When he left home for the streets of Hollywood six years ago at age 12, Levi Brett found a labyrinth of horrors.
Besides the daily anxiety of seeking food and shelter, he saw other teen-agers shot, stabbed and gang-raped. Friends died of AIDS and drug overdoses. He begged, stole, numbed himself with drugs and once contemplated suicide.
Now 18, Brett still roams his old Hollywood haunts about three times a week, but with a black pouch bulging with safe-sex and drug-needle-cleansing materials such as bleach kits, condoms and other paraphernalia.
He has a new life as a peer outreach counselor--someone who advises others his age--at the Los Angeles Youth Network, a shelter and services organization for homeless youths in Hollywood.
"It's not what I say to them, but who I am--they know me, the way I communicate," Brett said of the youths he counsels. "Every time I go out, I accomplish something. They're becoming more educated. They now ask which condoms are better and whether their bleach kits can be reused--questions which they wouldn't ask an adult."
The Los Angeles Youth Network is just one of a growing number of innovative programs on the Westside that employ teen-agers to counsel their peers on such issues as HIV prevention; teen pregnancy; tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide prevention.
Although formalized teen peer counseling and education--initially employed against drug use--have existed for decades, the practice has been growing in popularity and has spread to other subjects.
High schools are using peer tutors for academic help in math and English. School administrators have set up on-campus health clinics employing peer educators. Social agencies are increasingly using teen-agers to counsel gang members and mediate disputes.
Alex, a homeless 17-year-old temporarily staying at the Los Angeles Youth Network, prefers counseling from his peers rather than from adults.
In a comment typical of others his age, he said: "I feel uncomfortable around older people. I'd rather talk to someone my own age who understands and is going through what I'm going through--someone I can trust."
The recent proliferation of peer education projects on the Westside mirrors a national trend.
About 40,000 peer education programs exist in schools nationwide, up from an estimated 20,000 five years ago, and such programs are growing in colleges, social agencies and church ministries, said Barbara Varenhorst, a member and former president of the National Peer Helpers Assn., a national network of peer programs based in North Carolina.
Many experts believe the expansion of peer counseling is filling a void in the lives of today's youths. Shattered families, drug and alcohol abuse, and parental neglect have robbed many young people of a support network for their problems. Advocates say the surge in peer programs is also a compensation for the increasingly disparate ratio in many schools between students and adult counselors or mentors.
"I've worked with young people for many years and know that adolescence is a lonely time," said Varenhorst, who started the country's first in-school peer counseling program in Palo Alto in 1970. "But never have I seen so much loneliness as in this particular period. There are no adults around and peers are raising peers. Some schools have one adult counselor per 1,000 kids."
Statistics point to the gulf between teen-agers and their parents and other adults.
A 1986 Emory University Medical School survey widely cited by experts asked 600 Atlanta-area high school seniors who they would talk to about an alcohol or drug problem. Seventy percent said they would tell a friend, 20% said they would go to their parents and 8% said they would tell siblings.
There is a paucity of scientific research comparing the effectiveness of teen peer counseling and education programs to programs that use adults to teach teen-agers. But many educators believe a mountain of anecdotal evidence proves the value of peer education, especially regarding sexual and reproductive health issues.
"Teens identify with teens and get most of their information and advice from their friends, not their parents," said Wendy Arnold, a founder of the Peer Education Program of Los Angeles in West Los Angeles, which educates teen-agers on AIDS-related issues. "Mainstream educators are realizing that important information hasn't been getting through and that the vehicle of communication has to change. The time is ripe to bring in innovative strategies."
In today's world, what youths don't know can kill them. As a result, many peer programs concentrate on disseminating information on such topics as AIDS and safe sex.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has set up on-campus health centers in four high schools that use teen counselors to educate their classmates on a variety of preventive health measures. The clinics were installed about seven years ago and remain noteworthy for the variety of services offered, including counseling for sexually transmitted diseases and family planning and prevention of HIV infection.
The school district also has more than 2,000 peer conflict mediators, working primarily in the city's elementary schools. In addition, more than 1,000 peer tutors work kindergarten through 12th grade to help students studying math and English.
On a recent school day at Los Angeles High School in Hancock Park, Dana Shellmire, 15, and Tyren McElwee, 16, instructed a 10th-grade class on drug prevention.
