Jerry Johnson does not look mean or evil.
He's polite and friendly, favors blue jeans and sweatshirts, and has plain boyish features. In fact, he looks like your average 15-year-old. But several months ago he ran away from home.
He doesn't like to talk about it all that much. Life at home, he says, got so unbearably miserable, he felt he had no choice. He had to run away.
So for four months he wandered the city's streets, panhandling for the few nickels and dimes he could get. He slept in parks, on benches, and at the beach. Somehow or other he wound up at the Neon Street drop-in center for homeless kids, at Belmont and Sheffield.
And now for the first time in years, Jerry Johnson (a pseudonym) feels confident his life has changed for the better.
"I was cold, I got rained on, it was miserable," he says, casually brushing his blond hair back as he talks. "I came here with a quarter in my pocket, and one set of dirty clothing. Within weeks I had a job, three sets of clothes; I had gained some weight and made a lot of friends. I can't say enough about this place."
It's testimony like that that keeps Leon Intrater going. He's Neon's director--a 38-year-old clinical psychologist who adheres to unpopular liberal beliefs, even in these hardheaded, get-tough-on-wayward-youth years of Ronald Reagan. And now on the eve of Neon's first anniversary, Intrater's ready to proclaim the center a major success.
Not that Intrater is naive. He doesn't claim to have solved all the problems of runaway kids. Far from it. He comes on as something of a streetwise humanitarian--imagine a cross between Baretta and Dr. Spock. He peppers his speech with tough talk about pimps, hustlers, and dope dealers--the riffraff, he says, that prey on his "clients," And yet, he maintains the conviction that beneath the scruffy exterior of even the roughest street urchin is the soul of a child yearning for love.
"The beauty of these homeless kids is their youth," Intrater says. "They're not like the adult homeless. They still remain hopeful. They're amazingly hopeful. They still think they can be president. They're still just kids."
To help them he, his eight staffers, and two dozen volunteers have put together a drop-in center that is the first of its kind: there are no beds at Neon Street. The kids never spend the night there (though provisions are often made for overnight shelter).
Instead, he offers them food, clothing, showers, a host of services ranging from reading lessons to job training, and friendliness. Above all else, Neon Street is a friendly place. Everyone is on a first-name basis. There are little pieces of candy on almost all the desks. And the walls are decorated with watercolor drawings offering words of love and appreciation from the kids to the counselors.
All totaled, 130 clients made use of the facilities in Neon's first year. And more may be coming.
"Experts figure there are 20,000 homeless kids in Illinois, and about 10,000 here in Chicago," says Intrater. "We need all the help we can get. Anyone who wants to volunteer should call 528-7767."
On top of that, Neon could use some money. It may have to cut some of its services, according to Les Brown, director of social services for Travelers & Immigrants Aid, the not-for-profit organization that created Neon. The state of Illinois has threatened to cut $35,000 from Neon's $200,000-a-year budget. The money was a first-year allotment, says one spokesperson for Governor James Thompson, to cover start-up expenses, such as building renovation. That extra money won't be needed during Neon's second year, the official says.
Intrater, however, tries to remain hopeful. Budget matters are Brown's domain, he says, before warming to his favorite topic--the center's clients.
He points to a group of youths of all races, male and female, sitting in a circle.
"It's a goals session," Intrater explains. The counselor cajoles and badgers them to keep the goals they set.
"It can be any goal, from finding a job to keeping a good diet," says Intrater. "The point is to learn some responsibility to yourself and your friends."
For awhile, the voices rise. One boy is accusing another of welshing on a deal. The counselor makes a silly joke, and the group breaks into laughter.
"They've made great progress, just the fact that they trust us enough to come here and relax like that, that's progress," says Intrater. "You should have seen some of them a few months ago."
Intrater won't get too specific. He doesn't like to publicly discuss the personal backgrounds of his clients. Sex, violence, drugs--the stuff that sells papers--a lot of the kids at Neon Street have had a fair share of all these problems.
"The reporters come knocking on the door all the time to write stories about these kids," Intrater says. "But I have to protect the kids. This is mainly about trust. It's so hard for these kids to trust anybody. I think I've earned their trust; I don't want to violate it."
Pamphlets and posters warning of the dangers of AIDS abound. The kids, says Intrater, choosing the appropriate euphemism, are "very sexually active." He needs volunteers to help with the work, but he worries that his invitation might draw child abusers.
