Public Papers

Informal Exchange With Residents of Covenant House in New York, New York


Reverend Ritter. Mr. President, may I just say very briefly, thank you again for visiting us. You probably don't know this yet, but the biggest gift you're giving our kids is hope. The fact that you and Mrs. Bush have cared enough to come and talk with them and understand them better and possibly help them means an awful lot to them and to us.

The President. Do you normally have this many cameras around for these guys? [Laughter]

Resident. Every day. [Laughter]

Resident. Normal occurrence.

Reverend Ritter. I've asked the kids not to talk to me, but to address themselves to you and the First Lady. And a good way of simply beginning the conversation is to pick any kid and ask them -- --

The President. How did you happen to come here?

Resident. Well, I was having problems, and I didn't really have anywhere to go. I met a friend, and he called Covenant House, and he told me about it.

The President. So, how long do you stay here? How long do you -- --

Resident. Well, right now I've been here for a month. And so, they find me a place here so I can go to school, and my daughter's here.

Reverend Ritter. How many of the kids here have lived on the streets for more than 3 or 4 years? [Most hands were raised.] And you're 18, 19 years old, so you lived on the street when you were 12 and 13 years old.

The President. Just for example, when you were a little guy -- a real little, young one, did you just come from New York or did you come from outside somewhere?

Resident. Well, I was born in California and raised in Japan. And my parents got divorced and then got remarried. My step-mom was, like, an alcoholic.

The President. She was drinking?

Resident. Yes. And she liked to sort of, like, call the cops on me and get me into jail, and that's where I've been for the past couple of years, in jail -- - in and out. And I got thrown out a couple times.

Mrs. Bush. How old are you?

Resident. Eighteen.

Mrs. Bush. You're a great-looking man.

The President. So, now what are your hopes? Have you got any hopes out here?

Resident. Well, I have a job right now in Fort Lauderdale, and I'm just trying to get my life straight -- I'm trying to get off of alcohol.

The President. Have you been in the drug scene a little bit?

Resident. I've been in -- yeah.

The President. Crack?

Resident. I smoked crack once.

The President. Crack is getting more and more, I gather, around here.

Resident. It sure is.

Reverend Ritter. How many kids here have used crack?

The President. What's the difference? I mean, is it just immediately addictive and you've-got-to-have-more-the-next-day kind of thing?

Resident. Kind of.

Resident. It causes all kinds of problems. It causes problems -- at first you get high, and it goes from problems to addiction.

The President. So, you have to get into horrible things to keep the habit up and make the money to do it, and you have to do bad stuff to do it?

Resident. You do what you got to do to get high.

The President. But how do you get the money to get it?

Resident. How?

Reverend Ritter. Rob, steal -- --

Resident. Some people rob, steal, prostitute, sell it. I used to sell it all the time, and that's how I used to get high.

The President. You have to do that, yes.

Reverend Ritter. Will you tell the President and Mrs. Bush what it's like for a kid to live on the street? And I'm not asking for your personal experiences, because that is personal, and that's private. But what's it like for a kid to live on the street?

Resident. It's rough.

Resident. Scary.

Resident. You live 1 day at a time.

The President. Were you worried -- I mean, were you scared of the law getting you, or are you scared of getting beat up?

Resident. Scared of the streets.

Resident. Scared of getting beat up or -- --

Resident. Scared of the streets, because you're forced to live there. You don't want to be there, but you know that there are other people who are out there, and you don't know where they're from or what they're into or what they can do to you.

The President. Can you ever make friends, or is it you're always worried about doing that, even?

Resident. You can't make friends on the streets.

Resident. Even if you meet someone you like, you can't call them a friend.

Resident. You can't make friends on the streets; you don't know how they are.

Resident. It's like a survival -- survive, you've got to learn how to survive.

Resident. You have to use the people you stay with. You practically have to use every means of survival that you have inside of you to try to do what you need to do. And it's scary because you can meet somebody -- they might even use you without you knowing it. But at the same time, you get what you need to do and leave and go to another place if you have to.

Resident. It's real hard to trust people.

Resident. Yeah.

The President. Just by example -- and again, I'm protecting the real personal stuff -- but I mean, say, in your case, how did you decide to come here? Did you just get so down you figured, there's got to be something better than this?

