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Sticking With the Program : Closing of Harbor City Teen Post Has Not Deterred Its Controversial Director

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Northmore is a man in an awkward position.

He used to be the director of the Harbor City Teen Post, but money for the center dried up three months ago, and it is defunct.

But even with no money, no building, no staff and only the most meager equipment, Northmore plods along.

Northmore, 53, no longer has a job, but more important, Harbor City’s youth don’t have a teen center. By all accounts, there is a well-run Boys and Girls Club in the community, but the hard-core and often unruly gang members Northmore serves do not go there.

Alone, Northmore now works out of the back yard of a Belle Porte home, counseling and consoling gang members, but unable to do the tutoring, community improvement program, graffiti program, drug abuse programs, alcohol counseling, job counseling and gang outreach work that kept him busy at the teen post.

It is a long drop for a man who years ago supervised the 20 teen posts throughout the harbor area.

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A lack of government money and the changing demographics of Los Angeles are partly responsible for the demise of the Harbor City Teen Post. Bushels of government money available during the 1960s and 1970s are gone. And the corporate wealth of the 1980s is gone.

The City Development Department found that compared with other more needy parts of Los Angeles, Harbor City was too wealthy to warrant the $39,000 a year for its teen post. So the money that went to Harbor City was diverted to poorer neighborhoods, including those torn by the 1992 riots.

Census figures for Harbor City might surprise the gang youths that frequented the teen post. The average income of residents is $48,410, and more than half of the population has attended or graduated from college.

But the youths serviced by the teen center are not in this group. Many live in the poorer parts of town and have few recreational outlets.

Directors of many social programs today spend more time looking for grant money than they do talking to teen-agers.

But Northmore lives off unemployment checks and spends his time in the streets with gang members.

“I’ve been out here 28 years and I can’t turn back now,” he said.

Northmore began social work 28 years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty.

“It looks like poverty won the war,” he said, in the back yard that has become his teen post-in-exile.

Northmore has put a television, a couch and some seats in the shed, and a bench and barbell in the garage. About a dozen boys and several girls are usually around.

Teen-agers come and go, looking for the paper sign stuck to the front of the garage saying that “John is in” or that he is gone. He says that most, but not all, of the teen-agers who come to him are hard-core gang members.

While he is talking, one boy of about 15 brings his toddling little sister over.

“See him?” Northmore asks as they walk away. “He came to me in a panic saying he was in trouble with the police. It turns out he’d gotten a parking ticket.”

But usually, Northmore starts his day by accompanying one of his teen-agers to Long Beach or San Pedro Superior Court. Sometimes he’s at Kaiser Permanente hospital, visiting a shooting victim. Or more frequently now, he is at his doctor’s office trying to reduce the tension, blood pressure and heart problems wreaking havoc on his body. The stress is leaving visible scars on his hands and face, and with his buzz-cut hair, Northmore is the picture of a war-weary soldier.

But his work in the streets and his wrangling with the government are wars he’s chosen to fight alone, having alienated most of his natural allies.

He does not work well with most of the area’s other teen agencies--and they don’t work well with him. He has a lot of heart, people say, but they don’t like his methods and he doesn’t like theirs.

Raphael Harris, executive director of the teen posts, swears by him.

“We haven’t deleted him. He’s still there and still mentioned in our current proposal for funding next time,” Harris said.

“I just hope that this is just a time when (the city is) trying to get their thoughts and minds together with what they’re going to do with the money,” Harris said. “And we have high hopes that the new city councilman will help us out.”

But harbor-area Councilman Rudy Svorinich says no one from the teen post administration has asked him for help.

“We did not receive any formal request for assistance from them,” Svorinich said. “But I do believe the various teen posts do a great deal of good for our communities, and if our office had received a formal request asking us to assist them in procuring funds we would have been happy to assist them.”

Northmore says it is the teen post administration’s job to ensure that there is enough money for the program. Harris said the teen post administration is hoping some big companies will make donations or that the city, with Svorinich leading the way, will find money for the program. For now, Northmore runs around asking for free tickets to take his teen-agers to movies, restaurants and Raiders games. In his little slice of Harbor City, John Northmore is a very popular man.

Somewhat anti-Establishment, Northmore says frankly that he gained acceptance among Harbor City Latinos by facing off against local school and police officials.

“People said, ‘Gee, if the officials of the school and the police don’t like you, then you can’t be all that bad,’ ” he said laughing. “That’s what enabled me as a white man to get in.”

By crossing lines that traditional counselors regard as sacred, he has developed profound personal attachments to the kids he counsels. Northmore, who is not married and has no children of his own, calls the boys his “sons”; girls are his “daughters.”

“I used to think about having a family, but I never had the time. I got swept up in this,” he said, waving his arm in a circle. “I’ve been here so long that now there are little ones that call me Grandpa John.”

The relationships between Northmore and the teen-agers alienates other social service agencies in the harbor. Northmore, they say, has spent his time building a cult of personality rather than a program.

“He has his heart in the right place, it’s just that nobody agrees with how he does things,” said Connie Calderon, director of the Wilmington Teen Center.

What she calls unprofessional ties to the teen-agers allows them to exploit Northmore.

“They know John’s good for a ride, good for a free trip someplace. But that’s not what the job should be,” Calderon said. “I tell the kids all the time that I’m not their mother. But that’s his problem--John wants to be their father.”

Calderon worked for Northmore when the Wilmington Teen Center was one of 20 teen posts in the area. Wilmington split from the teen post administration in 1982 to become an independent teen center, although it still receives city funds.

“When I was part of teen post, I got about $70,000--and about $35,000 of that went to teen post administration. We had to incorporate because of the administrative costs. We just didn’t have any money for programming,” Calderon said.

Now the teen center gets its full $70,000 directly from the city, she said, and has widely expanded its programming.

“John could do it too, but then he’d have to have a board of directors--and he can’t work with other people.”

Yes, Northmore could do it, he said, but it’s not so much that he can’t work with other people as he can’t deal with money matters.

“Back in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the quality of a proposal wasn’t all that important. What was important was that you had community support behind you when you went to ask for money. We called it ‘Holler for Dollars.’ And I did that well.”

But in the 1990s, writing proposals and seeking grants has become the major requirement to be an effective social service programming director.

At Toberman House, a private, nonprofit social service organization, executive director Howard Uller spends the vast majority of his time writing grants. He squeezes in an interview during a day when he is seeking four grants totaling $22,000.

“We won’t get every bit, but we’ll get a good chunk of that $22,000,” he said.

Uller manages the $600,000 budget, doing monthly reports to assess whether Toberman is running a deficit or surplus. Stacks of paper, charts and financial statements line two desks and a table.

By contrast, Northmore says: “I hate proposals. I can do them, but I’d rather be out in the street with the kids. I’m egotistical enough to think I can still change somebody’s life.”


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