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Sticking With the Program : Closing of Harbor City Teen Post Has Not Deterred Its Controversial Director

October 15, 1993|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Northmore is a man in an awkward position.

He used to be the director of the Harbor City Teen Post, but money for the center dried up three months ago, and it is defunct.

But even with no money, no building, no staff and only the most meager equipment, Northmore plods along.

Northmore, 53, no longer has a job, but more important, Harbor City's youth don't have a teen center. By all accounts, there is a well-run Boys and Girls Club in the community, but the hard-core and often unruly gang members Northmore serves do not go there.

Alone, Northmore now works out of the back yard of a Belle Porte home, counseling and consoling gang members, but unable to do the tutoring, community improvement program, graffiti program, drug abuse programs, alcohol counseling, job counseling and gang outreach work that kept him busy at the teen post.

It is a long drop for a man who years ago supervised the 20 teen posts throughout the harbor area.

A lack of government money and the changing demographics of Los Angeles are partly responsible for the demise of the Harbor City Teen Post. Bushels of government money available during the 1960s and 1970s are gone. And the corporate wealth of the 1980s is gone.

The City Development Department found that compared with other more needy parts of Los Angeles, Harbor City was too wealthy to warrant the $39,000 a year for its teen post. So the money that went to Harbor City was diverted to poorer neighborhoods, including those torn by the 1992 riots.

Census figures for Harbor City might surprise the gang youths that frequented the teen post. The average income of residents is $48,410, and more than half of the population has attended or graduated from college.

But the youths serviced by the teen center are not in this group. Many live in the poorer parts of town and have few recreational outlets.

Directors of many social programs today spend more time looking for grant money than they do talking to teen-agers.

But Northmore lives off unemployment checks and spends his time in the streets with gang members.

"I've been out here 28 years and I can't turn back now," he said.

Northmore began social work 28 years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty.

"It looks like poverty won the war," he said, in the back yard that has become his teen post-in-exile.

Northmore has put a television, a couch and some seats in the shed, and a bench and barbell in the garage. About a dozen boys and several girls are usually around.

Teen-agers come and go, looking for the paper sign stuck to the front of the garage saying that "John is in" or that he is gone. He says that most, but not all, of the teen-agers who come to him are hard-core gang members.

While he is talking, one boy of about 15 brings his toddling little sister over.

"See him?" Northmore asks as they walk away. "He came to me in a panic saying he was in trouble with the police. It turns out he'd gotten a parking ticket."

But usually, Northmore starts his day by accompanying one of his teen-agers to Long Beach or San Pedro Superior Court. Sometimes he's at Kaiser Permanente hospital, visiting a shooting victim. Or more frequently now, he is at his doctor's office trying to reduce the tension, blood pressure and heart problems wreaking havoc on his body. The stress is leaving visible scars on his hands and face, and with his buzz-cut hair, Northmore is the picture of a war-weary soldier.

But his work in the streets and his wrangling with the government are wars he's chosen to fight alone, having alienated most of his natural allies.

He does not work well with most of the area's other teen agencies--and they don't work well with him. He has a lot of heart, people say, but they don't like his methods and he doesn't like theirs.

Raphael Harris, executive director of the teen posts, swears by him.

"We haven't deleted him. He's still there and still mentioned in our current proposal for funding next time," Harris said.

"I just hope that this is just a time when (the city is) trying to get their thoughts and minds together with what they're going to do with the money," Harris said. "And we have high hopes that the new city councilman will help us out."

But harbor-area Councilman Rudy Svorinich says no one from the teen post administration has asked him for help.

"We did not receive any formal request for assistance from them," Svorinich said. "But I do believe the various teen posts do a great deal of good for our communities, and if our office had received a formal request asking us to assist them in procuring funds we would have been happy to assist them."

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