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
The Fort Lauderdale shelter, which is funded mostly through donations, opened in 1985 and provides beds to an average of 93 youths per night. Although kids can stay for months with access to health care and counselors, the average stay last year was just under three weeks. The program is voluntary. Some kids walk out. Others are asked to leave. If a youth leaves the program, there is a waiting period before he or she can return.
The shelter's tenuous hold on its clients was obvious during a recent meeting of seven members of a drug abuse program. The kids sat with pained expressions at a long conference table in a fluorescent-lighted room. Most didn't want to talk about what brought them there. "J.T.," though, was eager to talk. At 20, he has a rap sheet 25 pages long.
He shakes his head as he begins his story. The one thing he can't believe, he says, is that he turned out just like his daddy. When he was 5 years old, J.T. remembers his father drinking himself into a rage, then beating his mom and throwing a dinner plate that shattered after hitting her head. After the battles were over, he recalls, his mother would tell him everything was OK. "But I saw my dear old girl crying," he says, "and I knew things weren't good."
Although there were drug thugs and bullies in his Carol City neighborhood, J.T. says he was generally a good kid. After his father left the family, things were peaceful. Until high school, he says, he made good grades, played football, and pondered college. When his mother remarried, though, conflicts started again. His stepfather had strict rules, and J.T. bucked. When the family bought a house in Sunrise, J.T. said he didn't want to leave his football team and his friends. For awhile, he stayed with friends.
One day, J.T. ran into an uncle, a big-time drug dealer, who invited him to enter the trade. Because he was 16 and a juvenile, he was immune from the law, the uncle said. "I thought at first I would make $2,000 a week and still finish high school," he recalls. "That's a lot of money for a young person." He got a nice car, beautiful girls. "I was like, forget school," he says. With his uncle as his guide, he sold drugs out of an Opa-locka warehouse. His first drug arrest was in January 2000, the same month he turned 18, for felony possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana.
In March of that year, he was charged with selling the drug. In April, prosecutors accused him of felony possession of cocaine and marijuana. In May, he was slapped with marijuana sales, in October with cocaine sales. On his uncle's advice, he plea-bargained and received community service. The heat shut down his trade, but he wasn't ready to give up the lifestyle. Carjackings and armed robberies followed. At first, J.T. says, he robbed other dealers. Then he just robbed. He spent a year in Miami-Dade County Jail and decided to try to change his life. He was released last year.
At 20 years of age, he took up residence at Covenant House several months ago. He knows it won't be easy finding work and rejoining law-abiding society. "They see somebody like me with a mouthful of gold teeth," he says, "and they say, 'Oh, no.'" Despite his pessimism, in the week after New Year's, he received three callbacks about jobs for which he had applied. He also tested dirty for alcohol. "My life was just caught up in the thug life," he says. "I want to go legit, but sometimes I just don't see how I'm going to do it. I got real down around New Year's."
Billy's at the same gathering as J.T. With prompting, he also talks openly. Last year, the 17-year-old's mom sent him from her home in Canada to live with his father and stepmother in Fort Lauderdale. She thought the boy was headed for trouble. Everything was OK for a while, he says. He liked his dad, even though he was bothered by his father's womanizing.
Then his stepmother came on to him, he says. He had sex with her. "I was just doing what I seen him do," he explains. At some point, he claims, he rejected his stepmother's advances, and she threatened to tell Billy's father that he was smoking pot in the home. During an argument, Billy's father grabbed him. Words were exchanged.
"'Yeah, well that's why I fucked your bitch!'" Billy remembers shouting. His father grabbed some of his stuff, threw it in a bag, and kicked his son out of the house, saying he never wanted to see him again.
"Don't come to my grave," Billy says he responded. As he tells the story, Billy lifts the neck of his sweatshirt up over his face so that only his eyes show. He says his stepmother still tries to reach him. He hopes to finish the Covenant House treatment program and return to his mother's house in Canada. "I still miss my pops, though," he says.