By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Both talk about their situation as though they have crossed into a world outside the social order. At the bus station, they find people who respect them for who they are, people who are willing to help out someone in need.
"The only people who will help you out is someone else who's down and out," he says.
"That's right," Tara agrees. "Everyone else wants something from you."
For an afternoon, at least, Tara basks in a world conjured up by Sha-Q-uawn where men keep their word, friends help out friends, and daddies take care of their babies.
Tara says her father walked out on her when she was a year old. Her baby-to-be's father walked out on her too. "I guess I'm getting kind of used to it," she says.
She brightens and looks up at Sha-Q-uawn. "And then I met him."
A few nights later, Sha-Q-uawn is at the bus station again. This time, the rapper is showing a spiral notebook of his poetry to a leggy brunette in a miniskirt. He says he hasn't seen Tara again.
Brittany, a slight 15-year-old with long brown hair and innocent kewpie-doll eyes, arrives at the station on another night with her arms draped around 20-year-old Aundrea. "We grew up together," she says sweetly.
Both girls have lived on the street. Brittany ran after she reported to police that her father sexually abused her. She says she is currently staying in a shelter. Aundrea had a child and is back home living with her mother. When Brittany sees a boy she once knew, she is atwitter. He says that he's staying with a friend for now but that he may leave soon. "If you're on the street, let me know," Brittany says enthusiastically. "I'm coming with you."
At 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, 26-year-old Marcus sits on a bus bench in the Central Terminal smoking. The station is a scene that he knows well. When he was 17 or 18 years old, Marcus says, he and his pals would come here to pick up girls. Runaways staying at the Covenant House, he claims, were some of the easiest to lure for sex. "Show them some weed and say you got a place to stay and they come with you," he says. They'd use the girls for a week or two and then dump them.
"They go from motel to motel, from guy to guy," he says. "You wonder what's going on in the minds of some of these girls."
As he talks, there is a commotion behind him coming from a group of kids standing on the sidewalk near a pathetically stunted live oak. A white girl and a black girl are swinging at each other. Other teens surround the pair and try to separate them, nervously watching for the cops. The black girl shouts at the white girl. "Everyone knows you fucked everyone at the Cov," she says. Both girls have been expelled from Covenant House in the past couple of months.
Three police officers descend, and everyone scatters. A few minutes later, the white girl and her black boyfriend settle onto a bench near Marcus. And then the commotion starts up again. This time, the black girl lands a punch. The white girl's boyfriend comes up from behind and slams her to the ground. The black girl lies on the sidewalk and covers her head with her arms as the white girl violently kicks her in the back. A police officer walks toward them shaking a container of pepper spray, but the teens separate before he uses it. Police officers talk to the teens separately. The white girl says the black girl threw a soda on her boyfriend. "She's homeless," she spits out as though being without shelter automatically puts her foe in the wrong. The white girl says that she and her boyfriend allowed the black girl to stay in their new apartment. When the friendship soured, the couple kicked out their guest. She's now living on the street.
Perold Pierre and his partner from Covenant House, Leroy Kerr, circle Broward County looking for street kids. They regularly visit Young Circle in Hollywood and a housing project in Carver Ranches, but the central terminal is their prime hunting ground. In the back of a white Ford van, they haul a cooler stuffed with sandwiches and cartons of juice. If the offer of a spot at the "Cov" doesn't interest teens, at least the food momentarily engages them. On the Friday night Pierre ran into Allie, 20 kids ages 14 to 23 clustered at or near the bus station. Virtually all of them except for Allie deny they are homeless. But many are clearly lying or have only temporary crash rights at a friend's place. Pierre gives each a business card with a toll-free number for Covenant House.
Covenant House is a national organization founded by Franciscan priest Bruce Ritter in New York City in 1972 to provide services to runaways and homeless youths. Ritter resigned from both the Franciscan Order and his shelter in the early 1990s after four youths accused him of sexual exploitation. He died in 2000. Despite that history, the Catholic Church-run program continued to grow. There are now Covenant House shelters in 11 states and five countries.