September 28, 2001

Our Invisible Children: A Night On San Diego's Streets

By Yvette tenBerge

This is the final piece of a two-part story on the commercial sexual exploitation of children here in San Diego County. This article introduces some of the "invisible" teens and young adults who struggle to survive on San Diego's streets each day, and outlines a night in the life of an outreach worker for Storefront, San Diego's only emergency shelter for homeless youth. The names of these teens and young adults have been changed, or their "street names" used, in order to protect their privacy.

It is about 7:30 p.m. on Monday, September 10, and a group of teenagers is huddled along the Pacific Beach boardwalk outside of an ice-cream shop on a well-traveled corner. To the average person, these kids appear to be local skate boarders who have yet to make their way home after a day at school. To people like Laura Beadles, though, these kids look like just what they are: a mixture of runaway, throwaway (kids who have been kicked out of their homes) and homeless youth who will soon be going their separate ways to find shelter for the evening.

(Left to Right) "Crystal" and "Sid" two of the many teens and young adults who call the streets of San Diego their home.

Ms. Beadles, 25, approaches a young man known as "Kid" who is clad in a pair of long, olive green shorts and an olive green hooded sweatshirt. They smile at each other and clasp hands, before she turns to greet "Tom," a tall, lanky blond who teeters from side to side on a skateboard. She also nods to group of three boys and a tousle-headed girl who sit on the sidewalk and then to a group of kids who lean casually against a concrete wall.

Ms. Beadles, whose face is devoid of make-up and who sports hiking boots, a white-T shirt and baggy jeans, could pass for a teenager, herself. She hoists herself up onto a dumpster and begins to rummage through her bulging backpack. She hands bags of chips and juice boxes to Kid and Tom, both of whom thank her and shout out their excitement. As the boys tear through their snacks, they begin to talk, and as they begin to talk, Ms. Beadles begins to work.

For the past year, Ms. Beadles has been a Core Outreach Worker for Storefront, San Diego's only emergency youth shelter specifically designed for homeless youth ages 12 to 17. As part of the non-profit San Diego Youth and Community Services organization, Storefront aims to return young people who are living on the streets to their families when possible, to arrange alternative independent living arrangements when appropriate and to prevent sexual exploitation and victimization.

The Outreach workers, many of whom are teenagers, themselves, hit the streets every week, Monday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., either walking or driving to areas all over downtown, Hillcrest, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Ocean Beach, El Cajon and Logan Heights.

Case managers at Storefront discuss the children who come in and out of their shelter.

Within a half an hour, Ms. Beadles has handed out literature on sexually transmitted diseases, laminated cards on which Storefront's information is printed, strips of colored condoms, plastic sandwich bags containing cotton balls, rubbing alcohol, toothpaste and toothbrushes. As Kid mentions that his infected foot is hurting, she hands him a pair of clean socks. He crams them in a side pocket of his shorts while she reminds him to stop into a nearby, free mobile clinic for treatment.

As Ms. Beadles buckles herself into her late-model, burgundy Ford, this UCSD graduate explains that kids who live on the streets are rarely up-front about their ages or their sexual behavior. Although many are forced to engage in "survival sex" (sex used to acquire food, shelter, clothing and other things needed to survive on the streets), it takes time for them to feel comfortable discussing their practices. To the trained eye, however, it becomes fairly easy to make an accurate guess. She doubts Kid's involvement, explaining that he has never asked for condoms and that his mother provides him with money at times, but points out others in the group who are "highly at risk," before heading to her next stop downtown.
"There is a difference between the kids who live on the streets downtown and those who live on the beaches. They are all equally involved in risky behavior, but there is a difference in how up-front they are about it. Downtown, it is in your face. At the beach there is a fantasy element, `Here we are, living at the beach.' With the weather change and the need for blankets, that will change," says Ms. Beadles, who explains that, for safety reasons, outreach workers always work in pairs or groups, never wear jewelry and never carry more than five dollars in their pockets. "I'll tell you what ­ before, I used to walk down by the beaches and think those kids were skaters or beach bums, but I will never look at the boardwalk the same again."

She motions toward the Greyhound bus station on Broadway and First Avenue, explaining that it is a hot spot for kids, and therefore, pimps, pedophiles and other "customers." She points to a group of kids hanging out behind Mc Donald's on Broadway and Second Avenue before squeezing her car into a tiny spot near Horton Plaza. The decadent contents of the shops, expensive décor and festive lighting provide a sickening backdrop to the stark reality of the lives of the homeless children and young adults who roam the property.

