Heather and "Rob" (his name's been changed for privacy reasons) stood atop the 2-foot-high concrete wall that borders the parking lot near the Ocean Beach pier. McBride, a pretty, petite redhead with wire-rim glasses, who at 19 could easily pass for much younger, leaned over and playfully bumped Rob's left side. Rob, a sturdy 16-year-old with curly dark hair and a troublemaker's smile, nudged her back upright.
Heather is a special-education assistant with the Sweetwater School District, and Rob, who's still in high school, talks about his goal to be a filmmaker and the scholarship he's been offered to UCLA.
Heather is also what social workers call a "throwaway"-when she was 15, her parents left her at a friend's house and took off. As for Rob, after spending a brief time on the streets, he and his dad now live in a shelter.
Last Thursday, both Heather and Rob were the centerpieces at a kick-off press conference to promote Billy Graham's upcoming "mission" at Qualcomm Stadium. It'll be a four-day stop on what's expected to be the 85-year-old evangelist's last Jesus-fest. Tickets are free (donations welcome) and the stated purpose of the event is about as altruistic as you can get. "The primary objective of any Billy Graham mission," reads Graham's website, "is to bring uncommitted individuals into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Thursday at Ocean Beach, Graham supporters introduced one of the outreach programs that will help usher in the godfather of evangelism. Billy Graham Mission/Love-in- Action Backpack Project volunteers will spend the next few weeks assembling "street survival backpacks" that will be distributed to San Diego's estimated 1,000 to 2,000 homeless teens the week before Graham hits town. The packs on display for the media on Thursday were filled with more than two dozen of the things we take for granted until we don't have them-everything from a toothbrush and toothpaste to clean socks, snacks, Chapstick, a calling card and stamped envelopes.
Though prostitution was held up as an unfortunate option for many homeless teens, condoms weren't among the list of items included in each backpack. Christianity favors abstinence, one of the volunteers explained.
A copy of the New Testament, however, protruded from one pocket, but Mickey Stonier, an upbeat Graham Mission "executive team member" promised that kids accepting the packs weren't going to be subjected to a sermon. "Of course we're a faith-based group," he told reporters, "but that's not something we're going to preach."
"Doesn't this encourage them to stay on the streets?" a reporter asked Stonier about the backpacks.
"It encourages them to build a bridge, to dialog" with outreach workers, he replied.
Three backpacks and some good intentions are hardly a media draw, and the press release for the event promised that attendees could "meet two homeless teens."
Leah Blankenship, the executive director of Care House Life ministries, a teen outreach organization, walked over to where Heather and Rob were trying to knock each other off the wall. "Six is going to want to talk to you," she said, referring to an inquisitive Fox 6 news reporter.
Rob looked at Heather. "She gives speeches all the time," he pointed out.
Plus, Heather had already been advertised to the gathered media as someone with a good story to tell-"gathered media," besides Fox 6, included an ABC news camera crew, a photographer from the San Diego Business Journal (though oddly no reporter) and a reporter with AM 680. It wasn't the turnout promoters had hoped.
"I told them it was a B1 story," the press conference organizer muttered, upset that San Diego's leading daily newspaper hadn't bothered to show. He blamed the "Draft Murphy" rally downtown for pulling away other interested media.
Heather walked over and positioned herself in front of the cameras, gave her name and began. "I would be classified as a throwaway," she said matter-of-factly.
"Tell us what it was like to be homeless," Fox 6 asked.
"Better to live on the streets than be harassed," Heather replied, referring to her parents' bad habit of ditching her, then finding out where she's living and making her life difficult (she later said she's moving soon because they've found out where she lives in San Diego).
Heather told reporters she was from New York and for a moment the line of questioning drifted to how such a gentle-looking young woman made it on the gritty streets of New York City. Heather corrected them-she's from New York State, not New York City.
Heather told the cameras how one day she spread a map out on the floor, closed her eyes and decided that she'd go wherever her finger landed-she admitted she favored a westward direction. That place happened to be San Diego. The four-day bus ride from East Coast to West Coast was the worst ordeal of her life.
"Were you scared?" Fox 6 asked.
"I was really scared," Heather said. "It's scary not to have anyone around to care about you."
"It's a dangerous world," Fox 6 said sympathetically.
"She's doing good," Blankenship remarked of Heather, whose poise and sophistication suggested that her parents' imaturity had not necessarily been passed down to their daughter.
Blankenship said later that homeless teens tend to be an overlooked population-few leave home by choice. Many are victims of abuse; some, like Heather, are throwaways whose parents no longer want them around. "Each one has their own unique story, own unique crisis," she said.
As the camera crews packed up, the event organizer asked Blankenship whether she could take Heather and Rob back to her office for the rest of the afternoon, in case he was able to track down additional TV stations for interviews. After all, the Draft Murphy rally wouldn't last all day.