They walk at night with tattered shoes and silent lips, cracked from the wind and sun. During the day, while beach revelers and businessmen amble through the shoreline neighborhoods and pink storefronts, these teens hide in alleys from adults who prey on aimless children and from the police.
Some beg on the beach for money and food, a practice they call "spanging." A few attend school, but only if they have identification or want to risk being discovered. Some said they run "errands" for dealers of crystal methamphetamine and other drugs. The lucky ones find rooftops on which to sleep, or crash for a few hours with friends at low-rate motels.
Others come out at night, and beneath Coast Highway's neon signs, in the very footsteps of the daytime tourists and businessmen, make sex deals with strangers in exchange for food or drugs.
These are the homeless youths of Oceanside, where county officials say most of North County's 200-or-so street-dwelling children live on their own. And without help from county shelters, local agencies and the people of this city, homeless advocates say, many of them will die, be jailed or fall into lives of prostitution and crime.
"People see homeless men and women with shopping carts at bus stops and think it's a problem, but if they had any idea how many children are on their streets “and the things these kids are doing to survive “they would be sick to their stomachs," said Stacia Fiore, an outreach counselor for Oceanside's Stand Up for Kids, a 6-month-old advocacy group for homeless youths in the city.
Fiore walks Oceanside's streets with a handful of other counselors each week, handing out food, toiletries and resource phone numbers to homeless youths.
"I can tell you that this is more than just a story," Fiore said. "These are real-life kids who are just barely living. A lot of them have been raped or abused but are too afraid of adults to let anyone help them. They live among us, and if people continue to turn their heads, they will die among us."
Downtown is a draw
According to the San Diego-based Regional Task Force on the Homeless, about 200 teens on their own made their homes on the streets of North County in 1999, the most recent year for which the county keeps data. On any given night, task force members said, twice as many children “including runaways and children without homes for just a few days “were sleeping on the streets. Most sleep in Oceanside, where the beach and a concentrated section of bars, adult businesses and other attractions such as the Regal Cinemas draw hundreds of people to the downtown area each day and night.
The high numbers of tourists and locals on downtown's streets “including thousands of Camp Pendleton-based Marines who frequent the area “give homeless teens the opportunity to panhandle, sell themselves or find drugs and food. Add in the miles of beaches, alleys and downtown parks in which to hide, and Oceanside becomes a prime place for teen-agers trying to make it with little more than their wits and their bodies to help them along.
Stand Up for Kids counselors, who have been walking Oceanside's Strand for about six months, said they've identified a core group of about 30 homeless youths who live downtown and regularly accept help from the volunteers. But volunteers and street teen-agers said the number of teens living on the cement is probably much higher. Oceanside police said there were 519 runaways reported last year.
Life on the street
For many, life on the street is full of choices that would make everyday residents cringe. "Just last week, these two guys drove up to me outside the strip club and said they'd pay me $200 to masturbate in front of their camera," said a stubbly faced 18-year-old who said he has lived on Oceanside's beaches and pavement about two months. "That's not me, man. All I need is a buck eighty-nine a day to buy a slice of pizza. But that kind of thing happens around here all the time, and there are some kids who need the money so bad that they do it."
As he spoke on a recent weekday night, he spread out the blue tarp he sleeps on each night, running his dirt-smeared fingers over the crinkled plastic sheet until it was smooth against the sand of a local beach. The former Rancho Buena Vista High School student, who said he left his parents' house because he was being physically abused, often calls this sandy spot home. But the high winds bit hard at his bare legs and ankles, so he decided to wrap up his life in the big, blue tarp and look for a wall to shield him from the ocean gusts.
He carefully laid out each of his belongings: a pair of worn-out pants, a brown paper bag with some peanut butter and bread given to him by a friend, a blanket he got from Stand Up for Kids, and a necklace belonging to a friend who was arrested the week before. The friend, a 17-year old homeless girl who has been seen with men outside the nearby Playgirl Club, was arrested on suspicion of drug possession and has not been seen since.
"Someday, she'll want it back," he said as he rolled
up the items in the tarp, stuffed them into his backpack, tugged a hat
down over his red ears and walked down the Strand. This life of packing
and walking is better than being beaten up at home, he said.
