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Staying Alive : For Hollywood's Castoff Teens, Selling Themselves Is More and More a Matter of Simple Survival

January 15, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

It is evening, and Hollywood Boulevard is wrapped in a deceptive tranquility. On the sidewalk a teen-age prostitute, clutching a giant stuffed teddy bear (a prop provided by her pimp) waits for a trick near the Chief Crazy Horse Saloon.

There is limited action at the corner of Hollywood and Las Palmas, a magnet for amateur pornographers and assorted pimps and prostitutes and street kids, but the pay phone outside George's cafe is busy. There are always drug deals to be made.

Still, these star-studded streets are largely deserted. The word is out about Hollywood, and that word is that this traditional mecca for teen-agers seeking sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is no longer friendly. With the aid of a sophisticated fingerprint-tracing system, police have let it be known that the pimps who prey on kids are no longer safe here.

"I think the numbers have pretty much stayed the same," said Lois Lee, founder-executive director of Children of the Night, a Hollywood-based social agency that for nine years has been rehabilitating teen prostitutes. "They've just moved out to other areas," including Orange County and the San Fernando Valley, a trend she identified last year.

Haven't Stopped Prostitution

"I don't think we've stopped prostitution," agreed Lt. E. T. Hocking, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollywood area detective division, but the combined efforts of citizens and police have had "a tremendous impact on the visible prostitution in the Hollywood area."

But, he added, "if it's survival sex were's talking about . . ."

Survival sex . It is a phrase that is repeated in conversation by those who work with the runaway, throwaway and homeless kids who make their way to Hollywood. By consensus definition, it differs from commercial prostitution in that it is sex in return for that which one needs immediately: warm shelter for a night, drugs or perhaps a few Big Macs.

"We have literally thousands of kids who are out on the street (in Hollywood) and about half of them are turning tricks," said Gary Yates, director of Children's Hospital's High Risk Project, which funds the Los Angeles Youth Network, an emergency shelter and counseling center on Franklin Place. "Most of that is survival sex."

His group coined the term, he said, in the belief that "it wasn't fair to call them prostitutes," for whom turning the most tricks for the most amount of money is often the goal.

A kid's introduction to survival sex not uncommonly comes with a ride into town with a cross-country truck driver. That's how DeeDee, a teen-age dwarf, got to Hollywood. By the time police rescued her, she had become a $3 plaything for the "johns" whose thrills came from dressing her in little girls' clothes and having her pose lewdly.

But the term "survival sex" grates on Lois Lee: "It's like a 1980s yuppie term. It softens it. And it's putting the responsibility on the kids," somehow justifying the actions of those who convince them to barter their bodies for food and shelter. Whatever you call it, Lee said, "it's sexual exploitation, and it's criminal."

She fears, too, that calling it "survival sex" will "somehow make it OK for the kids, make it alluring. It's sweeping it under the rug, like calling a drug addict 'chemically dependent.' "

Still, it has become a widely accepted definition for a now-identified subset of Hollywood street kids who are different from those who have come before them. What is also different, observers agree, is a society, beset with the problem of the adult homeless, that is not jarred by the reality of a child eking out an existence on the streets.

"This is a growing problem," Yates said, "and the kinds of kids that we're now seeing in the shelters are different from kids we were seeing four or five years ago."

Kids Have Many Problems

First, he said, they are younger--last year, 40% of those identified by his agency were 15 or under. And more of them are what he calls "multiproblem" youngsters. Perhaps only 15%, he estimated, are typical runaways, fleeing from an acute crisis at home or a minor crisis perceived as acute.

"Most people who think of runaways think of Huckleberry Finn," Yates said, "someone cutting school, rafting down the river looking for adventure. They forget about Huck Finn's father being a chronic alcoholic who beat him near death every chance he got." Like Huck Finn, he said, the runaways who flock to Hollywood are for the most part children of dysfunctional families, frequently with at least one alcoholic parent.

"About half of them come from homes where they have been abused and abandoned, what we classify as chronic homeless (three months or more on the streets)," Luree Nicholson of L.A. Youth Network said. "Some have been born to Hell's Angels, motorcycle gangs. Maybe their parents are homeless, living in Venice. They may have dropped them off on a street corner and given them $50. One told us, 'We stopped at a gas station and I went to the bathroom. When I came out, they were gone.' "

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