Most of Orange County's homeless children run away--literally--from abusive, negligent or dysfunctional homes. At the same time, authorities said, they are running to something they think will be better--to sun, to fun, to freedom. Often they head for a city that has a "Beach" in its name.
"We used to joke that Orange County was the runaway capital of the world," said Bruce Malloy, a former probation officer who now manages the Juvenile Justice Commission. "They used to come from all over the country to go to Disneyland and the beach, particularly after Easter."
At least five girls, ages 14 to 17, ran away to Huntington Beach where they found something they probably did not expect--a man who allegedly used them as prostitutes in exchange for drugs. Three of the girls were from Orange County, two from San Bernardino, police said.
'Can Be Deadly'
"When you hit a place like Huntington Beach, there's an element in that community that preys on the individual; a lot of kids get roped in," Malloy said. "Let's face it, drugs feel good to a kid with pain in life. If they get involved in drugs, you can make good money. It's interesting and exciting.
"No one explains the long-term scenario. It can be deadly."
Authorities say it is nearly impossible to ascertain the number of runaways, although they think that most are from the county. In Orange County, estimates range from 2,500 to as high as 30,000. Authorities are unable to arrest or place in homes runaways who have not committed crimes.
Counselors at the county's youth shelters say runaways are now coming in at younger ages.
"The average age of a runaway is 13," said Cassy Tindall, services director for the Orange branch of the Adam Walsh Foundation, a national organization that helps locate missing children.
Tindall is seeking funding for a pilot project, Outreach 601, in which a team trained to identity them would inform Huntington Beach runaways about relevant services and programs. The "601s" are children who are wards of the court but have not committed crimes, she explained.
"We want to reach them before they are part of the system, before they are selling drugs or get into prostitution or burglary." she said. Most runaways are ultimately located after arrests for those crimes, she said.
In 1986, 350 runaways were reported in Huntington Beach, a figure that includes youngsters who returned home after 24 hours and excludes those who come from beyond the city's borders. Most congregate on the beach or at the city pier, Tindall said.
Community activists have also formed a 43-member advisory board to create the Huntington Youth Shelter, a proposed 10,000-square-foot, 16-bed shelter for 11- to 17-year-olds.
Developer Frank Mola, a major fund-raiser for the project, has pledged to donate land for the shelter, according to Geri Ortega, a member of the group's 11-member executive committee. A site has not yet been determined.
Police say the city's problem is no greater than that of any other beach community.
But the city's need is obvious, Ortega said. "We're the county's third largest city, with 185,000, bordered by beach. The pier is a popular hangout, and the open-space areas off Adams Street behind Beach Boulevard is a popular place to sleep at night."
The shelter, which its sponsors hope to have in place within two years, will help alleviate the burden on the county's other three shelters whose total 32 beds are almost always filled, Ortega said. The most recent survey by United Way a few years ago indicated that there were more than 10,000 runaways in Orange County, she said. "We estimated that's doubled by now."
About 30% of runaways wind up in prostitution, and about a third of them are boys, estimated Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night, a Hollywood-based organization set up to help teen-age prostitutes.
"We've seen a tremendous movement from Los Angeles into Orange County in terms of street prostitutes on Harbor Boulevard," she said. "Thirty percent of our clients have always come from Orange County," she added. "They used to come up and work the streets in Hollywood and connect with the street population." Now, she said, because law enforcement has become more sophisticated in Los Angeles, they are either staying in or returning to Orange County.
It is more difficult for runaways to escape from adults who "sweet talk" them into living in the adults' homes, Lee said. "They're never alone."