Before the two began their seminar, the class was typically boisterous as the harried adult teacher tried to keep the students' attention.
But when the teen-agers started the program, the students paid attention. A seven-minute video, using Tyren's friends as actors, showed a mock trial of drugs and alcohol, with both substances judged guilty of first-degree murder.
To demonstrate the pitfalls of peer pressure, Tyren and Dana then acted out a skit depicting a party, with one playing a drug pusher and the other declining the narcotics.
Other students were then chosen from the class to perform in an improvised skit that showed ways to refuse drugs.
After the hourlong session, the students seemed impressed.
"If a grown-up was saying all this, I'd listen but I wouldn't pay attention," said 15-year-old Destiny Cooks. "(Adults) just yell at you instead of talking to you. But these counselors talk more like our age, they're going through the same thing we're going through."
Beverly Sokol, a teacher at the school, says that when she has addressed a class on similar touchy subjects there have been lots of yawns, rustling of papers and note-passing.
"When another kid comes up, they're all quiet," she said. "I remember this one kid counselor just walked up, whipped out this big rubber thing and started putting a condom on it, talking all the while. I couldn't have done that at her age--it would probably be difficult for me now."
Said Sokol: "All the girls in the class then started giving the guys a hard time by saying, 'Yeah, you're going to be wearing this now.' "
Ursula Lewis, one of the program's coordinators, said that teen audiences are not the only beneficiaries.
"The teen counselors get a great boost in self-esteem and confidence. They know they're being looked at, and if they do something wrong they're busted. If they say it enough, they have to live it," she said.
Childrens Hospital Los Angeles in Hollywood recently developed a two-year peer education program called Project SNAPP--Skills and Knowledge for AIDS and Pregnancy Prevention.
The program is unique because it uses youth educators who are teen-age parents or infected with HIV themselves, project organizers said.
Besides visiting six L.A. unified middle schools in the Hollywood, Wilshire and central Los Angeles areas, the peer counselors also fan out to local teen social service agencies.
On a recent afternoon, peer educators Ken Benard, 23, and Connie Garay, 19, conducted a seminar for a small group of homeless youths at Options House, a teen shelter in Hollywood.
The meeting started slowly with card and handshake games meant to enlighten the participants about the dangers of wanton sexual behavior.
But the atmosphere electrified when Benard blurted out that he is HIV-positive, explaining that he probably contracted the disease in his earlier years as a drug abusing and sexually promiscuous runaway.
Questions soon tumbled forth from his young audience. "How did you feel after the first test results?" "Do you know who you got it from?" "Do you have any symptoms yet?" "Can you die from HIV or AIDS?"
Benard painstakingly answered the questions. But his young charges were clearly shaken--he looked like one of them.
"I was shocked that he could be so open to people he hardly even knows," said Desiree, a 13-year-old who was left homeless by two crack-addicted parents. "He looked just like a healthy normal person. You can't look at everyone and know."
After Benard finished talking, Garay told her story. Madly in love with her boyfriend, she became pregnant with identical twins just shy of her 15th birthday. Always an honor student, she left home and dropped out of high school to take care of her children. After one year, her boyfriend left her.
She related the desperation of being a teen-age mother. Constant work. Sleepless nights tending to the babies. Little help. Bus trips holding two squirming children. Dreams of college deferred.
"My children are without their father and we have little money," she said. "I regret having kids before I can really give them what they need, a house, career, a family."
Monique, a homeless teen-ager, wanted to know where the babies' father lives. Another participant, Mike, 15, asked if the birth was by Cesarean section. Desiree wondered if Garay still yearns for a career.
After only one hour, there were some sober reactions. "These two really learned the hard way--it didn't seem like some TV show," Mike said.
Such comments hearten the counselors, many of whom draw on their experiences for motivation.
As Levi Brett, the Hollywood outreach counselor who lives in a shelter for homeless youths, makes his usual trek through the district's streets among pimps, pushers and perverts, he sometimes can't help thinking of all the adults who terrorized, abused or neglected him. The thought gives him special incentive.
"When I was homeless, I was scared, frightened and there was no peer outreach at the time," he said. "Adults always used to talk down to me like I was some worthless piece of garbage. But now we're doing so much for ourselves--you start to believe in yourself again."