, it has become a widely accepted definition for a now-identified subset of Hollywood street kids who are different from those who have come before them. What is also different, observers agree, is a society, beset with the problem of the adult homeless, that is not jarred by the reality of a child eking out an existence on the streets.
“This is a growing problem,” Yates said, “and the kinds of kids that we’re now seeing in the shelters are different from kids we were seeing four or five years ago.”
Kids Have Many Problems
First, he said, they are younger--last year, 40% of those identified by his agency were 15 or under. And more of them are what he calls “multiproblem” youngsters. Perhaps only 15%, he estimated, are typical runaways, fleeing from an acute crisis at home or a minor crisis perceived as acute.
“Most people who think of runaways think of Huckleberry Finn,” Yates said, “someone cutting school, rafting down the river looking for adventure. They forget about Huck Finn’s father being a chronic alcoholic who beat him near death every chance he got.” Like Huck Finn, he said, the runaways who flock to Hollywood are for the most part children of dysfunctional families, frequently with at least one alcoholic parent.
“About half of them come from homes where they have been abused and abandoned, what we classify as chronic homeless (three months or more on the streets),” Luree Nicholson of L.A. Youth Network said. “Some have been born to Hell’s Angels, motorcycle gangs. Maybe their parents are homeless, living in Venice. They may have dropped them off on a street corner and given them $50. One told us, ‘We stopped at a gas station and I went to the bathroom. When I came out, they were gone.’ ”
Today, in Hollywood, the hard-core homeless and runaways live family-style in “squats,” squalid, putrid crash pads in abandoned buildings that are awaiting demolition as part of Hollywood’s surge of redevelopment.
A squat has no running water. Five-gallon jugs filled at the nearest service station provide drinking water. There is no sanitation and when the stench becomes unbearable, the residents simply move out. There is no gas or electricity and squat dwellers don’t cook; they eat soup cold from a can and toss the can onto an ever-mounting pile of rubbish. On days when there is no money, an expedition to the nearest fast-food restaurant can be timed to pluck from the trash the cooked hamburgers that, by law, must be tossed out if not sold. Sometimes a pizza will be ordered by telephone but not picked up--until, unsold, it, too, has been trashed.
Holes are kicked in interior walls and glass broken out of windows so that, in case of a police sweep, residents can make a quick escape. Pages of discarded books are burned to provide a moment’s light. Anything saleable, from a dishwasher to a light switch, is ripped out.
No Questions Asked
No one asks who may have been the last occupant of the stained and tattered mattress thrown on the floor. The graffiti that covers every inch of wall is sometimes satanic, occasionally funny, now and then provocative: ". . . We are lying in wait to break free of the trite orphic egg. . . .”
In a town where, as Hocking observes, “on the street, friendship is someone you have a few minutes with,” the squats provide, for a time, a family unit.
These are tough kids--misfits, dropouts, castoffs, unemployable, uneducated. As one observer put it, “When you have a chain from your nose to your ear, you’re not exactly psychologically adjusted.”
Brothers and sisters under the skin, they appear to live by a skewed code of ethics that dictates one for all and all for one. If one steals, the proceeds from the bounty are shared by all. If one has success panhandling, everyone will eat that day. And, if one turns a trick, that may mean $50 in the communal pot.
In one sweep, police found a 17-year-old girl, naked, in a closet with her boyfriend. She told them that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she went out and turned tricks. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, he went out and turned homosexual tricks. “Then,” Hocking said, “they slept together every night.”
Quicker Way to Make Money
“These people don’t have the smarts to go out and get an 8-to-5 job,” Hocking said. And, he added, they’ve figured out that you can work all day at a fast-food stand for $25 take-home; a couple of hours of sex-for-pay is equal to a week’s salary.
Not all teen-agers practicing survival sex live in the communal atmosphere of the squats. A recent police report details the arrest by a plainclothes officer of a woman soliciting on Sunset Boulevard together with her 15-year-old daughter. The girl later told police:
“I’ve only turned about a dozen or so (tricks), and only when my mother needed money. Last evening, I turned one trick for $50 so my mother could pay the rent. I was really scared and checked in with her every 15 minutes. I hope this doesn’t take too long because I have to be in school at 8 this morning.”
