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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    “Local music venue, restaurants help give troubled teens a new start”

    Joseph Litin, a recovering heroin and OxyContin addict, found help and a home through one of the many Safe Places in Tucson. Magpies Pizza on Fourth Avenue and Skrappys both help homeless teens to get their lives back on track.
    Joseph Litin, a recovering heroin and OxyContin addict, found help and a home through one of the many Safe Places in Tucson. Magpies Pizza on Fourth Avenue and Skrappy’s both help homeless teens to get their lives back on track.

    It’s 9:30 a.m. at Open Inn’s 30-day youth crisis center in central Tucson, and two 17-year-old boys, residents of the shelter, sit quietly at a large kitchen table sketching and doing crossword puzzles.

    It’s a part of a completely structured day that starts at 7 a.m. and includes chores, daily showers, counseling sessions and dinner preparation.

    One of the 17-year-old residents, who proudly says he is 17 years and 5 months, has been at the co-ed shelter since Sept. 13. He tells me he’s here for domestic violence and abusing drugs, and quickly rattles off a list of drugs he’s used, such as cocaine, crystal meth, weed, acid, mushrooms, crack, cigarettes and alcohol.

    He’s drawing a picture of a sultry-looking girl smoking a cigarette, and it’s quite good. He tells me he’s already supposed to be out of the shelter, since it only provides assistance for 30 days, but he’s asked for two more weeks because he says, “”I like this place.”” He’s planning to move to independent living soon, as long as he gets through the interview process and is approved.

    He’ll get his own apartment and have the freedom to come and go as he pleases, provided that he checks in and out with an on-site supervisor, finds a job, goes to school and maintains a bank account. He loves art and is planning to study drawing at Pima Community College.

    He runs to his bedroom and grabs a T-shirt that he designed himself, in tribute to his mother. It’s an intricate design drawn in the style of tattoo art, with “”Mi Madre”” written on the back and a sketch of the Virgin Mary. I ask him if he’s going to give it to his mother, and he replies, with a grin, “”No. I’m gonna wear it. She can just see it but she can’t keep it.””

    It’s obvious that his stay at the shelter is helping him get his life back on track.

    Help for at-risk kids

    “”It’s a structured environment,”” said Rachael Martinez-Ruiz, a behavioral health worker who has worked at the crisis shelter since January. “”It’s preparing them for life skills that they will always need when they grow up.””

    On Sundays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., parents are allowed to come to the shelter for a family support group, and on Tuesdays the residents have anger management classes with a licensed therapist.

    “”They discuss anything they wish to discuss,”” Martinez-Ruiz said. “”Anything that they need to work on.””

    While many of the residents are referred to the crisis shelter from Pima County’s Juvenile Detention Center, youth can also come of their own volition.

    To make its services more accessible, Open Inn, a nonprofit organization, has joined forces with Project Safe Place – a national program based in Louisville, Ky., that provides services to youth in trouble – to offer the Safe Place program in Tucson. The program designates local organizations and businesses, including restaurants and music venues as “”safe places”” for at-risk youth to go to if they need help. It is a program designed for youth 17 and under, although Open Inn provides resources for youth up to 21 years of age.

    The distinctive black and yellow Safe Place sign is an indicator of where one can go. All a youth that needs Open Inn’s services has to do is find one of the Safe Place locations and say, “”I need a safe place.”” The employees of the business, who are required to go through a 30-minute training session, will then contact the Open Inn, which will provide the necessary help.

    “”We hope that seeing a Safe Place logo on a business or on any Sun Tran bus serves to remind them that there is someone who cares, day or night,”” said Jason Thorpe, director of community education and outreach at Open Inn.

    “”By just hopping on the bus and asking for help, the young person can escape the situation and get immediate help.”” They will then be taken to Open Inn’s 24-hour crisis shelter.

    Thorpe said Open Inn offers a full array of resources for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth, including outreach, a drop-in Youth Resource Center, 24-hour intake and assessment, crisis shelter, transitional housing and independent living and life skills education. According to Thorpe, Safe Place programs operate in more than 700 communities in 42 states.

    Fern Cornejo, an intake specialist at the Center for Juvenile Alternatives, a branch of Open Inn, stressed that services provided to juveniles are not confidential.

    “”We have legalities and if there’s a runaway report we do have to contact parents, the police, or we have to contact the legal guardian.”” She said juveniles occasionally refuse services because they are not completely private.

    Still, many accept Open Inn’s assistance.

    “”It gives kids a place to go when they don’t have anywhere else to go,”” said Joseph Litin, 20, a peer counselor at Open Inn. “”It prevents them from doing something stupid. They can come in and talk to a sensible adult.””

    Joseph’s story

    Litin was a student at Catalina Foothills high school when he started using OxyContin. His addiction to the painkiller led to heroin usage, and he eventually became homeless, living out of his car, with no money to pay his rent. The expense of his heroin habit caused him to spend the entire sum of his savings account and savings bonds in three months, about $10,000. Litin said he was always in danger of getting arrested because he lacked car insurance and current tags and had a suspended license. When his car broke down for good, Litin’s father let him park it outside his house.

    “”He knew I couldn’t be trusted, and he knew letting me into his house would just give me a place to stay while I did drugs,”” Litin said. “”His idea was that conditions in my car would soon become unbearable for me, and I would have to quit using drugs.””

    However, Litin’s addiction to heroin held him in thrall, and Litin turned to shoplifting and panhandling as a method to survive.

    “”I began stealing DVDs and electronics with some friends,”” Litin said. “”This ended quickly, as I am not the best thief in the world. I soon got caught, and then got caught again.””

    His friend showed him how to panhandle effectively for money.

    “”He would go out into a parking lot and tell people his car ran out of gas. After a few minutes he would come back with enough money to get us high. I began doing this once a day. I would go out into a parking lot and come back an hour later with $50 to $60 in my pocket,”” Litin said.

    Litin’s panhandling helped him support a $150-a-day habit. “”A few bucks here and there would go to food, but the majority would go to heroin.””

    After his 20th birthday, Litin decided to check himself into a methadone clinic. Methadone is a synthetic narcotic used to curb withdrawal symptoms from opiates like heroin, according to the White House Drug Policy Web site.

    Litin said Open Inn has been an integral part of his rehabilitation. He has been clean for four months now. “”My treatment is going on better than I ever could have imagined,”” he said.

    Litin is living in a studio apartment provided by Open Inn. He plans to continue working as a peer counselor for the organization and is taking classes at Pima Community College.

    “”Luckily, I escaped the grasp of heroin and I am currently earning my life back,”” he said.

    Making a difference

    Kathy Woolridge, the youth program coordinator at Skrappy’s, a local punk club and youth center, said Safe Place makes a difference.

    “”I have been working with youth for about 11 years now,”” Woolridge said. “”In the last couple of years, I have seen more youth in crisis than in past years. I believe there are a lot of different factors: economics, family breakdown and drug use among adults and youth is on the rise.””

    Woolridge said there are also other issues at stake.

    “”Government funding is always being cut, or the money for programs are short lived,”” Woolridge said. “”It is the band-aid effect which never works. The age group we serve is 13 to 25; we are not a high priority. We need all the resources we can get.””

    Open Inn will have its annual luncheon and auction on tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. at the Historic Manning House, 450 W. Paseo Redondo. The event will honor Project Safe Place sites and volunteers. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased by calling Open Inn at (520)318-9100.

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