It's that moment between dusk and nightfall on Hollywood Boulevard — when neon blooms a little brighter and the small swarms of tourists start to disperse. Now you notice the figures huddled against the buildings, a hand touching the air. Moises Cabrera spots the signal and pulls the long van to the curb.
In his two years as an outreach worker for the non-profit Covenant House, Cabrera knows many of the homeless kids on these streets and their stories. Runaways often come to California looking to break into show business and find a very different — and dangerous — ending.
The Covenant house vehicle with the bright logo is the one constant on these uncertain streets. The van always has peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and maybe a just-in-time sweatshirt or new pair of socks.
Tonight, Mischa and her companions just need water and blankets.
Mischa a tall, reddish-blonde lingers. She says her last name is Meadows, she's 20 and from Florida. An aspiring model, she came to Hollywood for a photo shoot and has spent the last year living on the street.
A Familiar Place
The homeless youth have a knack for appearing suddenly. A kid in a baseball cap is now standing at the open window.
Cabrera says the teen's street name is Shenanigan. Sometimes they'll tell you their real names. These are youth he says who are estranged from their families because they're gay or have suffered abuse or neglect. They still long for family — so here they make their own.
"They feel safer that way, and they call themselves family," he says. "You know they don't want to be broken apart ."
The van turns down another block and three kids flag it down. Hailey Russell's hair is pulled back with a rubber band. She has chipped finger nail polish and a nose ring. She's from Connecticut and met up with her companions-- Jeff with a Banjo and Aaron with a guitar --in Hollywood. They plan to get a house together, but for now they sleep where they can, like under the freeway or behind some bushes.
Outreach workers say youth come to Hollywood because they believe it can offer them their best second chance. At the very least, Cabrera says it's a familiar place.
"They see it on TV," he says. "They want to be here. They want to see the stars or make it in the music industry or the movie industry.
But those hopes don't last long according to Outreach Director Erik Burris.
"For a young person at the age of 18, just hopping off the Greyhound, the dream can be shattered quickly," he says.
The van turns into a small mini-mall. There's a donut shop and in a corner next to an adult book store there are two guys and a girl. They wave off the van, a sign that they're working. Burris says it starts as survival sex — trading sex for money, food or a place to sleep.
"There tends to be quite a bit of substance use going on when they are literally living on the streets its often self- medicating or coping to make it not so awful," he says.
Always, is the invitation to come to Covenant House even if it's just for a meal and a shower. The hope is to get them off the streets before what they've experienced obliterates any memory of who they once were.
Just before 10 p.m. in Hollywood Josh Meriman is at the van's window. He could be mistaken for a popular teen actor, but a closer look reveals that his dirty blond hair is just that — dirty. He's barefoot and the polyester jogging suit he's wearing doesn't fit his age or body.
The 20-year-old says he's from New Mexico. He came here hoping he'd land a job at a theme park like Universal Studios. But things didn't work out.
"I'm stuck here at the bottom finding my way up," he says. "You can't go down any further than you're already at, so I can only succeed from here."
Josh accepts directions to Covenant House from one of the outreach workers along with a sandwich and water. He heads for the doorway of an empty storefront. It's where he'll sleep tonight.
On a piece of cardboard he's drawn a peace sign, smiley face and in large block letters, the word "help." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.