“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everyone, I think that is much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” –Mother Teresa
Balmy beaches, a subtropical climate and the allure of a glitzy entertainment industry have a potent influence on the consciousness of most people, but they make an even stronger impression on adolescents, and they have been a draw for disaffected youth for the better part of the past century.
A just-released 64-page report, titled “No Way Home: Understanding the Needs and Experiences of Homeless Youth in Hollywood,” peels back the glitz of Tinseltown to look at the lives of these youth and presents a few surprises in the makeup of teenagers on the streets of Los Angeles.
Based on assessments and interviews with 389 minors by eight separate local youth facilities between 2007 and 2008, the report covers various aspects involving these youth, including the causes of homelessness, health issues, prominent risk factors encountered, and availability of services to those in need.
Traditionally, Hollywood’s homeless population has been dramatically different from those who frequent downtown’s Skid Row in that they were, on the average, younger and predominately Caucasian. In contrast, those who gravitate to downtown are, for the most part, older and African American. Thus, one of the surprising revelations of this report puts the population of youngsters regularly haunting Hollywood at 42 percent. A 1995 report put the number at 20 percent.
Susan Rabinovitz, R.N., M.P.H, a principal author of the report and a health-care provider with years of experiencing caring for this population, said that she’s witnessed an overall drop in the social skills of her clientele. The economic recession, impacting every facet of humanity, has resulted in a broader cross section of society being represented among those coming in for treatment.
Hard earned success
Homeless and at-risk youth typically carry the burden of depression and low self-esteem. Jevon Wilkes encountered these obstacles while under the guardianship of his grandmother. Jevon was born with the genetically inherited trait known as a “widows peak,” where the hairline projects to a downward point in the center of the forehead. His grandmother taunted him with the notion that it was a sign of the devil, and hammered him with the idea that it meant he was disposed to meet a bad end. By age 14 this ill treatment had pushed him into the streets of the Pico-Union, which over the last few decades has become a point of entry for thousands of refugees from Central America with their multitude of civil war allegiances from that nation. The area is saturated with scores of Latin gangs, including the Crazy Riders (CRS), Mara Salvatrucha (MS), Rockwood (RSL), and 18th Street, which, due to racial friction, often target African Americans like Jevon. While attending Belmont High School, Jevon and other Blacks found a measure of solace at a meeting spot on campus called “the tree.”
Today, Jevon is looked upon as a success story. Currently a second-year student at Cal State Channel Islands, he was a featured speaker at a Nov. 17 conference marking the release of “No Way Home.” He told the group that a valuable asset for youth coming up under similar circumstances as his, would be more information on where to get help, noting that when he was a teen there was more data available on animal welfare. Immersed in the routine of college life, he looks forward to continuing volunteer work when time permits, declaring “my adversity is my treasure.”
The haves and the have nots
The plight of homelessness is especially distressing amid the opulence projected from Tinseltown. If L.A. County were an independent country, its gross domestic product would be among the world’s largest, with a $500 billion annual budget (according to www.chooselacounty.com), beating out the likes of Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Switzerland.
Immediate projects to expand housing opportunities are in the works, however, including the Villas at Gower, a 70-unit, $26.5 million housing development recently begun by the local nonprofit affordable housing company, A Community of Friends, along with Step Up on Vine and Step Up on Sunset, both offshoots of the highly lauded Santa Monica service and housing provider Step Up on Second (http://stepuponsecond.org/).
This is in line with the recommendations put forward by No Way Home, which include a wide variety of housing options such as programs tailored for youth unable to deal with the structured environment of residential treatment. Other suggestions include raising the eligibility age for benefits to 25, expansion of existing services, especially psychiatric support and drug treatment, and cohesive interaction between community agencies, law enforcement, school districts, and private nonprofit groups.
Readers may access the report in its entirety at www.hhyp.org.