The young man is one of about half a dozen youths who live or have lived on Oceanside's streets and spoke with the North County Times about their experiences. Most spoke freely, used their names and allowed themselves to be photographed. But because criminals “including sexual predators “often target homeless youths, the paper decided not to publish their names or specifics about where they spend their nights.
Most street youths willing to be interviewed fit into one demographic profile. They were white, in their older teen-age years, and said they had been abused at home.
200 children, 35 beds
While North County homeless advocates cried foul last winter about the lack of an emergency shelter for homeless adults, few mentioned the even more dire need for youth shelters. In North County, there are two established youth shelters “both in Oceanside “for runaways and victims of domestic violence. Casa de Amparo, a Mission San Luis Rey-based shelter for abused youths, has 25 beds. A YMCA shelter on Mission Avenue has 10 beds. But most of those beds are reserved for permanent or transitional housing and are not available for walk-in youths from the street. The YMCA shelter tries to keep two beds open for walk-ins, said Rob Brownell, program director.
Other shelters admit families with children but do not allow unaccompanied youths, said Jeri White, resource development director for Stand Up for Kids. "It's not that shelters don't care, it's that they just can't protect young people," she said. "They are trying to keep the safest shelters they can, but when you take in youth you vow to protect them. Most shelters can't take that on."
For children who need beds and the counselors trying to help them, the lack of shelter is tough to swallow. "The most heart-wrenching question I get from the kids I meet is, 'Do you know a place where I can sleep tonight?' " said Fiore. "The answer is that there's nowhere."
'Some ... don't want to be helped'
Police and shelter officials say Fiore's no-place-to-sleep belief is not entirely true. Most children on the street who are under 18 could return home or enter the care of social services programs, but choose to reject those options, said Vivien Gregg, an investigative assistant for the Oceanside Police Department. "The reality is that there are kids on the street who have chosen not to be found and not to be helped," Gregg said. "Some of them are struggling to survive, even prostituting themselves. We know it happens. But it's not that help isn't out there for a lot of these youths; it's that some of these kids don't want to be helped." Many of the children and young adults served by Stand Up for Kids fall into that category.
Most children living on their own in the streets “about 75 percent “left their homes because of physical or sexual abuse, according to reports from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. "A lot of these youngsters have chosen the streets as the safest place they can find. It's safer than home," said John Thelen, project manager for the task force, a collaboration among several agencies, including San Diego city and county officials.
One teen, who would not reveal his name or age, said he ran away from his home to the streets to protect himself from an abusive parent. "Every day I spent at home turned into a boxing match," he said. "Going back home for me isn't really an option. I'd rather be out here."
Most runaways or teens who have been kicked out of their homes are reluctant to trust adults from social services organizations, Thelen said. "When you've already been exploited by people you trust, you end up not trusting anyone, especially adults," Thelen said. "It's sad but understandable that they don't want anything to do with adults or homes or people who say, 'I can help you, but you have to come in first.' "
Not every child on the streets has chosen his or her
fate. Some have been neglected or abandoned by their parents, Fiore
"The first night I came out to do outreach, I met a 14-year old girl who said she'd been on the streets five years," Fiore said. "Her mother had agreed to take care of her until she was 8, then planned to hand her over to her dad. The father died, but her mother kept up the bargain. This girl, this tiny thing, came home one day and her mother had moved out. No sign of the mom since. And every time I've seen this girl on the streets, she's on the arm of an older man."
Prostitution and "survival sex" are common on the streets, according to the task force, volunteers and police. "It starts with a person offering to share their motel room for a few hours so a kid can clean up and get some sleep," Gregg said from her desk at the Police Department. "Then it becomes, 'Hey, wasn't that nice of me? Now give me a kiss.' The next time it goes further and further and eventually becomes prostitution."
Parks, alleys, cars and motel rooms often become sites of sex acts among homeless teens and adults, said founder Rick Koca of Stand Up for Kids. "I have seen homeless kids having sex with other kids, adults offering meals and drugs for sex, young girls getting into cars full of strangers for money, things you wouldn't believe," Koca said. "Some of these kids feel like sex is the only thing they have to keep them alive. Of course, it's the opposite. Sex can kill you eventually. But it's hard to see down the road when you're desperate for a meal or a place to sleep."
