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Helping Runaways Build New Lives : Youth Network Shelter Provides Counseling--and Time

December 11, 1986|GARY LIBMAN

After he turned 16, Paco decided he'd had enough of his father's abuse.

"I couldn't stand to be in the same room with him for more than five minutes," said Paco, who asked that his last name be withheld. " . . . He would hit me. I never had freedom. I never could talk to him. I never could do anything."

So he took his savings from a summer job in Chicago and hopped a plane to Los Angeles, where for a week he walked the Hollywood streets all night and slept in the parks during the day.

"You're cold, you're hungry," he said. "But in Hollywood you can't sleep at night. If you do, you have to have a couple of people with you that you know very carefully so they won't rob you or hurt you. . . . You'd want to sleep so bad, but you can't."

Telephone Call

Paco tired quickly of sleeping on the streets. He had heard about shelters on a previous runaway visit to Los Angeles two years ago, so he telephoned the 20-bed shelter and counseling center started in October by the Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN) under the auspices of Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.

The counseling center, in a once-elegant, two-story home beneath the Hollywood Hills, and the nighttime shelter at the Hollywood YMCA can keep youngsters 12-17 for up to two months.

That is much longer than the two-week maximum at most Los Angeles havens and allows runaways such as Paco the time to find jobs and apartments and establish independent life styles, if they are old enough, or to make other living arrangements.

The shelter helps young people reach those goals through programs that include a workshop on AIDS and another on how to get into the movie business. In addition, Hollywood police cooperate by countersigning daily "passports" which help shelter residents avoid being picked up for loitering.

'More Than 2 Weeks'

"Kids who don't have families and who have lived on the streets for a while are going to need more than two weeks to put their lives together," Joel Schwartz, executive director of LAYN, said recently in an interview as he explained the residential program, which has been funded with a $552,000 state grant.

"Most of the kids we see have very low self-esteem. It's probably going to take a few weeks before they feel good enough about themselves to go get a job. It takes two weeks to get a paycheck and you need a minimum of three checks to get the first and last month's rent and damage deposit to get an apartment."

Gary Yates, director of high-risk youth programs at Childrens Hospital, said runaways often need two months in a shelter because, according to federal estimates, 25% come from "serious abuse or chronic family situations that short-term intervention won't help."

He said the LAYN shelter helps "keep kids off the street while they're working on a plan to further their life."

Working With Agencies

Part of the effort, he said, is working closely with 24 social service agencies to ensure that homeless youths get the help they need. " . . . (In the past) kids got shunted from one agency to another and quit because they didn't think they were getting anywhere. I don't think that was an inaccurate assumption on their part."

Schwartz said the shelter provides several unusual programs to help runaways reach their long-term goals, including free medical treatment.

A Childrens Hospital study showed that compared to young people who live at home, runaways are four to five times at greater risk of having a disease or a psychological problem, and they are also a high-risk AIDS group.

"Many are gay and many are involved in drug use and prostitution," Schwartz said. "Also it's rather chic now for young kids to identify themselves as bisexual, and they do not take AIDS seriously. They don't think they're going to die."

Police Check Required

Whereas parental consent is required to join other shelters, a police check showing no outstanding warrants is sufficient to join the LAYN house.

Once they join the shelter as residents, many accept its offer of family reunification counseling, but those who wish to remain independent must take a workshop that teaches money management and employment skills and helps paint a realistic picture of specific jobs.

Because many runaways come to Hollywood to crash the movie business, part of their introduction to reality is a workshop that television director Marc Gass puts on. It describes entry-level jobs and teaches how to find them by developing a resume and reading the help-wanted section of the daily trade papers.

Reality Vs. Fantasy

"We lay out the structure to find out realistically whether it's fantasy," Schwartz said. "Many need to play out that fantasy before they decide, 'This is beyond me.' We have a couple of kids who have screen credits and are serious about getting into the industry."

One shelter resident, a slight 16-year-old who asked that his name be withheld, said he had worked as an extra on "Hill Street Blues" and in a Michael Jackson commercial.

The Los Angeles high school senior slept in restaurants for days before arriving at the shelter, where he would like to become independent enough to get an apartment and finish school.

The youngster said he has left home often because his alcoholic mother either ignores him or swears at him.

"Around the holidays I got real homesick," he said. "But I know if I would have been there (for Thanksgiving) I would have had a fight (with my mother). I thought about that when I went to sleep and I started to cry, but I didn't know why."

Other shelters for runaways in Los Angeles include:

Aviva Respite Shelter, address withheld upon request, Van Nuys (girls only).

Options House, 1754 Taft Ave., Hollywood.

Stepping Stone, 1833 18th St., Santa Monica.

1736 Family Crisis Center, 1736 Monterey Ave., Hermosa Beach.

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