Hollywood smooths over edges

SUN JOURNAL

Runaways: At the intersection of glam and grit, youngsters on the streets struggle to stay near services they need.

April 14, 2001|By Carla Rivera | Carla Rivera,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - There is a building at the intersection of Yucca and Wilcox, in the heart of Hollywood, that once was a decrepit home for dozens of runaway teen-agers. But with its red-brick facade and spacious interiors handsomely restored, it now is a sought-after apartment house.

Down the street on Hollywood Boulevard, a homeless girl used to sleep under a dusty wall that is now part of the stylish courtyard of the remodeled Egyptian Theatre headquarters of the American Cinematheque.

All along the boulevard and around the avenues that are its veins, the one-time haunts of Hollywood's street youth are disappearing under the bulldozers and paint jobs of renovation.

For decades, young runaways fleeing problematic home lives or seeking some ideal of glamour flocked to the sidewalks and abandoned buildings of Hollywood. But the district's latest makeover, with its construction projects and reclamation of dozens of properties, is pushing them out.

Some are moving to other cities, and even out of the state. There are indications that, with fewer buildings in disrepair, more young people are sleeping on sidewalks, in alleys and under freeway overpasses.

And there are more police and private security guards patrolling the streets and cracking down on panhandling, loitering, drug dealing and prostitution.

Although the changes are welcomed by area businesses and many residents, runaways complain of being unfairly hassled and say they are being cut off from the social, medical and counseling services that have blossomed in Hollywood to help them.

"A year ago the scene here was pretty chill, and not so hard on people," says one boy, sitting on the patio of a Hollywood youth center.

He is 17, wears a yellow and blond Mohawk and says his nickname is Chains, of which several decorate his arms and two silver ones around his neck, one of them dangling a small brown-tinted ivory skull.

"We've had a lot of hangouts that have disappeared, and we've had to move. You find another place, and they say it's loitering. But we don't have any other place to sit and talk to our friends."

Hollywood business and property owners say the heavier police presence has created a safer environment for themselves and their customers.

The street scene today is in stark contrast to that of four years ago, when entrepreneur David Gajda opened his Hollywood Software company in the old Wolfman Jack recording studio at Cahuenga Boulevard and Selma Avenue that was being used as a squat.

"The first thing we had to do was secure the building and start renovating, and it was a little scary," says Gajda, who since has bought several other Hollywood properties. Now, says Gajda, nightspots such as Deep and the Burgundy Room draw crowds late into the night.

But some youth counselors worry that the trend is distancing runaways from services and leaving them vulnerable to greater health risks and chronic homelessness.

"What we have seen is youth being pushed further underground and more reluctant to seek out services and shelters - and this is linked to an increased presence of law enforcement in the community," says Susan Rabinovitz, associate director of the division of Adolescent Medicine at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

A committee of the Hollywood Community Police Advisory Board meets regularly to discuss redevelopment and other issues affecting the homeless. Besides youth agencies, law enforcement and city departments, the committee includes representatives of the two Business Improvement Districts in Hollywood and private security hired by property owners.

"We don't want kids run out of Hollywood, where most of the services are, just to make it a prettier place for the tourists," says Lori Malingagio, director of youth services for the Teen Canteen, a Hollywood drop-in center run by the Travelers Aid Society.

But many teens do feel as if they are being pushed off the map.

Bobby is 23 and has hung out on the streets of Hollywood for three years, most recently under the Hollywood Freeway. Big and gregarious, with longish blue- and purple-streaked hair, he attends Los Angeles City College. To him, it's all about image.

"You can see that they're starting to push what they consider the undesirables out of the area," he says. "Somebody said they were trying to get rid of the T-shirt shops and tattoo parlors. It's not fair, but the truth is, people who own businesses pay taxes. It's hard, if you don't have any money, to fight against that."

More than half of the youths surveyed in a 1997 Childrens Hospital study reported having lived in an abandoned building at some point. Others had stayed with friends on and off, or found quiet side streets, abandoned cars or buses or patches of green next to park benches.

They were a diverse group: punks, gang members, loners, hustlers, drag queens, druggies. There were more boys than girls and they ranged in age from 12 to 24 years, with one-third being minors.

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