Storefront Turns Teen Lives Around

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David can't remember exactly when he first became homeless, but at 18 he has walked the streets of San Diego for more than a year, buying food and shelter by selling his body in Balboa Park.

Four years ago, he says, he left a home torn by drugs and abuse and was placed in a foster care system. Four foster homes and four group homes could not cope with the brash nature he picked up from a lifetime of abuse, and he could not cope with their rules, so he spent three years running from the social services system that was trying to help him.

Now, the handsome boy's smile hides more than a year of living alone on San Diego streets.

"An 18-year-old that has been on the streets since he was 14 is still a kid," said David, who asked a reporter not to use his real name because it is so unusual that it would make him easily identifiable.

"My mother was a cocaine abuser, and I had to support her habit by working, and we just ended up hating each other, so I left," he explained. "She hated me because I knew what she was and didn't respect her, and I hated her for what she was, and everything else basically came from that."

He left behind a sister, 9, and a brother who is now the same age David was when he left their Sonoma County home.

"I never really slept on the street or anything like that," he said. "I usually managed to find somewhere to sleep somehow. I used to hustle, turn tricks and sell drugs, and do a lot of things to get by."

But David says things are looking up, thanks to the Storefront Shelter on 12th Avenue downtown. He works at a grocery and hopes to get a second job soon. By the middle of February, he plans to move into his own apartment. College might be in his future, after he gets his General Education Development certificate, which he says should be "no problem."

David credits the shelter's school for homeless teen-agers and its teacher, Sandra McBrayer, for turning his life around.

McBrayer began the school at The Storefront in 1988 after teaching juvenile offenders in the court school system for six years.

"It wasn't what I had planned on doing, but, once I got into it, I couldn't leave," said McBrayer, who originally wanted to coach sports.

To get the school started, McBrayer spent hours with the children, tailoring the class work to their needs.

No one talks about the Middle Ages or Christopher Columbus here. These are homeless 15-year-olds who need to know how to balance a checkbook and buy groceries.

Andre Jacobs of the Storefront, who works with homeless teen-agers in San Diego, said they number "over 1,000."

The Storefront Shelter provides temporary sanctuary for kids under 18 and is operated by the San Diego Youth and Community Services, a nonprofit relief organization. Open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., the shelter supplies about 20 teens a night with a bed, a shower, and, with a little luck, a meal donated by local church groups. And school, if they'll go.

No sign on the building indicates that this is a homeless shelter, let alone one for teen-agers.

"We used to have a sign, but the pimps would wait outside for the girls," McBrayer said.

The school upstairs is the size of a large kitchen, crowded with a dozen chairs and an aged wooden desk for the teacher. A door leads to a rooftop patio, where the kids take frequent cigarette breaks.

The school attracts mostly 14- to 17-year-olds, who must be charmed into staying.

"Hey, Eric, are you coming to school today?" McBrayer calls out to a 15-year-old with his back to her.

Eric stays for class, but many of the older kids do not.

Eric, who is bright and learns quickly, sometimes helps teach the other kids, McBrayer said. But he hides his intelligence because the street ethic downplays the importance of education, she said.

The school runs from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and the students get breakfast, when it is available. Each teen-ager has a different lesson plan created by McBrayer to suit their respective needs.

Not all the shelter residents stay for school, and some homeless kids come in the morning to go to class, just to escape the streets for a couple of hours.

But, for others, especially the older, hardened street kids, school has no purpose.

"I don't have anything to offer them," McBrayer said. "They're not going to graduate, they can't get a diploma. The best I can do for them is teach them the basic things."

Those basics include reading, child care and filling out a job application. Awaiting those who want their GED, or high school equivalency degree, are essays, reading assignments and fractions.

The students here write essays that never would be seen in a traditional school.

"Can I see the other story I wrote, please, the acid trip one?" Danielle asked.

The 17-year-old girl came to San Diego last year, making $700 for transporting 10 kilograms of cocaine from Seattle. Her natural parents were heroin addicts, she said, and her adoptive father was an alcoholic. She said her adoptive mother beat her with the back of a brush and the rings on her hand.

