Calif. Street Kids Get a Prom Night
Aug. 01, 1999
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ Her stringy green hair dyed gold, her emerald eyes framed by lavender liner, she steps out of the limo _ a real-life Cinderella in a purple satin dress.
People on the sidewalk stop to stare as the girl and her handsome date move from the twilight into a shimmering, candlelit ballroom for a four-course meal and a night of music and dancing.
``It feels so good to be looked at like human beings,'' said the 18-year-old known as Cuddles. ``This is the one night they look at us and don't think we're just street kids.''
On any other night, she would be sitting on the gum-stained steps of the public square she calls home, chain-smoking cigarettes alongside other homeless kids with mohawk haircuts, body piercings and tattoos.
But for a few hours on prom night, Sunday, June 27, the cold rain, the drugs and loneliness are behind them.
Cuddles and her boyfriend, Tigger, are among nearly 200 street kids primping for the prom, a gala not for graduates of the city's high schools but for the homeless teens roaming its streets.
``You'll see kids who all they do is walk around wanting to kill themselves,'' says Cuddles, ``and on that day they're totally different. They're just so high on life. I'm going as a princess.''
Cuddles, real name Eorica Mohring, is a bit of a misnomer for a kid whose three years on the streets have been anything but warm and fuzzy.
She has been strung out on crystal meth, cocaine, pot and LSD. She has prostituted herself, been beaten up, shot and raped. She occasionally gets to visit the year-old daughter she gave up for adoption.
For 10 years, the Salvation Army has sponsored the prom for street kids at Greenhouse, a downtown drop-in center where nearly 1,000 young people stop every year to get a sandwich, take a shower and duck out of the rain. With up to 1,800 homeless teens in a town of 500,000, Portland has more street kids per capita than most cities. The vast majority are white kids aged 12-21 who flock downtown from Portland's suburbs.
``They don't get the kind of marker events like a prom or graduation that other people take for granted,'' says Rowanne Haley, city coordinator for the Salvation Army. ``The prom is designed to show that people care enough about them to provide good things for them.''
A downtown banquet hall opens up its ballroom complete with vaulted ceilings, bronze chandeliers and a stunning view of snowcapped Mount Hood.
Caterers answer the call with a buffet dinner of charbroiled citrus chicken and fusilli pasta smothered in creamy pesto sauce. It's topped off with a dessert of hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries and sparkling apple cider.
On prom day, professional manicurists show up to clean dirty cuticles and paint broken nails. Hair stylists trim shaggy bangs and curl wiry hair.
Then a fleet of limousines and horse-drawn carriages whisks the kids to the prom, where they stand in line for a studio photographer and dance to tunes spun by a club DJ. The boys wear boutonnieres, the girls corsages.
And it's all donated, including the clothes on the kids' backs.
Just days before the prom, Cuddles steps from behind a clothes rack at a Salvation Army warehouse packed with dresses of lacy satin and glimmering velvet. She's squeezed into a tight, royal blue evening dress that puckers around her belly and doesn't quite stretch to her knees. Bra straps peek out and slide down her pale shoulders.
Her boyfriend Tigger grabs his chin and silently shakes his head.
``How about this?'' calls Noel Richmond, a Greenhouse volunteer who helped organize the first prom. She's holding up a pink, flapper dress. Black sequins coat it like fish scales.
``It looks like a '50s hooker,'' complains Cuddles.
The search continues, Cuddles slapping the hangars together and giving each dress the once-over. Racks of pinstriped suits and tuxedos crowd the other side of the room. Cardboard boxes are stuffed with cummerbunds, bow ties and socks _ all donations saved for prom-goers.
Finally, Cuddles chooses a dress and disappears behind the rack to try it on. She reappears draped in a silky plum-colored dress with drop-shoulders.
``Do you really like it?'' she asks Tigger. ``I mean, could you stand me dressed in this all day?''
He nods, and they begin looking for shoes.
Before leaving, Cuddles puts in a special request with volunteers: Lee Press-On Nails.
Cuddles has been dating Tigger, whose real name is Nathan Alleger, since November.
``When I saw him for the first time, I just freaked,'' she says. ``My heart just exploded out of my chest.''
Tigger is skinny, with deep set eyes, clear skin and spiky, blond hair. The 16-year-old has a wispy mustache and his street name tattooed across his knuckles.
He describes a childhood of neglect, beatings and sexual abuse. Everybody at Greenhouse has similar stories.
``These kids don't make the choice to live on the streets,'' prom organizer Richmond says. ``They may choose to leave abusive home, but they don't choose to live under bridges.''
Greenhouse makes sure to kick off each prom with a graduation ceremony celebrating those who earned their graduation equivalency degrees. Before the first fork is lifted, prom-goers whoop and holler for the 30 graduates who strut across the stage in blue cap and gowns.
``The prom's actually there to glorify the fact that street kids have done something with their lives,'' Cuddles says. ``You do something good, you're going to have a party for it.''
Earlier in the day, Cuddles underwent a three-hour transformation _ blush, eyeshadow, lipstick and eyeliner. In a final touch fitting for a princess, she sticks shimmering rhinestones to her forehead like the jewels of a crown.
Cuddles holds up a mirror and screams.
``Oh my God! I'm glorified!''
At the banquet hall, the couple settles down at a table near the stage. Tigger is transformed too, his baggy jeans and basketball jersey traded for patent-leather shoes and a snappy black suit with a pink rose pinned to his lapel.
Right away, cracks appear in the romantic facade as AC/DC's ``You Shook Me All Night Long'' rocks the room. Cuddles starts belting out the lyrics; Tigger slumps on a table and rubs his eyes in misery.
Cuddles rushes over to her friend, Teacup.
``He doesn't want to dance. He doesn't know how!'' Cuddles says.
Cuddles doesn't give up. As the DJ switches to a slow song, she grabs Tigger's hand and yanks him to the floor.
Rigidly, they rock like teetering bowling pins.
For a brief moment, they are more like bright-eyed high school seniors on their way to college than two homeless kids with uncertain futures.
``I wouldn't say it changes anybody's life,'' Richmond said. ``But it creates a positive memory, something to hold on to. And those seeds of memory in our hearts are what make us stronger people.''
The next morning, after a night in the homeless shelter, Cuddles and Tigger woke up looking at the streets a little differently.
``It motivated me a lot,'' she said. ``I wanted to be looked at all the time like we were looked at the prom.''
She still wore her Lee Press-On Nails when she and Tigger applied for jobs at Nordstrom and Subway and began talking about the future.
In the shelter locker where she stows her possessions, Cuddles adds mementos from the night before: her dress, the shoes, her corsage. And in a carefully folded plastic bag, the sparkling rhinestones that made her a princess.