The vile and violent life of San Diego's street kids


Some nomadic teenagers use only their initials. Others take on street names — Cucamonga, Danny Boy, Cobra, Dragon, Snake, Bean. One of the girls floating around Twelfth Avenue calls herself Bubbles.
  • Some nomadic teenagers use only their initials. Others take on street names — Cucamonga, Danny Boy, Cobra, Dragon, Snake, Bean. One of the girls floating around Twelfth Avenue calls herself Bubbles.
  • Image by John Workman

She always sleeps with her clothes on. Today she wakes up in jeans, a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt that covers layers of T-shirts, three finger rings, and six earrings. She doesn’t remember ever having had a pair of pajamas. What she does have, she guards ferociously. The Walkman pressed against her head blasts the Q-106 beat of self-proclamation: “You might get fooled if y’come from outta town/ But I'm down by law, and I know my way around.”

On Twelfth Avenue between C and Broadway, the Storefront property was a topless bar called the Tropicana Club. Now, every day from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., it shelters runaway and throwaway kids.

On Twelfth Avenue between C and Broadway, the Storefront property was a topless bar called the Tropicana Club. Now, every day from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., it shelters runaway and throwaway kids.

Next to her are three stuffed animals. The brown teddy bear and blue rabbit have vague sentimental histories. Nodding in the direction of a small stuffed dog, she explains that she “took it off a chick I didn’t like.” On the army cot she’s been sleeping on for the past six weeks is the rest of her life’s accumulation — a pair of sneakers, a comb, two tubes of lipstick, and some rap tapes. Her name is on a sign-up sheet for a shower. There are two bathrooms — one for boys, the other for girls. Because some of the kids who stay in this shelter are known to be suicidal, neither door has a lock.

The brown teddy bear and blue rabbit have vague histories. The small stuffed dog, she explains that she “took it off a chick I didn’t like.”

The brown teddy bear and blue rabbit have vague histories. The small stuffed dog, she explains that she “took it off a chick I didn’t like.”

Later, at the Jack-in-the-Box across the street on C Street, she counts on her fingers the number of brothers and sisters she has. Blood siblings, half siblings, and step siblings. And a brother in Samoa. Since she’s been on her own — living here and there for more years than she remembers — she has also acquired a vast network of street family, none of whom has an address or a known last name.

"Market Street is rough. The park is safer. Bunch of fags there. They don’t like to fight.”

"Market Street is rough. The park is safer. Bunch of fags there. They don’t like to fight.”

As they follow the same walking path, homeless children find their counterparts; they are quick to recognize each other by appearance, especially if they wear the same clothes every day for a week. “People who come downtown from their houses dress fancy and all that stuff,” she explains. “All we wear is jeans and a T-shirt.” Transient teen-age girls seldom carry purses. They carry radios tuned to Q-106 ... “abandoned places, angry faces.” In public washrooms, they recognize each other grooming themselves with toothbrushes and deodorants. There are behavioral clues, too. “We lag. We’re not in a hurry,” she continues. “We know how to find each other without an address. We know where to look. All we do is go where the guy hangs out. If you wait long enough, he’ll show. Or someone there’ll know where he is,” she explains. They are quick to trust each other and to form intense bonds.

To protect themselves from parents, police, and other kids, some nomadic teen-agers use only their initials. Others take on street names — Cucamonga, Danny Boy, Cobra, Dragon, Snake, Bean. One of the girls floating around Twelfth Avenue calls herself Bubbles. Another is Baby 2. Crystal is named in recognition of her daily habit. The girl wearing the Mickey Mouse sweat shirt has a tattoo on her left arm. It says “Baby I.” Some guy from Twelfth Avenue tattooed her, she says. “Because Baby l’s my street name. Don’t get me mixed up with Baby 2. I’m Baby 1. See,” she points to it proudly. “It’s right next to my knife scar.”

“When I wasn’t livin’ on the streets, I was stayin’ with some people in National City for a coupla months. They gave me food. But cops were cornin’ around all the time cuz the guy’s a drug dealer,” Baby 1 explains, “and it was gettin’ real creepy, so I left. One day when I was messin’ aroun’ downtown, I met this guy Rags. He was stayin’ at The Storefront.” It was Rags who suggested that Baby 1 stay there, too.

