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Giving Shelter to the Most Vulnerable Children

Immigrant youths -- undocumented and alone -- find help in the middle of Los Angeles.

May 25, 2003|Hilda M. Munoz | Times Staff Writer

At 12, Adrian Garcia was an elementary school dropout who picked oranges in Mexico to earn a living.

"I studied a little bit and then I left school," said the 17-year-old from San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

He reads at a third- or fourth-grade level and writes at a first- or second-grade level, said Trang Le, director of education at the Casa Libre/Freedom House Youth Shelter, which opened last November and had a grand opening party earlier this month.

Flores, another of the 11 boys living at the shelter, had just arrived in downtown Los Angeles in April when outreach workers at Dolores Mission Church referred him to the shelter.

When asked why he came to the United States, he smiled shyly.

"Who knows?" he said.

Casa Libre/Freedom House occupies a newly renovated mansion near MacArthur Park. Registered as a state, county and federal historic site, the home's gothic facade rises elegantly from the corner of South Lake Street and James M. Wood Boulevard. The shelter arranges for schooling, counseling and medical care for up to 16 undocumented immigrant children, mainly from Latin America, who have crossed into the U.S. unaccompanied by an adult relative or guardian.

"The dangers they face in coming to the United States are enormous," said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and founder of Casa Libre. "They travel thousands of miles; they're routinely victimized by smugglers, criminals, law enforcement authorities on both sides of the border."

Los Angeles, with its dense Spanish-speaking immigrant population, needs places like Casa Libre, said Deborah Lee, an attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, who attended the open house.

Blanca Corea, once the coordinator of the now-defunct Safe Haven, a similar outfit also run by Schey in the late 1980s and '90s, said traditional shelters encountered linguistic and cultural barriers when dealing with Spanish-speaking immigrant children.

Those shelters had trouble addressing the children's psychological and emotional needs, she said.

"They're dealing with the psychological trauma of crossing the border, trauma of being abandoned by their parents, of living with strangers," Corea said. "These were things other shelters couldn't address, not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't understand them."

Schey said he suspended operations at Safe Haven to renovate the house it occupies, but plans to reopen it as a 90-day shelter soon.

Based on figures from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services -- formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other sources, an estimated 48,000 children, some as young as 9, entered the United States illegally in 2001 from Central America and Mexico.

Casa Libre does not exclude U.S. citizens, but focuses on helping undocumented Latin American immigrant minors.

"The target population has been unaccompanied immigrant children, who are the most vulnerable, have the least amount of services offered them, and who live in the shadows probably more so than homeless people," Schey said.

Costs for utilities, food, transportation and other expenses run from $15,000 to $20,000 a month.

The shelter is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and private donations.

The shelter offers a three-month program for up to 10 residents, who receive a bed to sleep in, educational testing, legal services if needed and help in locating family members.

There is a program that offers similar services for up to a year and also provides job training.

Casa Libre is coed, but all of the current residents are boys. All have taken educational assessment exams and most attend the Belmont Newcomer Center for English language and academic courses. Two boys attend the Metropolitan Skills Center in Los Angeles and work part-time.

Attending school can be an unexpected detour for some of these kids, many of whom arrived in Los Angeles intent on working.

"They tend to be the story of the kid who comes here and wants to make money and send it back [home]," said Le. "We tell them that you have a better chance in this country if you have a high school diploma."

Still, faced with children who left school at young ages, shelter coordinators say they have met little resistance from the youngsters.

"We've got some kids who have had two years of education even though they are 16 to 17 years old," said Schey.

"Given the opportunity to enroll in school, most of the children

Unlike most of the boys at the shelter, Raul Ruiz made it through middle school in Mexico.

He said he has been on his own since leaving home at 12. He sold papayas in Mexico to get by and said he got to California with the help of a smuggler.

"If this country would give me the opportunity to become a professional, I would really like that," said Ruiz, who dreams of becoming a history teacher.

At 18, he has passed the shelter's age limit for immigrant minors, but Le said Raul will stay on as a peer counselor this summer.

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