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The Nation

Off the Streets, Into a Dream Home

Homeless teenagers with HIV or high-risk lifestyles find shelter and a new direction.

March 28, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — Stephen Mayfield is 19, homeless, broke and infected with HIV. He's run out of second chances.

His mom won't take him back. They fight too much. He won't return to his dad's place. Too stifling. He's crashed on the couch of every friend who would take him in, and he has long since worn out his welcome. Last year, after two weeks of dating, he moved in with a guy he met on the Internet, just so he'd have a place to stay. It didn't last.

Mayfield can't stand bouncing from bed to bed anymore.

Which is why he finds himself in a slate-blue house on a rough city street, waking up -- grudgingly -- at a social worker's command, tidying his room for a weekly housekeeping check, taking his Marlboro Lights outside to smoke even on the coldest of days.

He has to abide by the rules if he is to stay at Dream House. And Dream House is all he has left.

The roomy house with the wide sit-down-and-visit porch on the ragged hem of a destitute neighborhood offers a haven for five homeless teenagers with HIV and for another three at high risk of contracting AIDS because they are accustomed to trading sex for food, shelter or drugs.

Opened in May with private funding and federal grants, Dream House is on the front line of a growing social crisis. Half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. occur in youths age 13 to 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means 20,000 young people are infected each year. Perhaps half of them are under 21.

And many don't have a bed to call their own.

By some estimates, as many as 1 million U.S. teens are homeless. They're not as visible as homeless adults because most avoid camping out on the streets. Instead, they try to talk friends into taking them in for a few days. Or they sell their bodies for the promise of a night in a motel.

As Meghan McBride, 17, put it: "I always knew I had somewhere to go. I just knew I didn't have long to stay there."

Experts call such transient teens "couch surfers" -- and contend the shaky economy has added to their ranks. "Their families are in turmoil and they're told, 'Go out and fend for yourself,' " said Christina Fagan, director of St. Louis Covenant House, which serves homeless youth.

"Many are trapped in the world of survival sex. And that puts them at very, very high risk for HIV," said Anne Stanton, director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco.

Indeed, testing in New York, Chicago and Hollywood in the last decade has found anywhere from 5% to nearly 12% of homeless youth infected with HIV.

Larkin Street opened the nation's first residential care facility for homeless teens with AIDS in 1996. It began as a hospice. But the center now offers dorm rooms and studio apartments for adolescents living, not dying, with HIV.

It's become a model for similar programs across the country, offering counseling, education, access to medical care and training in such basic life skills as washing clothes, scrubbing toilets and balancing budgets.

Dream House is among the newest such programs, founded by Mildred Jamison, a registered nurse with an easy laugh and an urgent goal: "We need to get these teenagers off the street."

That has proved a good deal more difficult than it sounds.

"Being adolescents, they put up some resistance to abiding by the rules," said Selma Wesley, the resident social worker. Then she abandoned the diplomatic language: "Mostly, they're incorrigible."

Dream House sets up each client in a private bedroom with bath. A cook provides meals. A housekeeper scours the floors. The social worker counsels each client daily, and other staff members are available around the clock; they keep tabs on their adolescent charges like stern grandmothers.

There's a basketball rim in the driveway, a stash of Fruity Pebbles in the kitchen, a minisalon for the teens to practice styling friends' hair. The common room boasts a pool table and big-screen TV.

Still, the tug of the trash-strewn streets can be strong. There's not much to look at around Dream House: Puggy's BBQ & Tripe, Pete's Shur Sav Market, rows of once-elegant brick townhouses with punched-in windows, collapsed roofs, rusting security bars.

But something out there -- the danger, perhaps -- draws Jenny Fedel back again and again, though she knows she should be grateful for her bed at Dream House.

Fedel, 20, likes to drink until she's drunk, smoke pot until she's high, hook up with random men in passing cars and have sex with them for money, or for fun. Not that it's always fun. Most times, she doesn't remember their names. It's just something to do. So Fedel does it. So far, she has tested negative for HIV.

"But if I do test positive, well, it's bound to come," she said, stubbing out her cigarette with a shrug. "I don't worry about it. Nope." She lighted another smoke. "Well, maybe I do. A little."

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