Located on Twelfth Avenue between C and Broadway, the Storefront property was, until a few years ago, a topless bar called the Tropicana Club. Now, every day from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., it shelters runaway and throwaway kids. (For the remaining twelve hours, the building is locked.) The immediate neighborhood is characterized by shadowy figures sleeping in doorways. The Storefront is next to a plasma center and around the comer from a barber college; up the street are the Episcopal Community Services Emergency Assistance Center and the Salvation Army Thrift Store; a bit farther south is the Saint Vincent de Paul Shelter. From City College heading south. Twelfth Avenue is a Hispanic drug-dealing gang’s turf. One recent evening, just a few doors down from the Storefront where the kids were hanging out waiting to be let in and fed supper, one of the dealers was fatally stabbed.

There’s no accurate way to determine exactly how many homeless teen-agers are roaming around town. Estimates that range from 1500 to 12,000 take into consideration a big summer increase. Since the Storefront opened on March 1, more than 150 kids have drifted in for a respite that can last up to three months. Even without a sign in front, the place immediately became a magnet for pimps and pedophiles who prey on homeless teen-agers. In addition to supervising kids, staff members chase street addicts who shoot up on the roof and winos who urinate on the sides of the building. Despite its being under continual surveillance, a donated TV has been stolen.

According to Storefront caseworker Sharen Geant, street urchins more closely resemble characters from Brecht and Dickens than urban Huckleberry Finns; they are escaping domestic brutality, rather than seeking adventure. Most have been sexually abused and exploited. They’-ve either been abandoned by their families or discarded after a parent’s remarriage, or perhaps they’ve been thrown out simply because the parents have given up on being parents. Although a few engage in illegal activities for recreational purposes, most kids who work for pimps and dealers are doing what caseworkers consider survival sex and survival theft. “Most of these kids would go back home to their families if they could,” she says — “if there was a family to go back to.”

Baby 1 describes growing up in a navy family. “I didn’t sleep home much. They never knew where I was. I don’t know if they ever looked for me. I always got blamed for everything. My mom used to kick me in the stomach with steel-toe boots. So I ran. Hey!” she grins, “I got kicked outta two elementary schools in L.A ” The most recent expulsion was from Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach. She can’t recall exactly when — some time this year, she thinks — but she does remember why. “Fighting and drugs,” she explains.

Although she has no permanent address, you can find Baby 1 on Twelfth Avenue, just south of City College, where she sells drugs to other “homies.” Or she’s hanging out along Twelfth heading south toward the downtown missions. Or along Fifth Avenue near the all-night arcades and sex shops. Or west along Broadway to Horton Plaza, where she’s been arrested for shoplifting. “At least I don’t get hassled there for loitering,” she says. Or she may be found on the Broadway Pier, where she ogles young sailors. Another popular spot is across the street from the Storefront at the twenty-four-hour drug depot, a.k.a. the trolley stop at City College — where pimps and dealers and addicts assemble on the steps waiting for a fast fix and a fast buck. From the Storefront’s roof you can watch them disperse (except those few who are legitimately waiting for a trolley) when a security guard strolls by or when a police car drives along at five miles per hour on its way to headquarters, only three blocks away. Today a big guy in elaborate corn rows and a chest full of tattoos mutters about Babylonia and Caledonia in a frenetic, heavy Calypso rap. Pacing back and forth, panhandling and paraphrasing Jesus at passersby, he kills time while he waits for his score.

In the background, cigarettes and cash quickly change hands; so do small packets of powder.

Baby 1 admits she gave her family a hard time. "My mom, she’s scared of me because I hit her hard, I guess. She used to beat the shit outta me. Dunno where my real dad is. My stepdad threw my head into a wall.” Now the family telephone is disconnected,and there’s no forwarding number. "I think they changed phone numbers on me,” she says matter-of-factly. "One day I went by the house. It looked different. Their car wasn’t around. Maybe they moved.” She shrugs. “Time before, I went back to pick up some clothes, but they wouldn’t let me in. Once I sent them a post card,” she admits. "Dunno if they ever got it.”

At age sixteen, her reading and writing is limited to very small words. Her drug of choice is crystal; her transportation of choice is either hitching or riding the trolley without paying, and there’s a bench warrant for an accumulation of trolley citations. Baby 1 estimates she’s been busted at least ten times, maybe more — for stealing cars, selling drugs, and petty theft. ”1 got caught in a music store in Horton Plaza with $47.98 worth of tapes,” she says. What she wasn’t arrested for was a murder she claims to have committed when she was twelve years old. "I was stayin’ in L.A. with some gangs. One night there was a rumble. There was this other kid — he must’ve been my age. We got into it. First I stabbed him in the stomach. Then someone threw me a gun, so I shot him. Then I left. Someone said it was on the news that he was dead. The cops came around, but they didn’t do nuthin’ much. That kid was always makin' trouble.” She shoves aside her chocolate shake and lights a cigarette.