In today’s Hollywood, “It’s not uncommon for a boyfriend to suggest his girlfriend sleep with someone,” Lee said. “That’s a new trend. They’re hungry, and it’s a bigger step for him to have sex with a man.”
Men Want a Pay-Back
On the streets, young girls are “fair game” for middle-aged men. He may offer her food, drugs, shelter, but ultimately he wants a sexual pay-back. “If you’re willing to put out, somebody will take care of you,” Hocking said. The first time, she may resist the idea, he said, but “it’s pretty hard for a 16-year-old female to tell some big guy, ‘Not tonight, I have a headache.’ ”
“Nobody rides for free,” he said, and that includes the boys who, perhaps enticed by an offer of a beer or a few joints from a homosexual man looking for young surfer types with good bodies, find it’s easier than stealing and being hassled, even if they aren’t gay. Sometimes they are taken home by old men on Social Security who just want to look at them.
Not all the squat dwellers are prostituting themselves. Indeed, Lois Lee believes it is only a minority. There is no question, she said, that the younger ones are sometimes exploited by the older ones. But, she said, “Most of the (squat) kids don’t even have the skills to prostitute . . . and guys aren’t going to pay for sex with someone who is filthy and has a Mohawk.”
No one, police included, knows exactly how many street kids there are in Hollywood. A squat population may disappear overnight or, in one day, one group may move out, another in.
The High Risk Youth Program has been collecting data for the last year from the L.A. County agencies that provide the 72 shelter beds available to these runaways and found that these agencies took in 2,500 and turned away another 3,500 because there were no beds.
In Hollywood, Yates said, the four outreach agencies saw 2,000 individual kids last year. “How many on a given day, I don’t think anybody knows.” (United Way estimates there are as many as 4,000 runaways in Hollywood on any given day, 10,000 in the county). About one-fourth of those in Hollywood are believed to be homeless. Together with San Francisco and New York, he said, Los Angeles is “a gathering place” for kids escaping troubled or abusive homes. Cold weather in the East has increased the number of squats.
Years on the Streets
He observed: “Some of these kids have been on the streets for years. The more experienced help teach the younger kids the pitfalls. It doesn’t take long (only weeks) for kids to become street-wise. They have been hurt. They have been ripped off. They learn how to play the game of the streets.”
“The average young girl at 16 doesn’t want to go out there and do tricks,” Hocking said. “But there’s no place for her to go.”
Often, he said, when police contact a child’s home, they are told, “We don’t want the kid.” He acknowledged that, as a rule, “This is not Little Orphan Annie. Here’s some little girl who’s 15 who looks up at you and winks and says, ‘Honey, I make more money in one night than you make in a month.’ ”
Or it might be a 6-foot punk rocker panhandler with a Mohawk haircut who’d think nothing of spitting in the face of anyone who refused him a handout.
Often, it is the youngster who has no wish to return home. When girls are picked up for prostitution, she said, “A lot of them will say they’re 18. Then they get put in jail a couple of weeks and their pimp comes and bails them out. They don’t want to go to Juvenile Hall and have their parents called.”
Not From Placid Homes
It’s “real rare,” Lee said, to find kids from Ozzie and Harriet homes on the streets. A few come from wealthy backgrounds, commonly, she said, the type of home where “the parents are always in Europe and the kid’s left with the nanny.”
For an abused child who’s already had a sexual experience, prostitution or survival sex is not such a difficult step.
For most of these kids, survival sex has “no real meaning,” said Lois Tandy, for a decade director of Aviva Center, a long-term residential facility in Hollywood for troubled adolescents. “They don’t really know what they’re doing. The kid sees it as a way to get to the next day, but it’s not going to be every day.”
She added, “I’ve seen so many kids who act as if they know everything, and they know nothing, and they’re on the streets and have absolutely no way of knowing there’s some way to get help. They know so little about living. . . .”
She has been with Aviva for 15 years and what she sees today among this troubled population is what seems to be “less regard for life’s values, as I know them. Property, anything that has to do with meeting some kind of daily routine or caring for yourself so you can have some future.”
