How many children can you love at once? To Terilyn Burg, the answer is however many walk through the door.
Terilyn is a 66-year-old San Diegan with three children and 14 grandchildren of her own, but she opens her arms to a multitude of other people’s kids, those who have been abandoned or who fled from whatever home they had.
She’s the rock of the San Diego chapter of Stand Up for Kids, a national organization that advocates for homeless children who have fallen under the wheels of society. Terilyn has been doing it for 22 years as executive director, for which she receives no pay, other than smiles from the kids, which she considers salary enough.
Stored in Terilyn’s memory is a catalog of unfortunates. The first that comes to mind is, “this girl, she’s 16 or 17, came in about three months ago with a black eye. Her clothes were pretty well torn up as a result of being mugged and raped. It wasn’t her fault, but she was ashamed and unwilling to give us details. She refused to go to the hospital or call the police, because she was afraid of their questions.”
What happened to her?
“I have no idea. She just disappeared.”
That’s typical. Homeless kids are sprites of the forest. They appear, then disappear. And there’s a reason for that: Typically, they have been abused, neglected or ignored by adults whom they trusted and loved. Once bitten, twice shy is an adage too modest to describe the skittishness of these kids. Make it thrice shy. And if they’re wary of a kindly grandma-type such as Terilyn, what chance would an adult have who reminded them of their parents? The result is that one of the toughest jobs Stand Up has is to coax homeless kids into allowing themselves to be helped.
Terilyn was not educated as a counselor or psychologist; she works days as a program assistant for the San Diego Unified School District. However, I suspect many “professionals” would listen carefully when she talks about kids in peril.
Stand Up for Kids is a nonprofit run on donations, with an annual budget of about $120,000. It operates a storefront center for homeless kids at Park Boulevard and C Street in San Diego. It’s not fancy and is largely furnished with hand-me-downs.
The facility is staffed each night by at least a couple of volunteers and offers food, computers, counseling and a clothing rack from which kids are free to pick and choose. It does not sleep kids overnight. Those who want to apply for work or study for a high school GED are given interview clothes and study assistance. Terilyn estimates that the teens she serves range in age from 13 to 19, with the most common being 16. About 60 percent are boys.
An Oceanside chapter of Stand Up for Kids is on Oceanside Boulevard. Kim Goodeve-Green is the executive director there.
Terilyn tells of a 16-year-old homeless girl named Jackie whom she encountered in Balboa Park. “She came from an abusive home where the father would drink and then beat her, then the next day he’d be very sorry, but then it would happen again and again. She had suffered broken ribs. She did not talk about her mother. She believed if she stayed (in that home), she would end up dead. So she ran. I heard from her on and off for a long time and then she dropped off the face of the Earth.”
Homeless is a term with two definitions: the formal and the common. Organizations that chart the homeless normally include everyone not having a permanent home or who lives in a supervised shelter. However, we commonly think of the homeless as living on the street, in doorways or under bridges, and wherever else they land on any given night. It is this latter definition that encompasses the kids who most concern Terilyn — homeless on the streets.
Only shaky estimates project their number in the San Diego area. Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, says: “I couldn’t even guess. It could be in the hundreds or even the thousands. They tend to hide, and are very difficult to count.”
Terilyn also does not know how many such homeless there are. She just knows how difficult it is to reach them.
“Say a kid gets off the bus in San Diego, what do they do? They might walk around Horton Plaza, where there are always lots of people, just to see what’s going on. They‘re going to get tired, and if they have money for a cheap motel room, they’ll be OK. And by the time the money runs out, they’ll have found out what’s going on. They’ll find out where the free services are, where they can go for food or if they get sick.
“They’ll go out to the beaches; it’s another community where they can fit in. They’ll see kids sitting on the grass out there. They’ll learn the trolley system, and how to hop one without paying. They’ll shoplift or, if hungry, grab a piece of fruit.”
She hopes that somewhere along the line they’ll hook up with one of the Stand Up outreach teams — pairs of volunteers walking the streets wearing prominent shirts or jackets advertising their desire to help kids.
Terilyn says homeless kids hang together for safety and companionship and form their own little societies. She says there is a lot of anger among many of them, but that others in the group work to control it. They effectively police themselves.
