Sharing A Secret

Iven and Gary belonged to a nearly invisible group of teens living on society's margins, without a parent's help, without a real home

Special Report


He lingered hour after hour, day after day, on a basketball court jammed between a fast food joint and a drug rehab center. Others came and went for a few games before moving on. But Iven Bailey, tall, sinewy and 17 years old, stayed put as the summer sun disappeared over Northeast Baltimore. You could say the court was where he belonged. It would be truer to say he belonged nowhere else.

After midnight, exhausted and parched, he could finally abandon the blacktop. Iven stole down the street to a rowhouse a block away. He rapped on a basement window, softly enough, he hoped, to avoid waking his friend's grandmother, so he could sneak inside. Otherwise, he would have to look elsewhere for a place to sleep. This had been his routine for the past two years: one night a friend's couch, the next someone else's basement. No solution was permanent, no bed his own.

At school almost no one knew about his vagabond existence. That was how he wanted it. Even in a city where destitution abounds, Iven's hand-to-mouth life embarrassed him; he labored to keep the details hidden.

Then one day in his senior year, he unexpectedly found someone to confide in, someone with a covert life of his own. After football practice, a teammate invited Iven to tag along with him to his rowhouse on Guilford Avenue.

What Iven found astonished him. Gary Sells had no heat, no hot water, no food. And it was plain that Gary had no parent either, not there anyway.

Gary was on his own, too.

Iven and Gary were among the 2,289 Baltimore students - 2.6 percent of the total - who were believed to be homeless at some point during the 2004-2005 school year. Of those, 1,049 were listed as having lived in a shelter.

But not Iven and Gary. They were part of a nearly invisible group of teenagers living unsupervised by parents or any other adult. The most cunning and persistent are able to get by, but in the face of considerable risk and privation.

Gary invited Iven to spend that first night with him in his second-floor bedroom, one of only two rooms in the house with electricity. Iven understood that Gary had shared the grimness of his situation, and now Iven found that he wanted to do the same.

Together, they boarded a bus for the hourlong ride to the unheated, overcrowded apartment in West Baltimore where Iven had been staying. That night, they shared a bed with several of his relatives. "I took him up there to show him like we aren't different, for real," said Iven.

That was last fall, the beginning of Iven and Gary's senior year at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. In some ways, they participated in the normal joys of teenagers - cutting up with friends, flirting with girls, getting behind the wheel of a car. Their friendship deepened in the course of their tumultuous year even as their paths diverged.

It would be a time of fits and starts for Iven and Gary, and also a time of resilience, connection and, even in dire circumstances, the glimmer of hope that the future could be better than the present. But only if someone stepped in to help. And only if they got away.

Their neighborhoods - filled with both kindness and menace - might have been the only homes Iven and Gary ever knew, yet the boys understood that those communities also could destroy them.

Both had already found their way into drug dealing, and with the prevalence of violent crime around them, it seemed as possible that Iven and Gary would end up in prison or shot dead as that they would graduate.

They were like so many teenagers living precariously in Baltimore, improvising their way to adulthood. The city's prospects for ameliorating poverty, crime and addiction might turn on what happens to young people much like them.

As their senior year began, both boys fastened on escape from their neighborhoods as salvation. Iven, lean and shy, wanted to go to college. The husky, boisterous Gary hoped at the least for a career that would pay for a home in the suburbs.

Either way, one steppingstone struck both Iven and Gary as mandatory. Finishing high school - an audacious goal, given their situations and the high drop-out rate - was the only route out.

An adored father

Iven Elliott Bailey II was named for an uncle, a boxer from Philadelphia, but the man Iven adored was Ronald Franklin "Chicken" Bailey, his father.

The rowhouse Chicken and his wife, Janet, rented within sight of Clifton Park bulged with children, and not just Iven and his two sisters. There were also Janet's grandchildren (she had a son in another relationship) and a few cousins. Chicken didn't mind. He liked kids.

He worked as a truck driver for the city and was apparently a good provider and attentive to his kids. In the backyard, he set up a milk crate, so he and Iven could shoot baskets. On weeknights, Chicken prepared the dinners, huge meals with meat, potatoes and vegetables. Saturdays, though, he declared "Everybody for Themselves Day," when everyone could raid the refrigerator.

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