"We have a vigorous screening process for all volunteers," he says. "In some ways, adults thrive on their helplessness. And yet we have to remember, they're only kids. Just like any other kids. So, they talk tough. They've been on the street. They've done things at their age that you and I might never do. But they're still only kids. And they're still so vulnerable."
The concept for Neon Street, he explains, grew out of work by Governor Thompson's 1985 task force on the homeless. The group discovered, among other things, a growing number of young people on the street.
"Our first great need is for beds," says Brown. "There are so few beds for young homeless people in Chicago. Many of the shelters cannot take kids under the age of 18."
"Most important, what they need right away is some place to use as a base," adds Intrater. "A place where they can get off the street, clear their head, and figure out what to do next.
"This is just what they need--love and attention. We have this one girl, it's so sad and depressing. She calls from time to time. But she won't come in. That's because she is at the mercy of her boyfriend. Her boyfriend, that's what she calls him anyway. He's really her pimp.
"We try to help her. I know more than anything she would like to drop in, to hang around with the other kids, to joke, or smoke cigarettes, you know, to be a kid again. But she can't. She's scared of what he may do to her."
Although clients' ages range from preteen to 21, there are rules at Neon Street they must obey: no drugs, alcohol, or gang solicitation. But the emphasis is on encouragement, not punishment.
"Kids who hurt other people should be punished," says Intrater. "But this whole notion of punishment has to be reexamined. Why punish a kid who runs away from home? For having a lousy home life?
"Okay, a kid comes in here. He's under 18 and he's off the street. My first responsibility is to figure out where he's going to stay overnight. That's primary. We will give up on no kid. If a kid comes here, we do what we have to in order to guarantee that he won't be turned out on the street at night.
"What else am I going to do? Call the police and tell them to arrest the kid? And what do I do until the police get here? Put the kid in handcuffs? That's not right. That's not my job. When a runaway kid comes to my door, you ask the important questions: 'Are you hungry, and where are you gonna stay tonight?' We don't do any indoctrination. Remember, these are just kids."
He's very proud of his facilities and enjoys showing visitors around. Neon Street is housed on two floors of a converted warehouse that backs onto the west track of the Belmont el. It's noisy, with the ceaseless rumblings of passing trains. But Intrater loves the location. It couldn't be better, he says, given the fact that homeless youth are drawn to the Uptown and Lakeview areas.
"We put up fliers all over the area, as well as the airport, parks, at key locations on the south side, wherever kids gather. Game rooms, too. Kids love game rooms. They're flashy, I guess."
The center's main offices and living room--carpeted and situated around a stone fireplace--are on the fourth floor. Downstairs on the second floor are the kitchen, storage room, showers, and washing machines.
"I have to provide them with a comfortable setting and decent food and clothing," says Intrater. "I won't give them rags. I would never do that."
Why be so accommodating? he is asked. Why should these children be so special? After all, they ran away from home. What obligation does society have to them?
The question surprises him. To Intrater, the answer seems readily apparent. First of all, he replies, not all homeless youth ran away from home. Some are "throwaways," meaning their parents kicked them out of the house. One boy was driven away from home by his father, outraged to discover that his son was gay.
Others are beaten and sexually abused--they had no choice but to flee.
"What are we supposed to do, let them live in the alleys and pick through garbage?" he asks. "So we give them a clean set of clothes, and teach them to take care of themselves. We want them to get a job. Isn't that the kind of society we should have?"
He leads his visitor into the storage room, where the clients store their belongings. Pants, socks, and shirts lie in clumps on the floor. "Like all kids, they're a little messy," says Intrater a tad sheepishly. "Don't you remember your mother asking you to pick up?"
The kitchen, however, is spotless. Each day, the kids themselves cook two meals.
"They learn independent living habits," says Intrater. "We teach them how to cook and clean up the kitchen. How to write job resumes, how to handle interviews. How to find decent apartments. Some of them have even given us their paychecks and we help them keep a budget."
Upstairs in the living room, Jerry Johnson explains how it works.
"We practice a job interview. The counselor would say, 'Okay, why do you feel you're right for this job?'
"The first time he asked me that question, my answer was: ''Cause I need the job.'
"Well, that's no good. That's not the right kind of answer. That doesn't tell the employer why he should hire you. What you should say is, 'I can cook, or I can wait tables, or I can do whatever it is that you want me to do.'
"It seems so simple, but it's really not. It's very important. And that's what they've taught us here at Neon Street. That, and learning how to respect your friends and yourself."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.