Resident. The thing that happened was -- I'm in New Orleans right now -- the thing that happened was I was living in a town close to New Orleans, and I was physically abused by my parents and everything. And the thing is I finally decided to leave. They would not let me leave until I turned the age of 18. And so, the thing is that when I left, a neighbor -- a really good Christian and everything -- she called some places, and Covenant House said they would take me in with no problems. So, I've been in the program for a year and 2 months now, and doing great.

The President. You're doing good?

Resident. Yes.

The President. That's great. How about you?

Resident. Well, when I turned 18, I moved to California because, like, back home I was in a drug scene -- and for me, in order to get out of that is to leave. And so, I left for California and went to school up there. And I came to Houston, and I found Covenant House, and they're helping me to finish school, because I'm going to college -- --

The President. Are you?

Resident. Yes, and I'm studying commercial art, and I graduate in December, thanks to Covenant House. So, without their help, I would have probably ended up back in the streets.

The President. Did you have your hand up when I mentioned the drugs thing? I mean, do you ever get -- goes not just for one guy -- but I mean the pressure to go back into the drug deal?

Resident. All the time.

Resident. Well, see, when you're in a drug situation, you do it for a reason. Some people do it to feed their family -- you know, that's kind of hard. You could go out and work, but it's easier to do that. Or if you have an addiction, you have to sell the drugs to keep yourself high, and you need it -- you need it, and you'll do anything for it, until you get to a point where you die, you quit -- --

Resident. Wind up in jail.

Resident. Or you end up in jail.

Resident. One of three places.

The President. Die or go to jail.

Resident. Not too much choice -- --

Resident. Lot of kids get on drugs -- --

The President. Crack? Yes.

Resident. You can be rich -- crack will put the rich, man, to the poorhouse. It's really bad news. You get really skinny -- it's like you're just a walking skeleton.

The President. Can you tell a guy -- now that you're kind of getting it out and getting it together -- can you look around and see somebody, without even knowing them, and say, that person is a crack addict?

Resident. Definitely.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. Definitely.

Resident. I've been sober 6 months now. I came to Covenant House. I was incarcerated. I got out, and I'm going to high school now; I'm working. And sobriety -- that's where it's at.

The President. So, you can just spot a guy, though, and -- --

Resident. Instantly.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. Just look in your eyes.

Resident. Just look at you and tell.

Resident. Their body. But see, it's not always a matter of people who are using the drugs, because I was never one of those people, fortunately, who was living on the streets. I had a lot of problems in the home, and I stayed stuck in the home until I could get out. Then when I finally left the home, I was in a situation where I didn't do drugs, but everyone around me was doing drugs.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. Such as these ladies -- and it still hurts you. And that's why I ended up in Covenant House. My boyfriend put me up in his aunt's house, and he got onto crack and messed up the relationship. And since I didn't know anyone, I had no one but myself, and I was living with his family. And there were other people in his family doing drugs badly. And eventually I had a problem with work. And they don't care about so much as you, but they need that money. So, once I no longer -- all I needed was a couple of weeks to get back on my feet with a new job and wait for the first check, but it's not a matter of that. So, it's not always people who are on the streets; it can be people in the homes being abused by people who use drugs or people who don't, who just have problems. There are many different problems.

The President. Let me ask you a personal question, and you don't have to take it. In the home, did you get beat up on, abused in your own home?

Resident. No.

The President. Nothing like that.

Resident. Well, all right, there was -- I say, no, not beaten up, because I was never struck extensively, but there was a time when -- I mean, at a young age, to be tied up and hanging over a staircase, a spiral staircase, just hanging there at a young age, that stays in your mind. But I say not abused that way, because that was nothing compared to other problems that go on for years sometimes, because when you're a child -- if you're of that age, you don't know what's going on, and you can be raised with certain problems.

The President. What do you want to say?

Resident. Just that I know there's a lot of kids out there that need help. And Covenant House has helped me a lot, and it has helped a lot of other people, and I would like them to know that there is someplace out there.

Reverend Ritter. When we talked last night, you mentioned something that surprised me and really bothered me: that you met a lot of young kids out there.

Resident. Yes.

Reverend Ritter. Tell the President about that.

The President. Real young?

Resident. Yes, when you go out there, a lot of the people, society itself, will look at somebody who's 12, 13 years old and say, well, they can't possibly be on the streets; they're too little. And I just came back from Fort Lauderdale, and there's a couple of kids down there, 13, 14 years old. In Chicago, my hometown, they're out there -- 11, 12 years old, no place to go.