Ms. Beadles approaches three teenagers who lean against the escalators. "Amy," a tall, thin girl who sports two ponytails, "Jose," a Hispanic young man in a white tank top and "Jerome," an African-American boy with a bandana tied around his forehead, eye her suspiciously. Although their body language exudes a cool calm, their darting eyes are constantly on the lookout for security guards, or anything else that might come their way.

As Ms. Beadles begins to talk with them, their nervous laughter dies down. They decline her offers of snacks and condoms until "Jessica," a pixie-like girl who looks no older than 15, walks by and recognizes her. Jessica's request for supplies results in Ms. Beadles passing out condoms, snacks, medical information, Storefront cards and literature on sexually transmitted diseases and intravenous drug use to the entire group. Her work completed, Ms. Beadles heads back to her car, stopping to reflect on how she spends her evenings.

"I do a lot of listening. It is the way you build up trust with these kids. Some of these kids do have homes, but they couldn't deal with the rules. Most of these kids grew up in homes where they were abused emotionally, sexually or physically. As an outreach worker, your job is to listen. There is a hard line to follow. You have to make a connection with every kid, but every kid needs a slightly different approach," says Ms. Beadles. "Their attention spans are so short, especially if they are inebriated, that my job is to get in as much information as possible in a short amount of time."

Daniel Manson is the Storefront Outreach Team Leader and an ex-Marine who trained Ms. Beadles, as well as the rest of the young people who work or volunteer at the shelter. He has worked in social services for the past 25 years, and recalls his reaction when he first began working with San Diego Youth and Community Services nine years ago.

"In the beginning, it was hard because I was running into a lot of pedophiles, pimps and pornographers. You could see the layout of the whole sex industry in Balboa Park at that time. You could see these kids standing on the corner from 8:00 p.m. until midnight. Many of these kids would come across the border from Mexico, and you would see as many at 15 kids out there at a time. You would find at least one or two who were as young as eight years old," says Mr. Manson, describing the time before Operation Gatekeeper made crossing the border much more difficult. "It was mostly young boys in Balboa Park and girls downtown. Girls did not have as much of a problem finding a roof over their heads; it was the boys who had a tough time finding shelter."

The statistics roll off of Mr. Manson's tongue at lightening speed. "A lot of people here in San Diego do not know that 1,500 to 2,000 kids are homeless on any given night right here in San Diego County. On a national scale, 1.3 million kids are homeless every day, and 1,400 kids run away each day. Of these kids, 5,000 are dead by the end of the year because of suicide, foul play, HIV or AIDS," says Mr. Manson, who adds that within 24 to 48 hours, a kid who runs away will be prostituting themselves on the street in order to survive. "Because these kids need food or shelter, or because they need to get to a particular destination, it is easy for some pedophile to pick them up and have sexual contact with them."

But Storefront does not solely focus on outreach to children on the streets. Mr. Manson explains their constant efforts to help police nab pedophiles and other "customers." "If a pedophile pulls up to a kid, we know that the kid is going to get into the car. We get a description of the person, take their license plate number and send the information to the police," says Mr. Manson, who states that police cannot trail the customer until they have had numerous complaints. The reason for this is because, in most instances, the predator will have already dropped the kid off by the time the police arrive on the scene. Without a kid, they have no case. "They have to get a number of complaints before they can say, `OK, this person's name has come up five times; we will put a car on him.'"

Although Storefront is San Diego County's only emergency shelter for kids, they have a total of only 20 beds. Mr. Manson laments the fact, as do most of the men and women who work to save children on the streets, that there are not more services specifically tailored to fit the needs of this specialized group of boys and girls.

"Where do you send a 15 year-old girl with an eight month-old baby? Where do you send 18 to 24 year-olds? There are no services for them. People are very judgmental when it comes to homeless and runaway teens. Personally, I think that, instead of trying to fix the problem, we need to think outside of the box and try to end the problem. If we decide we want to end this, we will figure out a way to end it rather than trying to fix it by putting band-aids here and there," says Mr. Manson, who shakes his head and rises from his seat to attend yet another meeting. "But I guess people do not want to do that much work."

Those interested in volunteering at Storefront should call Volunteer Services at: (619) 221-8600 x 271. Monetary donations or donations of clothing, hygiene kits (items such as shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc.), shoes, food and other non-perishable items are also needed.

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