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Saved from the streets



Published: Tue, January 22, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- The snow came up to the knees of Turhan Henderson, already 6 feet 2 inches tall at age 13, as he and his sister returned home that January afternoon after a day at Princeton Junior High School.

They were locked out. Again.

Thus began, for Turhan, five years of running away.

He and his sister left home with just the clothes on their backs and spent the next few nights staying with friends.

She returned home a few days later. And Turhan usually followed his sister, a year his senior, but not this time. In his mind, home meant an abusive stepfather and a mother who often turned the other cheek.

"I wasn't going back," said Henderson, now 22. "I was tired of the things going on at home."

So he stayed on the streets as police and his mother looked for him. They found him. He told his mother he'd run again, so she dropped him off at Daybreak in Youngstown, a shelter for runaway and homeless youths.

He stayed there for two or three weeks before going home. Less than two months later, Turhan ran again.

A reliable shelter: He said he showed up at Daybreak 15 or 20 times in the next five years. He turned 18 at the shelter before leaving, for the last time, the following day to stay with a cousin until he got on his feet.

"It was my second home," Henderson said. "If it wasn't for them [at Daybreak], I'd probably be in the street or be in jail or end up dead."

Henderson still visits Daybreak to talk to the young people who reside there now. He tries to listen, to give advice.

Though he said Daybreak was there for him, he wasn't sheltered from all danger. There were times when he slept in the abandoned car in front of his grandparents' house, or wandered the streets from midnight until 6 a.m.

During those years, he spent three stints, for months at a time, at group homes. In one home, when he was 15, he was assaulted by three other teen boys.

About Daybreak: Daniel B. Horne, program director at Daybreak, said Henderson's story is one that rings true with most of the runaways who land at the temporary shelter, which has room for up to 10 boys and girls ages 12 to 17.

The shelter serves about 280 to 300 youths per year (a total of 2,015 bed days in 2001), including runaways and youths referred by children services boards and juvenile courts between Youngstown and the nearest shelters in Cleveland and Akron.

Sixty percent of Daybreak's residents are girls, often pregnant.

Besides room and board, the shelter offers each youth individual, group and family counseling, a classroom, health assessments and social activities. Funding comes through the Department of Human Services, county children services, and the courts.

Why do they run? Runaways may run because of problems, or perceived problems, at home -- from a teen party gone awry, to a teen-age boy's being afraid of his parents' reaction to his homosexuality, Horne said.

Statistics from the National Runaway Switchboard show that 36 percent of callers in 2000 spoke of family issues, 20 percent were concerned with school issues and 13 percent discussed peers at school.

Sixty-one percent were runaways, 4 percent were throwaways -- kids whose parents turn them out of the house because they think they are beyond control -- and 8 percent were considering running. Forty-two percent of the runaways had run before.

Seventy-five percent were females; 85 percent were between ages 14 and 17. Forty-five percent had been on the streets for three days or fewer.

Ron Jones, senior case manager with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said a new type of runaway is running because of the lure of Internet acquaintances. Some of these liaisons end in kidnapping and exploitation.

Most runaways, Jones said, stay away only a few hours or a few days and most are returned unharmed. But even if just a handful end up dead, "that's too many," he said.

The dangers runaways face come when they are on the street for days and realize that they are on their own and have to eat and sleep somewhere. They may prostitute themselves, become drug runners or engage in pornography.

"There's a lot of things out there that can harm them, that can exploit them," Jones said.

Locally: Maj. Michael Budd of the Mahoning County Sheriff's Department said almost all of the county's runaway juveniles are found unharmed. Here, he said, youths generally run away because of family situations, often to the nearby home of a noncustodial parent. Police generally find them and return them to their homes.

Though the department has, at times, discovered runaways as far away as Florida, they are always found, Budd said.

"There's a perception that there's a huge group of kids just running amok and doing this because all their friends are doing this," Horne said. "Ninety percent of runaways aren't the 10 percent the police deal with who are unruly, not listening to their parents, starting drugs, starting drinking and gang activities. For them, running away is the least of their worries."

The majority, Horne explained, are not the "bad kids" but simply those stuck in a family conflict.

"It's teen-age rebellion bucking up against parents wanting to control their lives," Horne said. Most of the shelter's runaways go back home or to a relative.

Some of the saddest cases are the throwaways, Horne said. One child was dropped off at the shelter by a mother. When they attempted to contact the woman, her phone had been disconnected and she had moved from her apartment.

Horne acknowledges that most runaways probably don't end up in a shelter. Instead, they go to a friend or family member.

Others, he said, are victimized on the street. Although Youngstown doesn't have the homeless youth population of other cities, there are kids who get hooked up with older predators who provide them with drugs or alcohol and expect, or take, sexual favors from them. He's known girls at the shelter who had been raped while on the run.

Settled down: Four years after his days of running away ended, Henderson and his mother have no contact with each other. He has since married and is now a parent himself, with an 8-year-old stepdaughter and a 4-month-old son.

He has advice for other teens thinking of running: "Review your options. Is this something you want to do?" Henderson said. "Because you could end up in a group home."

Also, the high school dropout advises youngsters to stay in school. He now has his GED but remembers how he cried when he watched his classmates at the baccalaureate and commencement exercises he missed.

"Keep God in your life no matter how bad it gets," Henderson said. "The sun always comes out after the rain."




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