When she was ten years old, Baby 1 was raped by a babysitter’s husband on one of her few at-home appearances. A few months ago, she was raped again. “In some dude’s apartment in I.B. ” she recalls. “Naw, I didn’t tell the cops. What for? They wouldn’t believe me. Not with my record. I just kicked him in the balls — majorly.”

She continues, “The cops downtown know me. They pull me over in the street, make me empty my pockets. They’re always friskin’ me for drugs.”

Baby 1’s old man, who is nearly seventeen, was caught selling drugs and now resides in juvenile hall. When he gets out, the couple has plans. “We’re gonna break into this abandoned house downtown. Make it police proof. We’ll kick in cubbyholes and crawl through,” says Baby 1. “I like breakin’ into houses and spray paintin’ ’em. Jus’ markin’ my turf, that’s all.” She flashes an innocent smile as she points out some tiny tattoos on a few of her fingers that spell “J.D.” “That stands for Juvenile Delinquent,” she explains gleefully.

Baby 1 claims she doesn’t use any birth control, doesn’t believe in having abortions, and doesn’t worry about AIDS. “I like what I’m doin’. I’ll probably be doin’ the same thing five years from now,” she predicts. “Even when I’m thirty — if I’m not shot dead in the street by then ” One time she earned $250 in a single day selling drugs, she says, but for right now, she has only two daily priorities — getting high and staying high.

In the cot next to Baby 1 is Pamela, a freckled, vulnerable-looking redhead who wouldn't look out of place on Prospect Street. The six weeks or so that they’ve been bunkmates at the Storefront has made them sisters. What unites them are their mutual addictions to drugs and rap music and that neither of them can go home. Also, they both have boyfriends in jail. Pamela’s boyfriend is serving time for car theft at the South Bay Correctional Center. To provide him with cigarette and candy money, Pamela sells her plasma a few times a week (for which she receives between eight and fifteen dollars per session, depending on which plasma center she goes to). When she visits her boyfriend, she deposits the plasma money in his account at the correctional center. ‘‘I see him every weekend,” she explains, “but all we can do is talk through a telephone and look at each other through a glass wall.”

Pamela is an only child. (Her name has been changed in this story.) Her father left before she was born, and she describes the first decade of life with mom as blissful. “We were very close,” she says. “Then mom married this guy — he’s in the navy, he’s an instructor at a boiler technician school — and everything changed. Whatever he says goes, and I wouldn’t obey his rules. I was hanging out with black kids, and he didn’t like that. My mom is one of the border patrol secretaries. She’s always been a secretary, so she’s used to taking orders from men.”

Pamela has been on her own since her stepfather kicked her out four years ago, when she was only thirteen years old. The resourceful youngster found a live-in babysitting job with a navy family in Imperial Beach, where she was raped a year earlier at a beach party by her best friend’s brother. She tried taking the bus to Mar Vista Junior High, but after a while she dropped out. After two years, the family she was working for was transferred overseas. “I missed my mom so much, but my stepdad wouldn’t let me come back,” she remembers. “I was living with a friend’s mom on and off.” After she had an abortion at a clinic in Hillcrest, Pamela got another live-in babysitting job. “The mother was a coke addict. She made me sleep with her supplier to get her coke,” Pamela says, "and I began to feel used.” Eventually she joined the Job Corps at its live-in location on Thirteenth Avenue in Imperial Beach, where she got her General Education diploma and a certificate in landscaping. She heard about the Storefront from Job Corps friends. “I feel safe here,” she says. “My mom has no idea where I am. She’s been married three times.and she's almost forty, and I guess she wants this one to last,” Pamela shrugs. “I called her in May to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.”

Most of Pamela’s friends are black male drug dealers. They look after her as they would a little sister. “They always ask me if I need anything, and I say no, but they give me five or ten dollars anyway,” she smiles. Today Pamela has the flu. She’s had it for nearly a week, and it’s getting worse because she has no place to rest during the day. After wandering around Horton Plaza for several days with a low-grade fever and severe menstrual cramps, she feels awful, so she walks to Balboa Park and finds a shady tree to sleep under for most of the afternoon.

Balboa Park is where the newest Storefront resident, whom we’ll call Randy, has been living for the past two years. But now that he’s got six metal staples in his head from being mugged a few nights ago, he wants to lie low for a while. “It happened on Eighth and Market, right next to Los Panchos taco shop. I walked to the hospital bleeding, and I got the staples put in my head. I gave them my mom’s address,” he says. “When they send her the bill, she’ll trash it right away.”

