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Storefront Turns Teen Lives Around

February 19, 1990|JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David can't remember exactly when he first became homeless, but at 18 he has walked the streets of San Diego for more than a year, buying food and shelter by selling his body in Balboa Park.

Four years ago, he says, he left a home torn by drugs and abuse and was placed in a foster care system. Four foster homes and four group homes could not cope with the brash nature he picked up from a lifetime of abuse, and he could not cope with their rules, so he spent three years running from the social services system that was trying to help him.

Now, the handsome boy's smile hides more than a year of living alone on San Diego streets.

"An 18-year-old that has been on the streets since he was 14 is still a kid," said David, who asked a reporter not to use his real name because it is so unusual that it would make him easily identifiable.

"My mother was a cocaine abuser, and I had to support her habit by working, and we just ended up hating each other, so I left," he explained. "She hated me because I knew what she was and didn't respect her, and I hated her for what she was, and everything else basically came from that."

He left behind a sister, 9, and a brother who is now the same age David was when he left their Sonoma County home.

"I never really slept on the street or anything like that," he said. "I usually managed to find somewhere to sleep somehow. I used to hustle, turn tricks and sell drugs, and do a lot of things to get by."

But David says things are looking up, thanks to the Storefront Shelter on 12th Avenue downtown. He works at a grocery and hopes to get a second job soon. By the middle of February, he plans to move into his own apartment. College might be in his future, after he gets his General Education Development certificate, which he says should be "no problem."

David credits the shelter's school for homeless teen-agers and its teacher, Sandra McBrayer, for turning his life around.

McBrayer began the school at The Storefront in 1988 after teaching juvenile offenders in the court school system for six years.

"It wasn't what I had planned on doing, but, once I got into it, I couldn't leave," said McBrayer, who originally wanted to coach sports.

To get the school started, McBrayer spent hours with the children, tailoring the class work to their needs.

No one talks about the Middle Ages or Christopher Columbus here. These are homeless 15-year-olds who need to know how to balance a checkbook and buy groceries.

Andre Jacobs of the Storefront, who works with homeless teen-agers in San Diego, said they number "over 1,000."

The Storefront Shelter provides temporary sanctuary for kids under 18 and is operated by the San Diego Youth and Community Services, a nonprofit relief organization. Open from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., the shelter supplies about 20 teens a night with a bed, a shower, and, with a little luck, a meal donated by local church groups. And school, if they'll go.

No sign on the building indicates that this is a homeless shelter, let alone one for teen-agers.

"We used to have a sign, but the pimps would wait outside for the girls," McBrayer said.

The school upstairs is the size of a large kitchen, crowded with a dozen chairs and an aged wooden desk for the teacher. A door leads to a rooftop patio, where the kids take frequent cigarette breaks.

The school attracts mostly 14- to 17-year-olds, who must be charmed into staying.

"Hey, Eric, are you coming to school today?" McBrayer calls out to a 15-year-old with his back to her.

Eric stays for class, but many of the older kids do not.

Eric, who is bright and learns quickly, sometimes helps teach the other kids, McBrayer said. But he hides his intelligence because the street ethic downplays the importance of education, she said.

The school runs from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., and the students get breakfast, when it is available. Each teen-ager has a different lesson plan created by McBrayer to suit their respective needs.

Not all the shelter residents stay for school, and some homeless kids come in the morning to go to class, just to escape the streets for a couple of hours.

But, for others, especially the older, hardened street kids, school has no purpose.

"I don't have anything to offer them," McBrayer said. "They're not going to graduate, they can't get a diploma. The best I can do for them is teach them the basic things."

Those basics include reading, child care and filling out a job application. Awaiting those who want their GED, or high school equivalency degree, are essays, reading assignments and fractions.

The students here write essays that never would be seen in a traditional school.

"Can I see the other story I wrote, please, the acid trip one?" Danielle asked.

The 17-year-old girl came to San Diego last year, making $700 for transporting 10 kilograms of cocaine from Seattle. Her natural parents were heroin addicts, she said, and her adoptive father was an alcoholic. She said her adoptive mother beat her with the back of a brush and the rings on her hand.

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