The President. Prostituting and stuff?

Resident. Yes. They do anything. When you're on the street, you do anything to get by -- steal, prostitute, sell drugs, anything you can do to get money. You need it. And people are ignoring the fact that they're not only 18, 19 years old on the street, there are little bitty kids this tall on the street, too.

The President. And how did they get there to begin with? Just no homes?

Resident. Bad homes, bad homes. I was out of my house when I was 13.

The President. Were you really? Nobody cared about you, or they were just beating you up?

Resident. My old man was an alcoholic; he beat me up. He told me one day, ``Out of the house! I don't want you back.'' My mom put up no argument, and I haven't been back.

Resident. Sometimes it could even be the parents. Like my dad was there for 3 years when I was living with -- my daughter was born, and for 3 years he's been using drugs and crack and stuff. And it's just like -- the situation just gets worse. It's like you're living in some type of hell or something, because it just keeps hurting you and hurting you. You don't have no money; you don't have no way to get to school or to take care of yourself or your children. And then he'll get really aggravated because he don't got the money for the drugs, and he'll take it out on me or my sister or anybody.

The President. Physically -- sexually abuse you or more beaten up?

Resident. Physically -- because he don't have no money to get it. And he says he's going to stop, but it's right there, the drughouse is right there -- like three or four of them, where I lived in Brooklyn. And they'll close them down, and the next day they'll be right open again -- it seems like they could never stop.

Resident. Three blocks from here, there's a really popular area, 42d Street -- everyone knows about 42d Street. On 42d and 8th, there could be up to 20 drug dealers out there on the corner. And the police would call the sweep and get all of them off the street, and their backups will start up again -- not even tomorrow -- it could be by that evening.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. A couple of hours later.

The President. Do you get so you know them? There goes Joe over there -- --

Resident. No. I don't -- --

The President. No, but I mean, somebody -- --

Resident. -- -- but people do know them, yes. I have to walk through to get over to Lexington Avenue to work and stuff, and you see the same faces. And you could have just heard that they were arrested the night before.

The President. Are they rich guys now, I mean for selling this stuff?

Resident. Depending on if they do the drug. If they do the drug, they're wasting money.

Resident. They ain't rich. They ain't getting -- some guys out here, they ain't getting no money. They think they get money. But a lot of guys come in here, such as myself, which I needed some help, being the simple fact that all I know how to do is sell the drug -- that's all I know how to do. I'm 18, going on 19; I never had a job a day in my life, so all I did to get money was to sell drugs.

I see a lot of people that come off the streets, that come to Covenant House and want to stop selling and want to stop getting high, but then they get depressed here. And somebody else will talk them into it, and they go right back on 42d Street and do the same thing. I've seen a lot of guys who come and go, and all they do is go to 42d Street. And the next time I see them they be all -- --

The President. Well, tell me this. When a guy goes to 42d Street and he gets one of these sellers, and the guy says, ``Here's some stuff -- you go out and sell it and bring me back the money.''

Resident. Yeah, that's just it.

The President. And you get to keep a little?

Resident. It's just that easy.

The President. And then if he doesn't turn the money in, he gets all beat up?

Resident. Killed.

Resident. And it pays more than working.

The President. Beaten or killed.

Resident. My brother got killed.

The President. Your brother got killed?

Resident. Shot in his heart with a .44 magnum.

The President. Because he what? Shortchanged the guy?

Resident. Okay, it was two of my brothers. They went to Ohio. They were selling drugs, and one of them stopped because he met a girl. And all of them came back to New York, and the one that stopped got killed -- his whole chest was blown up.

The President. But what -- --

Resident. Because I guess they shortchanged him. Since they said -- well, they'd gone -- well, he was with them before, and they said -- --

Resident. Little 10-year-olds, and everything -- they see what everybody else is doing. They say, ``Well, my friend has a car. He knows all the ladies, and he has money all the time, and he's always partying. I want to do that.''

Resident. Because it pays more.

The President. That's down in -- you're talking New Orleans or everyplace?

Resident. That's everywhere.

Resident. The stuff is everywhere.

Resident. When you're on the street, you know everything from all parts of -- --

The President. The street experience -- what I'm getting at is the street experience in New Orleans is just an overlay of Chicago or California or New York.

Resident. It could be done in a different way, but it's -- --

Resident. It's all the same process.

Resident. -- -- all the same.

