"I want to AWOL so bad, but I gotta maintain and do my little time here," said 16-year-old Ruben, eyes trained on the barracks-style buildings he calls home.
It was a bleak, drizzling day at the Optimist Boys' Home in Highland Park, and Ruben had ditched his auto mechanics class because he was bored, he said. So he lounged against the stairwell and talked to a visitor about the home. Tattoos marked his thin arms. A gold crucifix dangled from a chain around his neck.
"It's a good place. Better than being in the Hall," Ruben said, referring to Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall for young offenders, which all the boys dislike. "They try and help you here, but it's up to you."
Since 1906, the boys' home on Figueroa Street has offered bed and board, schooling and counseling to more than 6,500 youths, first as an orphanage. Then, beginning with its purchase by the nonprofit Optimist organization in the late 1920s, it became a privately run home subsidized by state and county funds.
This year, which marks the home's 80th birthday, the orphanage's founders would be hard put to recognize it or the surrounding community. Demographics in both have changed radically since Scottish immigrants Jacob and Julia Strickland moved to Highland Park and founded their genteel establishment for homeless boys.
Residents in those early days were mainly white and mostly orphans. Photos show earnest-looking youths, the kind who might have clustered around Spencer Tracy in the movie "Boys Town." Highland Park was mostly an Anglo community then, with big, lovely houses and a fancy commercial district.
Today, most youths at the home are black or Latino. A number are gang members. Many are scarred emotionally by neglect and abuse, and an increasing number suffer severe depression and exhibit suicidal tendencies, said Howard Nariman, the home's executive director for 18 years.
Highland Park, too, has changed. More than half of its residents are Latino, and, although the community remains close-knit, many of the once-stately homes need paint or repairs. Fast food and discount outlets, many run by Latino and Asian immigrants, have long since replaced the fashionable shops. And, although Anglo yuppies are slowly moving in to fix up older homes, Latino gangs still rumble on side streets.
Through it all, the home has stayed on good terms with the community, say civic leaders and nearby residents.
"We think of them as very good neighbors," said Lorraine Wilson, who has lived across the street for 33 years.
The Optimist home, or ranch, as administrators call it, sits on five acres without locked fences or guards. It includes dormitories, a high school, a cafeteria, a gym, a chapel and business offices. The high school is run by Los Angeles County but owned by the Optimists.
Private homes surround the ranch on three sides. Annandale Elementary School lies across the street on Figueroa. On a green hill at the back of the property, boys tend vegetables and chickens.
About 60 staff members, from dorm counselors to social workers, help supervise up to 84 boys during the day, Nariman said. At night, five counselors watch over the youths as they sleep.
Most of the boys are there because of convictions for assault, burglary or auto theft, or for such lesser violations as truancy or running away from home. Some of the boys, ages 13 to 18, have drug problems; others are victims of neglect and abuse.
Court orders send most of the youths here. Good behavior and the passage of time get them out. Judges can send the boys to the California Youth Authority for punishment, to special camps, home to their parents or to group homes like the Optimist.
County probation workers and officials from the county Department of Children's Services pick the specific site, based on what is deemed most appropriate for each youth. At the Optimist home, sentences range from two months to two years, and usually five to 10 youths are waiting to be admitted.
The home, however, will not accept hard-core juvenile offenders, Nariman said. If youths prove incorrigible, they are sent back to the county. "We get new kids in each week, some from Juvenile Hall, and, if they're wild, they upset the harmony," he said.
But not all residents have broken the law. Administrators recall how a Southeast Asian refugee arrived on their doorstep several years ago, asking to live at the home because his stepfather beat him. The home became his legal guardian. About 25% of the residents come from Northeast and East Los Angeles, the rest from around the state. Many work at odd jobs at the home for pocket money and earn weekend passes home for good behavior. Boys cannot leave without permission.
County and state agencies who work with the Optimist home give it high marks.
"Their track record is very positive. They've been pioneers in several different fields," said Jane Martin, director of central and regional placement for the county Probation Department.