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Glimmer of Hope for Youths on the Mean Streets of Hollywood

October 31, 2000|SANDY BANKS

They begin trickling in when the doors open at noon.

A sullen-looking young man with a Fu Manchu mustache and a backpack slung over his shoulder takes a sandwich and sits alone at a table. A pair of longhaired boys with baby faces argue good-naturedly over who gets first dibs on the microwave. A muscle-bound teenager with a chain around his waist nibbles at his lunch while scribbling poetry.

A chubby black girl in overalls, a bandanna tied over her uncombed hair, is greeted with a hearty hug by a grubby guy with a skinhead persona, all tattoos and camouflage fatigues.

A tiny blond girl prances around the room, showing off her new tongue ring. There's a bruise on her pretty face and scars sliced across her wrists, from a suicide attempt "years ago, when I was 14,' she explains. Welcome to lunch time at My Friend's Place, Hollywood's teen canteen for homeless kids.


It began 12 years ago as a simple effort to provide a single meal each week to kids in need. As Steve LePore would tell it later, he got tired of stepping over hungry, homeless kids on his way to his executive job in Hollywood. So he started roaming the streets each Friday night, handing out sandwiches from the back of a truck.

Before long, he was rustling up clothes, blankets, trying to plug kids into jobs or talk them into returning to school. With a group of friends, he opened a drop-in center on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar Avenue, and My Friend's Place became a magnet for street kids.

Now, as then, it is the food that draws them: sandwiches, frozen dinners, packaged pizza, stuff kids can heat up in the center's microwave and eat off a napkin or paper plate.

But it's more than a meal.

"We give them a place to relax, let down their guard a little," says Heather Carmichael, the center's clinical director. "We try to keep it low-key. This is one place where they're not going to be judged or hassled."

Some kids wolf down their meals in silence, then disappear back into the streets. Others linger long enough to leaf through a book, take a turn on a computer, study the bulletin board for job listings or share stories from their unstable lives with the trio of young social workers who make up the center's staff.

The center tries to use the free-lunch program as a springboard to connect young people, who range from ages 12 to 24, with services that will help them get off the streets. A therapist visits twice a week, and the center offers computer classes, health screenings, help with legal problems. But it's not easy trying to reconnect these kids.

Some of them have been on the streets for years, moving up and down the coast or back and forth across the country. Others are runaways or "throwaways," kicked out by their parents. Many are longtime "system kids" who have run away from group-home placements or graduated from foster care to the streets.

The one thing most of them share, Carmichael said, "is a deep sense of distrust, a history of being disappointed and hurt by others. They don't come to us looking for help, because they don't believe their lives can be much different."

Their street culture "is tough to crack," she said. "As scary as it might seem to you or me, it can be attractive to a kid who's never known love before. It gives them a sense of family, of belonging."

Her staff works gently to usher them into counseling, encourage them to look for jobs, steer them toward drug treatment or mental-health services, get them back into school.

Counselors can tick off dozens of what we would consider success stories--kids who've beaten drug addiction, enrolled in college, gotten married, found housing, stuck with jobs. But they've also learned to appreciate the small victories.

"A young person comes in day after day and won't even look at you. Just takes his food, sits, eats, head down. Then one day, he meets your eyes, you sit down with him and have a conversation. Talk about what he used to be, what he wants from life." That, says Carmichael, "is a success . . . a child pointed toward hope."


The idea was launched in 1988 with a commitment of about $125 a week for sandwiches. Now the group's annual budget is more then $600,000. Much of that comes from its yearly fund-raising dinner, which will be held Saturday night at Santa Monica Airport's Museum of Flying.

My Friend's Place relies solely on donations from individuals, businesses and private foundations, avoiding government funding and the rules that might satisfy bureaucrats but scare away kids in need.

"You don't have to promise to go to therapy or give up drugs or move in off the street. Just come in and eat," said June Rich, fund-raising director.

But the staff knows that food is not enough. With proceeds from this week's gala, director Elizabeth Cutrona wants to install a computer lab, beef up job training and purchase a van to take the youths on outings.

"We need to help them imagine themselves differently," she says, "to get them out of their mind-set that the world begins and ends on these Hollywood streets."

(My Friend's Place can be reached at [323] 908-0011.)


Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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