Advertisement

The Street Fighter : Juannie Nunn has a life-saving message for homeless kids: clean needles and safe sex. She's knows. She's been there.

January 03, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

A few years ago, Juannie Nunn was just like a lot of other homeless teen-agers living around Hollywood and Sunset.

She injected drugs. She had unsafe sex. She didn't care whether she lived or died.

Most nights, she's back there--on the streets, on the prowl.

But now, she walks Hollywood Boulevard with a noteworthy purpose. As part of a federally funded study, Nunn is one of seven former street kids who have been hired and trained as outreach workers. Their job is to educate homeless teen-agers about the danger of HIV infection, which is already so prevalent that officials fear this group--an estimated 1 to 2 million in the United States--may constitute the next wave of the epidemic.

Getting information to the street has proven so difficult that the federal government last year endorsed the innovative approach of using high-risk kids to deliver life-saving messages about clean needles and safe sex.

So Nunn, 19, is on Hollywood Boulevard this cool winter evening as the coordinator of the youth outreach program of the Los Angeles Free Clinic. She leads a diverse group designed to relate to as many homeless and runaway kids as possible.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 7, 1994 Home Edition View Part E Page 4 Column 2 View Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Outreach program--A story in Monday's View on a program to educate homeless teen-agers about the dangers of HIV should have included the fact that outreach workers advise intravenous drug users to use bleach to clean needles and prevent the spread of HIV.

"We're familiar faces," Nunn says. "Between all seven of us, we know everyone on the street."

And the group blends in easily with the surroundings. Nunn wears a baseball-style cap over her shaved head, and silver hoops in her nose and ears. She dresses in dark, baggy clothes, as does Walter (Seven) Jenkins, a tall, somber man who wears dreadlocks, and Albert Aldrete, an 1adult outreach worker at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. Each pair of youth outreach workers is accompanied by an adult worker.

On this night, Hollywood Boulevard is a slightly less desolate place than usual. Christmas decorations adorn the shops. And there are far fewer homeless people roaming about. At Christmastime, Nunn says, many kids in search of comfort go home or spend a few days with friends or relatives.

But the solace is often temporary.

"We all know what will happen," she says, sighing. "By early January, they will all be back."

Nunn, Jenkins and Aldrete walk briskly, canvas satchels tossed over their shoulders. They meet up with a group of guys sitting on a bus bench and hand out condoms. The outreach workers carry cards and brochures about HIV infection and lists of phone numbers for shelters, food, crisis counseling and free, confidential HIV testing. They also provide alcohol and swabs to clean the needles, cookies donated by the McDonald's at Childrens Hospital and, when available, free samples of hygiene products.

"It makes our approach a little easier," Aldrete says.

They stop before a teen-ager with stringy hair and cutoff jeans, sitting on the steps of a darkened building. He says he recently arrived from Indiana. He says he's looking for drugs. But he also asks about a place to sleep. Aldrete and Nunn refer him to a shelter and give him some cookies.

They are not yet out of earshot when the youth asks the next group of passers-by for drugs.

The three turn into an alley, where the ugly backs of brick buildings reveal crumbled concrete driveways, rusting fire escapes and the loading docks where homeless kids often sleep. The group is dejected that no one is there at the moment. It's usually a good place to find people.

They move on, stopping to say hello or to hug old friends--friends who are now their "clients."

By 8:30, they come in. It's too dangerous to stay out any longer. And by that time, people are too high to listen.

*

It's impossible to know how many youths may be infected with HIV because few have regular contact with medical clinics. But officials estimate that 10% to 20% of street youths in New York City are infected; earlier this year, one Los Angeles shelter gave HIV tests to 12 homeless youths--six came back positive.

It is this kind of random sample that knocks the wind out of public health officials.

"That was so alarming to hear," says Stephen Knight, a program administrator at Los Angeles Free Clinic who supervises the youth outreach workers. "That was just unheard of. HIV is running rampant through the streets and squats and alleys."

These teen-agers are time bombs, health experts say. Their HIV symptoms may remain hidden for years, and without getting tested, they may transmit the infection to many partners. Young women living on the streets also have a high rate of pregnancy, thus risking the transmission of HIV to their babies.

Homeless youths are at high risk for HIV for many reasons: intravenous drug use; sex with multiple partners, including IV drug users; drug and alcohol abuse, which makes it less likely that condoms will be used, and a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases, which increase the chance of HIV transmission through genital sores.

In a recent study, UCLA researchers interviewed homeless youngsters ages 13 to 17 in Hollywood and found a desperate picture of kids at high risk and powerless to help themselves.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|