Jose Andrade's background is murky. Even his age--17 by his count, 19 according to a friend--is a matter of dispute.
But people who know him agree on these basic facts: He is an illegal alien, probably from Ensenada. He is crippled by polio. Until a wheelchair was donated to him several months ago, he got around on a skateboard. He is homeless and has lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles for about two years.
Despite an offer of temporary shelter over the weekend, Andrade is still in the open, where he apparently feels safer than being pinned down in a hotel room.
Familiar Figure to Many
Andrade's refusal of shelter last Friday--after workers at the Inner City Law Center spent the day trying to help him--was the latest round in a long-running saga of the mysterious Mexican youth who has become a familiar figure to many in downtown Los Angeles. He is particularly well-known along Broadway, where he darts in his blue wheelchair from his normal sleeping cranny in the alley behind a glass-and marble-skyscraper several blocks away.
He has survived by selling toy cars, by begging and through the help of Catholic Church-affliated social service workers, business-people and retail workers in the area who have befriended him with regular donations of food and clothing.
He clearly has charmed many.
"He's got a fantastic character--always up, always smiling," said Brother Phil Mandile, director of Angels Flight Runaway Youth Center, where Andrade has been a regular visitor for about 1 1/2 years and which helped him get a wheelchair. "He's just such a neat guy. Even though he's too old for our services, we just can't let him go," Mandile said, explaining that technically the day center, funded by the Los Angeles archdiocese, isn't supposed to help anyone over 17.
"He always has a smile--a really happy guy," said Myung Kyun Kim, a Korean restaurant owner who frequently gives Andrade meals.
But Andrade's personality hasn't conquered reality.
"He does not qualify for any (public) aid program because he is an illegal," Mintie said. Andrade was turned down by shelters for a number of other reasons too, she said, including being either too young, too old or because the shelters had no facilities for handicapped people.
Tomorrow morning, Mintie and workers at the St. Francis Center, which provided the vouchers for Andrade's room, will meet to see if they can come up with a longer term solution. But Mintie is not optimistic. "At this point we're kind of at the end of our rope for long-term solutions," she said.
Drop in Income
Andrade himself seems to be a realist as well as a charmer. During an interview and a tour of his haunts last week, Andrade said his wheelchair ("It's got a two-year warranty") and relatively clean clothes--which are washed by a Nicaraguan woman who works at a Broadway magazine stand--have cut into his panhandling income.
"People think I get assistance because I'm always clean," he said through an interpreter, Martha Lopez, who works in a jewelry store. "Business was better when I had my skateboard. I used to make about $100 a week. If I get up early and I really try hard, I can make about $70 (a day) but it's hard on my arms getting around that much."
Los Angeles police officer Guadalupe Ruvalcaba, who patrols Broadway on foot, said he frequently has warned Andrade against begging over the last 18 months. "I always tell him not to put his hand out," he said, adding, "I feel for him."
Andrade said he contracted polio at age three and fled to the United States about two years ago because he feared his family, with its 13 children, was about to throw him out or have him institutionalized. "I wanted to escape. . . . My friends would tell me to just go, go to the U.S. I would get a chair and be better off," he said.
Checks on Andrade's background by Angels Flight workers found that the youth was frequently treated for his polio at a San Diego hospital and that his mother took him back and forth across the border frequently for those treatments, said John Knickrehm, a former Angels Flight worker who has known Andrade for about two years. Andrade has has more than 10 operations to repair damage to his legs from the disease, he added, noting that Angels Flight arranged for another operation here late last year. Knickrehm said hospital records he had seen indicated that Andrade is 19, not 17 as he claims to be.
Streak of Independence
Although everyone who knows him spoke of his good humor, Knickrehm said Andrade's stubbornness and streak of independence are partly the reasons he has remained on the street. Andrade once left a shelter for runaways after only a few days because of arguments with other residents, he explained.
"It's hard for him to fit into a lot of structure," Knickrehm said. "He was in this house and he had trouble with a couple of kids. . . . His temper has messed him up." But Knickrehm also believes that Andrade's self-reliance eventually could help him build a stable life.