Joaquin recently lost an opportunity to attend advanced courses at UCLA because he cannot afford to pay for transportation. But a more immediate concern is where he will be spending the night.
A few days ago, he was asked to leave the small shelter where he was staying. The six-bed shelter run by a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest is one of only a few small shelters specifically serving immigrant youth. At this shelter, temporary housing is offered to youngsters for a month at a time. Joaquin had stayed for two.
"I don't know where I will go next," he said. "I just hope that I'll find a stable place where I'll be able to study. . . . These are my last six months in school."
The young man said he is applying for placement by the county in a foster home, but it is unlikely he will qualify.
Spokeswomen for the county Department of Childrens Services said the agency is responsible only for "neglected or abused" children.
"A child that just makes up his mind that he wants to leave home and come to the big city is not a case within our realm," said Barbara Calhoon, a supervisor in the department's international placement unit. She was referring to foster care and transportation to a youngster's home country.
Up until last August, an average of 15 youngsters a month were sent home through the international unit. Now, only about two a month go, she said. The change reflects a stricter interpretation of departmental policy.
Sister Kathy Wood, a Franciscan nun who offers morning meals to homeless immigrants on Skid Row, is disappointed by the lack of government help. No matter how you look at it, she insisted, "downtown is no place for children to be on the street. It doesn't matter what country they were born in."
If there is no alternative and a youngster's well-being is at stake, the Immigration and Naturalization Service might send the youngster home, said Robert Moschorak, associate INS Western Region commissioner for operations. "But we're not interested in providing free trips to home countries," he said, adding that in his 24 years with the agency he has yet to see a minor turn himself in.
INS officials said they seldom apprehend minors in the interior, where their enforcement focus is the workplace. Those caught at the border are sent home "voluntarily." Many of the Central Americans, however, refuse to return voluntarily. About 2,000 minors are held by the INS each year, and the overwhelming majority of them are apprehended in Southern California, according to research of INS records by the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc.
Although overall apprehensions at the border are down from previous years, Christine Davis, an INS official responsible for detention and deportation, said she has detected "a slight increase in the number of Central American unaccompanied minors, primarily young boys."
The Los Angeles-based National Center for Immigrants Rights, which has litigated numerous class action suits on behalf of immigrants, plans to open a multi-service center and small shelter for homeless youngsters next spring to assist those released from custody. The center has begun recruiting families willing to offer temporary shelter to the youngsters, as well as lawyers willing to assist with their cases.
Despite such efforts, however, the needs of the young immigrants far outstrip available services.
Brother Joseph McLachlan of the Missionaries of Charity--a Catholic order founded by Nobel laureate Mother Teresa of Calcutta--sees as many as 60 immigrant teen-agers a day at a small shelter he operates in the Pico-Union area. They drop in at the homey, two-story house for a shower, a free meal and clean clothes. Some just come to rest from their nights on the streets.
Brother Joseph said he never has enough to offer them. And he has nowhere to send those who ask for help in kicking a drug habit. He has been told by government-funded drug rehabilitation programs that the young men do not qualify.
The hardest part for Brother Joseph comes at the end of the day, however, when he closes the door behind them. There is room only for eight to spend the night.
"It's very difficult to let them out, especially the young ones, knowing the difficulties and danger they face sleeping in the streets," he said. "All I can say is . . . 'Take care of yourself.' "