Pulling youths off the streets
Police, schools and social service agencies have a number of tools to try to get youths under 18 off the streets.
If teachers identify a possible runaway, the Oceanside Unified School District contacts the Child Protective Services department to look for foster care. Transitional shelters such as the YMCA on Mission Avenue often admit youngsters into foster care or group homes. But most interaction between homeless youths and the outside world involves the police, who said they often arrest youngsters on charges of minor infractions in order to run their names through a runaway database and get them off the streets.
"Truancy, curfew violations, loitering ... these are arrestable offenses that are tools to bring in children and figure out where they are supposed to be," said Gregg, who often deals with runaways after they've been arrested. If a teen pops up as a runaway, police notify law enforcement agencies in the town from which the child ran. If a homeless teen is in criminal trouble, he or she is sent to Juvenile Hall. If neither case is true, the child is sent to Child Protective Services or put into foster care.
Most of the youths who repeatedly show up on Oceanside's streets are those who have eluded police, are older than 18, or continue to run from home and the foster-care system, Gregg said. "A lot of them are 'frequent fliers' who go back home and run out the back door," she said. "There is little we can do for those kids."
Many youths on the street said they view the police force as an unavoidable nuisance that spends too much time arresting homeless youngsters and not enough time looking for hardened criminals, drug dealers and sexual predators. "I know people who have been taken in just for looking homeless, while right across the street there are things going on like meth and other drugs and drinking and fighting ... those mostly aren't the homeless kids," said the 18-year-old beachcomber who said he was propositioned outside a strip club. "I stay out of the illegal stuff, so I'm OK with the cops. They don't come after me because I'm pretty clean. But I see them every day and wonder if maybe we could work together instead of against each other."
Police said they arrest and question homeless teens for two reasons: to get them off the streets and to investigate potential abuse. "If a child says he is on the streets because of abuse at home, we have to investigate that," Gregg said. "What if there are other children at home? It's our responsibility to look into these things."
Most street youths said they often depend on one another to guard their belongings and watch their backs. "I was hardly ever alone out there," said a 17-year old girl with long, matted hair. She said she was kicked out of her home and spent two weeks on the street in Oceanside this winter. Though she has returned home, she still spends much of her time with old friends on the street.
"I was never really too afraid for myself because the kids out here know each other and take care of each other," she said, sitting with friends on a patch of concrete with a few friends under a little blanket. "I was more scared of freezing."
No easy answers
Finding steady, legal work is difficult for older homeless teens because they often have no address or identification. "There is temporary work, like hauling and stuff, but nothing I can count on every day," said one teen.
When asked why he hadn't looked more intensely for a regular job, he said it's a logistical problem. "Just where exactly would I tell them to get back to me after an interview?" he asked as he sat on a beach bench. Stand Up for Kids tries to help children in such situations by getting them to use a post office box rented by the organization, Fiore said.
While organizations differ on how to deal with homeless teens, most agree on one thing: There is no easy solution to the city's teen homelessness problem. Police say all homeless children should be reported to law enforcement officials so authorities can investigate their status as runaways. Some shelter officials and social workers work to put teens in foster care even if they prefer the streets because, as the YMCA's Brownell said, "any bed is better than the streets."
Oceanside's Stand Up for Kids organization works differently. Except for handing out resource and emergency phone numbers, the group deals very little with the foster-care system or the police. Instead, they pound the pavement each week, trying to give homeless teens whatever they need to survive on the street.
"We're not really sure what the solution is, so we give these kids what they need to survive for one more day," said Fiore, who hands out plastic bags with snacks, soap, toothbrushes and other toiletries to teens on the street. "I have no doubt the system works for some kids, but it obviously doesn't work for all kids or there wouldn't be any here on the sidewalks, trying to keep from starving and freezing.
"It's those kids that we are helping, the ones that walk and sleep on the same streets as the rest of the world but don't have anything to go on. They need all the help and support they can get."