His mother lives in Normal Heights, but Randy can’t go to her place because it’s too violent. “Her husband — it’s her fourth — he’s an alcoholic. He puts bruises on her. I never lived with my mom. There are too many stepbrothers and stepsisters. When I was a little kid, I lived out-of-state with my dad. Sometimes I sleep in a doorway around Fourth and Laurel. At eight in the morning, a dentist wakes me up and tells me to leave, but he never gets mad. When I have enough cash. I stay at one of the sleazy hotels on Market Street. I pay about eighty or a hundred a week for a room. Sometimes I go in with someone and we split the cost. Market Street is rough,” he continues. “The park is safer. Bunch of fags there. They don’t like to fight.”

In the park, Randy earns between forty and a hundred dollars per trick. “I won’t do nuthin’ for less than forty,” he says. When a car cruises the Laurel Street area known as the Fruit Loop, Randy tries to initiate a conversation.

“If the conversation stops, I lost it. I always ask them what they like to do.” He says his clients are nicer and more talkative beforehand. “If I’m hungry, I make ’em stop at Burger King — first,” he explains. “I’m only interested in getting where they want to take me and getting back to the park as fast as I can. Mostly we go to the dead-end street near the Boy Scout camp — around Upas. That’s where everyone goes. Sometimes they take me to the hotel near the Denny’s, by the park. They pay for the room, and I get to stay in it all night and watch TV. It’s been a long time since I watched TV,” he says a little wistfully.

“Once, a guy offered me a hundred fifty bucks to do a jack-off film. It was in a nice apartment around Thirtieth Street. Cameras were hooked up, and there was a TV monitor — but I was doin’ a lot of crystal then, and I didn’t eat a thing for six days. I was too wired to do anything.”

Randy says he gets repeat customers. ‘‘There’s this one guy — an older guy wearing a wedding band. He picks me up about ten-thirty at night and takes me to his office. Turns out he’s a shrink. Know what? He gives me fifty bucks for givin’ me head!

“When will it stop? Only when these faggots don’t think I’m so cute anymore,” Randy says. “But I can’t think about that now. I just do what I have to do to take care of Number One.”

Later that evening, Randy is leaning against the side of the Storefront building with the others, waiting to get inside, waiting for a meal. And waiting for the opportunity to get a decent night’s sleep on one of the twenty-four army cots donated by the Department of Defense. Also waiting is a sixteen-year-old girl whose two-year-old son stays with his grandmother in Culver City. She remembers when two teen-age sisters showed up with a nine-month-old baby boy. They were badly beaten, presumably by their father, who had hacked off the long hair of one of the girls. “They were worried about the infant’s safety as well as their own, and they stayed for about a week,” caseworker Sharen Geant recalls. It is Geant who signs the report cards of the junior and senior high school students who have stayed at the shelter while they were attending classes; she marvels at their ability to concentrate on their academic studies.

The most unusual entrance so far happened several months ago when a fourteen-year-old Chula Vista girl noisily arrived in a stolen car. “She had crashed the car, and as a result, had a metal plate in her leg and wore a cast,” says Geant. “She was an IV drug user and extremely suicidal. She stayed for about a month — long enough for her leg to start healing. One day the cast was off, and she drove into the sunset in another stolen car.” The grapevine, which Geant considers reliable, reports that the girl is in Santa Barbara selling her favors for hard drugs and hard cash. “I heard she got her head split open, but no hospital up there would treat her. Her behavior is so self-destructive that she could wind up getting killed.”

After twelve hours on the street, all the kids are loaded. With hungry stomachs and raging hormones, everyone’s in a combative mood. The sounds from Q-106 add to the street’s cacophony — “Y’say I’m home, and I’m on my own. So why don’t everyone jus’ leave me alone.” Cucamonga bums a cigarette, asking “Gotta square?” A young man with blond hair and a black “Hustler’s Holiday” T-shirt says, “Hey, Snake! Where’s the load?” Some of the girls are chewing bubblegum and blowing bubbles. Pamela sucks on a red lollypop. After being on the street and in the park all day with the flu, she is eager to get some sleep. Baby 1 pounds on the door, more agitated than usual. She is wearing a shirt that reads, “Someone In California Loves Me,” which she traded for the Mickey Mouse shirt she woke up in. Last week there was a telephone call from someone asking about her. The woman said she was her mother. But when she was asked to leave a phone number. Baby 1’s mom hung up.

“I can’t stand this fuckin’ place another minute. I wanna lie down,” Baby 1 mutters. “Nowhere to go. Cops keep chasin’ me.” She turns and growls at one of the older boys who has managed to score some food. “Hey! Where’s my hot dog?”

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