Resident. We all end up in the street. We don't have no place to go.

Resident. A lot of times -- like Walter -- we were talking last night, and he said one big thing is the only thing he knows how to do is sell drugs -- no other skills. Because he's selling the drugs, he had a car and all kinds of things, and that's the way everyone sees it. If you work and you're young, such as our ages, it's hard to get good jobs that pay. Working in McDonald's -- minimum wage -- you can't get anything from that.

Resident. I'm not working for .25 an hour, .10 -- there's no way -- for a whole week and sitting over a hot oven flipping hamburgers?

Resident. When you can go out there and sell drugs and get ,000 in a couple of days.

The President. How old are you?

Resident. I'm 20.

The President. Twenty years old.

Resident. We struggle to work and everything, and you see people out there -- all they have to do is work a couple of hours -- they get a few thousand dollars. And we over here have to bust ourselves trying to do our best -- everything straight -- and they always end up poor. That's why so many people selling drugs.

Resident. And come home with 0.

Resident. One hundred dollars a week -- that ain't no money. I can make a hundred dollars in 15 minutes.

The President. You can?

Resident. I can make 0 in 15 minutes.

Mrs. Bush. But your three choices, though, are jail, death, and whatever the third one was.

Resident. Doesn't always happen, though.

Reverend Ritter. Mrs. Bush, the kids are bullet-proof.

Mrs. Bush. Oh, I forgot that.

Reverend Ritter. Really. The only problem with being a kid is that you don't really know that you are and you don't really think about consequences. You really have to live for the moment and you have to survive.

Resident. There has to be a down side, or else these people who were doing drug dealing or working for people wouldn't be trying to clean themselves up. They know that it's not the way.

Resident. Jail, too much jail.

Resident. Maybe it's a lot of money, but it's not the way. You can't retire on being a drug dealer.

Resident. You can't.

Reverend Ritter. I'll tell you what, you guys. This is the man, right? You'll never get a chance to talk to the President again, probably. What's really the most important thing you want him to know about street kids? What should he know?

Resident. Jobs are hard to get, and when you get them, sometimes they don't pay enough to stay off the street.

Resident. I would like him to know that there's people out there that help Ethiopia -- help outside people, outside the United States -- but there's a lot of people in the United States that need the help, people in the street that need somewhere to go. And we don't have nowhere to go but the street, and I think we really need that help.

Resident. We're funding everybody but us.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. We're funding every country that's got problems, except when you look down in the streets, there's all kids like us everywhere. And they're funding everyplace else.

Resident. Last night, Michelle and I took these people on a tour, and they couldn't believe the way we have bums and stuff sleeping outside. They don't have that as much. And we just went half a block from here, just to smoke a cigarette, and there was a lady pulling out her sheets and getting ready to go to bed out on the sidewalk. And they're staring at her, like, wow. And to us, it's, like, oh, that's normal -- we're used to it.

And as we're walking, we see over 20 people laying on the street -- some coupled together, some have missing limbs, some are all swollen from being unhealthy. And then when you think about all the money and funds that are going to another country -- that's wonderful, yes, great, help everybody -- but don't forget there are people here who need help.

Reverend Ritter. Let me ask a question a little more specifically. What does the street kid really need -- concretely, practically?

Resident. Education.

Resident. I think that the kids need a place to go where they can talk to a person and get help, and I found out that Covenant House can help a person. Like, say, you're 15, 16 years old -- the most important thing, I think, is to go to school, and Covenant House will let you do that. Because if you're on the street and you try to go back to school, they won't let you because you're not living with your parents; you ain't got a guardian.

The President. No legal rights.

Resident. No legal rights.

Resident. My mother and father have been dead -- my father has been dead since I was 1; my mother died 5/2\ years ago. And I stopped going to school for a little while for the simple fact I had to put up the money for my brothers and sisters. They went to foster care. Nobody else wanted me -- I was rejected. So, I just stayed out on the streets and sold drugs. Then I wanted to stop and go to school. Anytime I went to Louis D. Brandeis, I had to have a parent. I ain't got none -- what do you want me to do? Well, you can't go to school.

The President. We can't help you.

Resident. No, they can't help me. So, then that means -- I think, ``Well, if you don't want to help me, I'm going to be the person that you want me to be: a criminal.'' So, I came out here and did what I had to do to survive. I got shot; I got cut; I got stabbed; I got beat up -- and I did this to other people, too. I'm tired of doing things like that, because I see nothing but a wall waiting, a dead end. Like you said, life on the street is a dead end. And that's just what it is, and I'm just smart enough to open my eyes and see that that is exactly what it is.