Terilyn says that wherever they are, these children are in danger. They’re robbed, raped and mugged. If they’re sleeping at night on a park bench or in the riverbed, adult street people can prey on them.
“Many of the girls who come into the center have had some type of sexual problem on the streets, whether it’s being hit on by older men, or — in order to survive — have had what they call survival sex. That’s where they get paid and then they have money to buy things they need.”
Prostitution as a way of life seems inevitable, I surmise.
“I guess,” Terilyn replies in resignation. “Those are things I don’t like to think about. It happens. I know that. I know that …”
When I am in the Stand Up center in San Diego, a 17-ish girl floats in. She’s got a wide, not-a-care smile — a really open, bright and pleasant kid who just, by the way, happens to live on the streets.
Terilyn says that to kids such as this girl, it’s important to be acknowledged, to be praised.
“For anything. A simple ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ means so much to them because they don’t hear either very often.” Terilyn says the girl has had several boyfriends.
What’s she looking for?
“I’m not quite sure; possibly for a stable male in her life.”
The girl talks to me about others she knows who have become strippers, and vows that she never will. I say an upbeat “Good for you,” but also hope my tone disguises concern for the ugly turns I know a future can take.
Terilyn says the art of lying is something homeless kids learn very quickly, as well as other survival skills: finding a place that’s safe, maybe in an abandoned building or in front of the public library.
Stand Up volunteers consciously avoid dictating to the kids or giving orders because, Terilyn says, “We’re adults, and every single one of them has been hurt by an adult. Instead, we ask how we can help them. ‘I need a new shirt,’ they might say. We point to the clothes rack and tell them to help themselves.
“Some say they want to go home. ‘I don’t want to go back to Mom and Dad, but I have an Aunt Susie.’ We call Aunt Susie, make sure it’s OK and a good environment, then we pay to send them home.”
Drugs are present in the street environment, as you would expect. Kids are not allowed in the center if they’re high on drugs or alcohol. “We’ve gotten kids into recovery programs, and they’re sober for several months, but they often relapse. Jack comes to mind. He’s 16 and in and out of rehab. He’s gone to juvenile hall. He’ll be clean and sober for three or four months, then something will happen and it’s right back to square one.”
I ask if pimps prey on the homeless girls. “Pimps?” Terilyn says. “I’m not aware of any.”
It would be shocking if some of the kids were not mentally ill, and Terilyn sees more than she wants. “We have kids who are bipolar. One girl named Angel (a popular street name) would come sleep on the couch or get a hot meal, but only when she was running out of her meds.”
The center was the one place Angel could feel safe, Terilyn says.
“One night she came in and became extremely agitated. One of the counselors said, ‘Angel, how you doing?’ The girl just exploded, and started to scream and howl. She totally lost control because someone greeted her. The other kids were able to calm her down; an adult couldn’t. We called an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital to get her meds regulated.”
Terilyn says they get very few inquiries about missing kids, or from people searching for them. “Why are you going to look for a child that has run away because you abused them?”
Many of the kids have run from foster care, she says. “They don’t like the food, the parents, or don’t want to go to bed at 10 p.m. All kinds of reasons.”
She says the center cooperates fully with police and other authorities, although such encounters are rare and not sought. If the kids were to think of Terilyn and other volunteers as an arm of the law, the relationship would be dead instantly.
These children do not automatically rush into the arms of people wanting to help them. “There’s a magic call of the streets, and I don’t know what that is,” Terilyn says. “After a kid has been on the streets for six months or a year, it becomes home. They’ve learned how to survive. It’s their way of life. It’s just the way it is. ‘All my friends are on the streets,’ they tell me.”
But for all those kids without families roaming the streets of San Diego, there is Terilyn Burg, the closest many of them will ever come to a caring mom-type.
“It’s part of my existence. … It’s kind of sad when you think about the fact that the kids feel safer on the streets than in the homes they come from.”
Yet we all know, having survived childhood ourselves, that when these children bed down beneath an overpass with the hum of traffic far above, that times will occur when tears will trickle down and single words will be quietly spoken. Words such as mom and dad.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org