"I always felt like my mother never really wanted me, even though I was adopted. I always felt like that, always," she said. "I just couldn't handle it any more, I wanted to leave. I knew that there was something different out there for me."

She walks quickly in her white, high-top shoes with pink laces and stops only to bum cigarettes from strangers. In two hours, she asks for and receives cigarettes from five strangers.

"I first tried acid when I was 9, and I first smoked pot at around 7," she said. Now, however, she attends daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings, she said.

She went to the Storefront to escape "drug trouble" at the corner of Euclid and Imperial Avenues.

"I thought in a way the Storefront saved my life, and it's still saving my life," she said. "The people there support me every day, and they always show me that, when I do something good that it's OK, and that they always point out what I've done good. And, if I do something wrong, they say that it's OK, because I'm human."

Most of the children don't know what it's like to live without being abused.

"Sometimes I do the wrong things, sometimes I deserve to be beaten," said one 16-year-old shelter resident.

McBrayer tried to impress upon him that "no one ever deserves to be beaten," but with only limited success.

"Everyone thinks these kids are runaways," McBrayer said. "I call them escapees."

But the boy says that, sometimes, he still misses his family.

"I miss the beatings," he said.

He feels lucky that he escaped, but pities his sister who still lives at home. "They cut her hair bald and tied her up in a chair in a bathroom when she tried to run away once," he said.

Most of the kids don't hold grudges against their parents, and many of them would like to return.

"All they want in their whole life is to have their parent to love them. They dream about it," McBrayer said. "All they want to know is, 'What have I done wrong, why doesn't my parent love me?' So, they'll do anything to get their parent to love them, no matter how bad their parent is, they would do anything just to get their parent to love and accept them."

Sometimes that desire translates into denying reality.

Lynn's mom was a prostitute, and she sometimes made Lynn and her sister sell themselves too, McBrayer said.

But Lynn claims her mother works at a computer firm. She explains her mother's late nights out as attempts "to be a teen-ager all over again."

"Why do you think so many of the girls here are pregnant?" McBrayer said. "They believe that they're going to love something for the first time, and it's going to love them back. And you try to explain to them that there's a cycle of abuse, and that it doesn't stop, but they say, 'I'm going to love this child, and it's going to love me.' For the first time, they're going to have unconditional love, something that they've never even experienced.

"It takes a long time for them to realize that their parents are horrible, and it's real hard for them to admit it."

It also has been hard for Storefront to admit that it needed tougher rules in dealing with hardened teen-agers. The 2-year-old program has made some changes in the past five months, resulting in fewer "hard core" street kids getting shelter. Instead, the focus has shifted to those who have not yet bought into the life style of the streets.

Shelter residents must be sober and clean of illegal drugs, rules that make entry difficult for those who have fallen hardest to the street ethic.

Also, 18-year-olds are not allowed inside unless they were 17 when they arrived. This rule is the result of violent 18-year-old males disrupting the shelter.

McBrayer does not agree with the changes, but she understands the rationale for them.

"I understand why they did it, getting rid of the harder street kids, because it was getting out of hand, and there was a lot of stuff going on, and they needed to refocus on what they were doing," McBrayer said. "The Storefront is doing a good job with the population that they have. . .but, at the same time, we're missing a population.

"We don't deal with hardened street kids, and that's a population that needs to be serviced. The kids who are actually out there hooking and pimping on the streets, there is no shelter for them."

The rules frustrate McBrayer.

"Hey, Sandy, what can I do to get a meal?" said a brown-haired 18-year-old standing in the parking lot outside the shelter. He has been evicted from the shelter and denied services for unruly behavior. His age also disqualifies him from receiving services.

"You see, he's hungry," McBrayer said. "And so, what am I supposed to do, tell him that there's a rule that says I can't bring food outside the building?

"These are children, and people forget that because they swear at you and because they are vocal and act like they're grown up," McBrayer said. "These are children, and their childhood has been robbed from them, and we've got to give them some semblance of protection back."

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