The President. What do you want to be now?

Resident. What do I want to be now?

The President. What do you want to do? What do you want to be? Got any hope?

Resident. Yes. See, I want to learn electronics or carpentry, plumbing. I want a good job so I can get a house, a dog, a rabbit, a bird -- [laughter] -- a wife, and a baby. That's all I want. I don't want nothing else but a house, a dog, a rabbit, and a baby, and a house -- that's all I want out of life. I've had my fun; the fun time is over. It's time to get into reality.

Resident. Something else, too. They need rehabilitation -- rehabs for kids. There's a lot of kids out there that are on drugs -- and we need that.

Resident. Yes, but they got rehabs. You go to one, and they want all this money, all this money that you ain't got.

Resident. Right.

Resident. You're sleeping on the streets or you just got out of jail or prison or something, and you don't have the money. I was fortunate enough to find a rehab that they didn't ask for nothing. And they gave me this ring, a sign of my sobriety. They gave me a lot of tools that I use each and every day of my life.

The President. What are you doing now? What are you going to be?

Resident. I want to become a chef, a culinary artist.

The President. Are you?

Resident. Yes. But still it's -- you go to one of these places, Fair Oaks Hospital or something, and they want ,000 - ,000, and you don't even have a quarter in your pocket to make a phone call. Sure, they're going to bill you later. [Laughter] We'll bill you -- yeah, right.

Resident. One of the most important things for me, for most of the -- I speak also for most of the kids in New Orleans -- is a certain personal touch that most kids need -- --

Resident. Yeah.

Resident. -- -- to give them the self-confidence to get out there and do what they need to do. Because throughout their lives, they've been always told they were no good, they -- --

Resident. Dirt.

Resident. Losers.

Resident. -- -- they're not their children. They shouldn't be around them, and everything. And that's what I mainly needed when I went to Covenant House, and that's what I think should be -- --

The President. How many of your parents were into drugs and made that problem horrible for the home front? Almost everybody. You didn't have it -- you escaped that.

Reverend Ritter. Or alcohol.

The President. Substance abuse.

Reverend Ritter. That would be almost everybody.

Resident. Alcohol's a drug.

Reverend Ritter. That would be everybody. There's no mystery, Mr. President, why a kid leaves home.

The President. In other words, there's nothing -- I mean, it's just the environment in the home.

Reverend Ritter. It's too painful to stay.

Dr. Lee. Father Ritter, could I just say one thing? I want the President and Mrs. Bush to come away with this: My one thought is that no kid in this room and no kid in Covenant House wants to be here. Not one kid ran to this life; they are running from another life. And the last thing is: Whose children are they? Well, they're Father Ritter's, and I feel they belong to me. And I know what President and Mrs. Bush feel like.

Reverend Ritter. I'm getting all sorts of signals to sort of wrap this up and so forth, but let me just conclude by saying that my kids have a number of things in common. And that's how good they are and how brave they are and how beautiful they are and how much they really want to make it back off the streets. Not many do unless they receive the help that they need.

And the fact that you and the First Lady came here today -- you have no idea of how much hope you create in these kids. I can only say that to a street kid, hope is sort of a handgrenade in their heart. It's a very dangerous thing; they've been disappointed so many times.

Resident. All we need is for someone to help us. All we need is unity, because everybody is all for themselves. I think the world would be a much better place to live in if we just help each other out and love one another.

Resident. Be treated like human beings.

Reverend Ritter. I'd like the President and the First Lady to go upstairs for just a moment and meet a couple of our really special kids with AIDS. I know they're very anxious to greet you briefly.

The President. Well, listen, good luck to all of you.

Resident. I'd like to say thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. Yes.

Resident. Nobody believed us when we called home to tell -- [laughter] -- President Bush is coming to Covenant House in New York. They never believed this. And I really appreciate that you took time.

The President. I just admire Father Ritter and what he's doing, and you guys for fighting -- --

Resident. We're doing the best we can.

The President. -- -- and trying to do something. I hope you make it, all of you.

Note: The exchange began at 11:35 a.m. Rev. Bruce Ritter is the executive director of Covenant House. Dr. Burton Lee III is the Physician to the President.