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Homeless Kids Find Prostitution, Drugs, Fear On New York Streets

September 20, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ For five homeless years on New York City’s mean streets, Chris Martin said he turned dozens of $5 tricks a day with other men to feed his crack habit, slept in a salt-filled warehouse and washed in a fire hydrant.

″I was selling my body for drugs. I was in a dead end zone,″ Martin said Monday.

″It was a scary life. You’re on your own. Nobody’s there to guide you. You don’t care where you sleep,″ he said. ″I couldn’t trust nobody. I couldn’t trust myself.″

Martin, who left home at age 15, is one of an estimated 10,000 homeless youths in New York City, according to Covenant House, an advocacy group founded 20 years to shelter and feed teen-agers who ran away or were abandoned by their parents.

Children under 18 are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, according to an estimate released Monday by the National Academy of Sciences.

″It’s the era of the disposable child,″ said John Keels of Covenant House.

″For them, it’s a day-to-day struggle for survival, if you can call it that,″ said Elizabeth Burnwell of Covenant House. ″They sell their bodies to survive. They panhandle. They deaden themselves with drugs or alcohol.″

Each night, Covenant House, founded by the Rev. Bruce Ritter, dispenses two vans to round up homeless children and offer them beds, meals and clean clothes at a shelter.

The van found Martin at a rat-infested, garbage-strewn warehouse where the city stockpiles salt for streets in winter. Homeless youths have built a shantytown of mattresses and crates, or they sleep in junked garbage trucks.

″They’re brave kids,″ Ritter said. ″They’re desperate to get back off the streets. Most of them won’t make it.″

One who made it into the shelter was Kenny Uledi of Brooklyn, who lived for six months on the streets with his 16-year-old brother after they were abandoned. His parents were drug addicts who were evicted from their home and left without a word or trace, Uledi said.

″We robbed car radioes. We robbed cold cuts from supermarkets. We slept on roofs. Anything to get by,″ said the 5-foot-8, 130-pound Uledi, the pain evident in his blue eyes.

″You wonder where your next meal is coming from. It’s hard out there in the streets. I want to forget it all,″ he said.

Street kids are not included in the city’s count of the homeless. As of Sept. 1, the city had 5,135 homeless families in system, including 10,799 children, according to the city’s Human Resources Administration. They stay in a system of 39 hotels and 35 shelters.

In some hotels, prostitutes turn tricks on stairwells. Crack is sold openly. Beatings occur every day. And a family of four may be crowded in a 9- by-12-foot room.

″There’s nothing a kid doesn’t see in here,″ said Jackie Macklin, 31, who lived for four years in one of the city’s welfare hotels.

She sent her 11-year-old twin daughters to live in Philadelphia with their grandmother in 1987 after they saw a security guard shot dead in the Holland Hotel.

″These children live under the most extreme conditions of adversity of any child population in the developed world. They’re the closest thing we have to refugees in the Third World,″ said Dr. Irwin Redlener of New York Hospital.

″It’s total depravation. They have been disconnected from a useful support system a civilized society tries to provide. We’re going to pay a price for this,″ Redlener said.

Redlener treats 200 homeless children a week from two medical vans that are pediatric clinics on wheels. Half the patients lack immunization and many suffer from ear infections and asthma, Redlener said.

″It’s a way of dying on the installment plan,″ said Gretchen Buchenholz of the Association to Benefit Children, an advocacy group that runs a shelter for children.

″Their life is so harsh. They lose their childhood, the magic that belongs to being a child. It’s very sad to see a child lose that resilience. We’re doing irreparable harm,″ she said.

″We’re killing a generation of very poor kids,″ said Robert Hayes, founder of New York’s Coalition for the Homeless. ″It’s an abandonment of the most fragile people to the most devastating of environments.″

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