For example, Tandy said, “Frequently, as I walk upstairs (at Aviva) I’ll bend over to pick up a scrap of paper. Nine times out of 10, some kid will walk by and ask me in all seriousness, ‘Why are you doing that?’ They just don’t understand. If you talk about sharing or being together, they’re incredulous. There’s a feeling of hopelessness. Certainly, the greater society must contribute to that” and, for these kids, it is maximized by their “chaotic” backgrounds.
Those who work with the street kids, providing short-term help or long-term rehabilitation, universally express their anger and frustration that there are not adequate social programs for them.
Lee and others place the blame partially on a bill passed by the California legislature in 1976 that was to “reform” the juvenile justice system. Among other things, it stipulated that the juvenile status offender (or pre-delinquent) could no longer be held in lockup facilities; in effect, a runaway could be taken into custody for 24 hours but could not be detained longer unless he or she so chose. Up until that time, these offenders often wound up in Juvenile Hall with seasoned criminals.
Hocking would like to see that law amended so that runaways could be detained for three days for evaluation. The ultimate solution? The ultimate solution takes money, he knows, money that is not now available. But, he asks, for example why not convert a no longer needed school to a residential and counseling facility instead of tearing it down?
‘Give You Band-Aids’
Society is offering “penny programs” for these kids, Hocking said. “You need a hospital and they give you Band-Aids.”
Even if families are willing and able to be reunited with these youngsters, he said, it simply is not always feasible. After a girl’s been on the streets a while, he said, “you don’t dust her off, put her in a white dress and send her home.” She may be only 16, he said, but “man, you age fast when you get those kind of miles on you.”
And, he added, “A couple of hours’ counseling is not going to straighten out a life they’ve spent 15 years screwing up.”
The police know that when they clear the squats, the kids will be back the same day.
“I’m not going to throw someone out on the street,” Hocking said. “We’re not bounty hunters. We’re looking for underage people that we know are there for one reason, to sell their bodies.”
Crime Is Down
Crime is down in Hollywood--in 1982, juveniles accounted for 73 of 558 crimes directly related to organized prostitution, including 10 homicides. But public indignation ignited a communitywide effort, including purchase in 1983 of the computer enabling vice officers to trace multi-alias prostitutes’ past records by on-the-spot fingerprinting, and by the end of 1986 prostitution-linked crime had been reduced 73%.
Hocking and others would like to see the same degree of public outrage about getting kids off the streets, a shift in priorities. It doesn’t make sense to him that in Hollywood the L.A. Youth Network has 20 shelter beds, Options House another six, a handful of religious organization perhaps another half dozen. And that’s it. “There’s no place to go.”
He adds, “You’re going to pay for those kids now, or you’re going to pay for them later. We’re going to have a stack of winos on the streets.”
The L.A. Youth Network receives state funding from a two-year pilot program, Project Homeless Youth, created in 1986.
“We feel the program’s working,” said Gary Yates, citing a follow-up study showing that 90% of its youngsters are staying off the streets. “But we’re turning away more than we can deal with.”
Paucity of Funds
A bill now in the state senate would authorize $552,000 a year to re-fund this program and one in San Francisco.
Because of the paucity of facilities, Lee said, “The average guy who picks up a girl and pays her $40 for sex can justify it"--after all, he’s giving her a roof over her head.
Ten years ago, she observed, "(The guys) wanted to make sure you were over 18. Now they want to make sure you’re under 18 . . . because it’s sexier” and because “it’s allowable. If society is going to turn its back, it makes it excusable.”
Lee, who was a principal mover behind 1983 state legislation mandating a three-year jail sentence for a pimping conviction, would also like to see the 1977 status offender law amended to better protect runaway kids.
Because police can no longer detain runaways, she said, “There are more kids available to sexually exploit.” If it were illegal for kids to run away, she said, the predators who live one step ahead of the law “wouldn’t let these girls come within 100 hundred feet of them.”
She added, “I cannot accept the tolerance we have for letting these kids be on the streets. . . . Kids have been basically discarded.”