Two years ago a 14-year-old boy playing basketball in a Louisville, Ky., park pulled out a .38-caliber pistol and told a friend he was going to kill himself.
The boy's father, a minister, had been planning to send him to an out-of-state school because of behavior problems, and the youngster was depressed about leaving his home and his girlfriend.
His friend persuaded the boy to walk to a nearby food store where a Safe Place had been established to help young runaways reach overnight shelters.
Trained to Deal With Teens
A store employee who had been trained to make young people feel at ease called a counselor from a shelter, who met the boy at the store and interviewed him. She drove him to the shelter where he spent five days before returning home to enter counseling, along with his father.
The Safe Place was one of 215 established since 1984 at Louisville markets, fire houses, fast-food outlets and other hangouts for runaways.
Easily identified by a gray-and-orange logo depicting a parent's arms around a child, the Safe Places have helped approximately 400 young people reach shelters since their inception.
Those numbers have impressed California youth workers, who are attempting to re-create the program here. In Los Alamitos, Myldred Jones, 77, a World War II naval commander who is the founder of Casa de Bienvenidos, a shelter for runaway teens, has received enthusiastic response from civic groups to her efforts to initiate the program at 20 locations next month.
Meanwhile in San Diego, Donna Rankin, director of a community volunteer project, is seeking funds to open 18 Safe Places within 15 minutes of six local shelters. Rankin said that the program, which is not federally funded and depends on private donations of time and money, could probably get under way for $5,000.
Jones said that to get the program going she would have to train the on-site managers of each Safe Place and about seven volunteer counselors for each location. She said Safe Places would reach runaways and other endangered youngsters through announcements on radio stations, signs in places runaways frequent and presentations in local schools. Each student would get a wallet-sized card explaining how the program works.
Jones said Safe Places are important because cities contain few shelters and "many runaways don't know about them . . . . We feel that if they knew there was a Safe Place, they would go there."
"Every minute they're on the street the danger of exploitation increases," Rankin said. "Safe Places can reduce that danger significantly. The ugly underside of life is what's out there for these vulnerable kids."
Larry Wooldridge, director of operations for the YMCA of Greater Louisville, said his organization created the Safe Place program a decade after it opened a shelter in 1974.
"Over the years there had been a number of youngsters who were trying to reach us who couldn't get to us because they didn't know where we were or didn't have transportation," he said. "We, in turn, didn't have transportation to go get them."
Linking those concerns with a mounting national interest in runaway and exploited children, Wooldridge said, "we designed a way to put the front door of our shelter program all over town."
Wooldridge said the Y included fire stations among the Safe Places "because by and large kids feel good about firemen and city fire stations are operated around the clock by paid employees."
"We tried to pick locations where kids tend to congregate or which are easily visible to kids," he said.
Although many youth workers are enthusiastic about reaching out to runaways, Joel Schwartz, executive director of the Los Angeles Youth Network, said he does not think Safe Place program can work in a city the size of Los Angeles.
Schwartz noted that there are fewer than 100 beds for runaways in Los Angeles shelters and said that "With such limited shelter space, there's no place to put the kids who are funneled in.
"The second problem is that Los Angeles is so enormous that the volume that would have to be trained to work out of businesses where Safe Places are located is really beyond the capacity of most shelters to handle," added Schwartz, who runs a 20-bed shelter under the auspices of Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. "It works much better in smaller communities."
"It's a great concept," said Hida Avent, program director of the Stepping Stone shelter in Santa Monica, "but our problem is, once we get the kids here, what do we do with them? We only have six beds. That's one of the drawbacks."
Wooldridge said that Project Safe Place has successfully trained large groups of volunteers in much of metropolitan Louisville, which has 968,000 people. A 20-bed shelter has been sufficient to house runaways brought in through Safe Places there, he said.