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Westside Weekly Section

Sunday, May 7, 2000

Westside Weekly News Photo

Jason Wittman, 58, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, offers psychological assistance as well as tangible goods such as condoms and food to gay youth on the streets of Hollywood.

Photo by STEFANO PALTERA / West Side Weekly

Taking it to the streets

Jason Wittman helps kids out of a life of prostitution and drugs, one curbside session at a time.


WEST HOLLYWOOD -- Propped up against his white van emblazoned with messages of safe sex, self-love and higher education, Jason Wittman, 58, aspires to be a beacon of hope in the lives of the street kids hustling on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Often he succeeds.

As each week brings new news about homeless sweeps by well-meaning city officials, police and business groups to clean up the vagrants, homeless and hustlers from the streets of Hollywood and West Hollywood, there is a newfound sense of urgency for people like Wittman. He must act before the young objects of his mission are pushed to even more hostile environs, or lost altogether.

"His mission is to get ahold of these kids before they are too far gone on drugs or catch an incurable disease," said former West Hollywood Sheriff's Department Cmdr. Bill Mangan, who works with Wittman on his mission to do "whatever it takes" to rescue kids from themselves and the dangers native to the streets.

Many of the mostly young gay males along the boulevard sell themselves for money, using it to buy the street drug crystal meth, which lays further waste to their bodies and can lead to unsafe sex and starvation.

The weight of guilt carried on their shoulders is disguised by a walk of imagined freedom, seen in their swinging hips and flapping hands. Fumes of crystal meth reek from their pores.

Meth is popular on the street because it's cheap, the high lasts for hours, and its mentally distorting effect masks deep wounds and hidden fears.

"A lot of us gay kids don't have families to rely on," said David, 21, a former street kid who now lives in an apartment in West Hollywood. "It's easy for us to get caught up in drugs and prostitution when we have no family to go home to or a job to show up for in the morning."

They've come to live on the streets of a neighborhood where being gay is just one more way of being.

"He is an adult on which the motherless child can rely," David said of Wittman.

Each night Wittman, a West Hollywood resident, chooses a corner, such as McCadden Place and Santa Monica Boulevard, and sets up a table with baskets of condoms and Starbucks pastries, extending an open invitation to troubled youths via a nonjudgmental smile.

Wittman makes himself available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through his nonprofit Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services and a 800 number. His is a one-man rescue effort to assist, support and teach youth to change their self-destructive behaviors, using 12-step programs and counseling techniques to boost the self-esteem of his clients. A longtime counselor, Wittman now finances his nightly rounds from private donations.


The street kids emerged furtively on a recent Friday night as the sunlight dissolved into the dim glow of the city lights.

"Hollywood is like the carpool lane on the freeway," said 20-year-old "Tweedy" as the streaking beams from headlights illuminated his boyish face, yellow locks and glazed eyes.

"You don't get out until the double yellow lines break. And that's not for a long time."

Tweedy was spinning from a recent sequence of events that had led him back to this street corner where the night before, he explained, he had watched a friend -- clasping a plastic bag and a syringe -- fold into a familiar car.

He desperately asked Wittman to help him find the missing friend.

Tweedy wrenched with despair while telling the story, shifting to the right and looking over his shoulder anxiously, then repeating the move on his left side. He had been searching the streets since sunrise when his friend didn't return to their hotel room in West Hollywood. Acquaintances on the streets had no answers. Signs of his return were bleak.

Wittman reached in his back pocket and dialed the West Hollywood Sheriff's Department on his cell phone. The officer at the station recognized Wittman's voice immediately.

"There's a young man missing," Wittman announced.

A young man who frequently dresses like a woman.

"Do you [want to] know her last name?" queried Tweedy of Wittman, wanting to be helpful, his words tinged with fear.

Wittman already knew the youth's last name, however, and rattled off a detailed description to the police. Afterward, Wittman embraced Tweedy to console his boiling fears.

"His card is in my back pocket," Tweedy said. "I can always reach him. That goes without saying. And I live the night life so my hours are ungodly."


In 1995, Wittman and Mangan were both moving hustlers off the streets, but using different methods. Wittman was trying to acquaint the wayward kids with a job and a healthy lifestyle, while Mangan and other members of his departmentwere arresting them for prostitution.

"He [Wittman] made us realize that we were achieving short term results,' said Mangan. "So we began partnering with Jason to get long-term results [in removing the hustlers off the streets of Hollywood]."

Mangan began to believe in Wittman after watching him spend hour after hour talking with the street hustlers.

"He became a nonthreatening ornament on the street," said Mangan who is now Commander of Correctional Services Division of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. "So we gave him a block of sanctuary to counsel these kids. As long as they didn't solicit sex or make a public side show in their drag on the boulevard."

This policy gave the kids a safe zone, in which they couldn't be arrested -- as long as they were trying to get better. Mangan would also tell hustlers who were locked up at the station about Wittman's services. He gave them Wittman's card and would say "he can help you find a better way to earn a living."


"To hustle they have to divorce their feelings from their sex equipment," Wittman said.

If they can't find other means to feed themselves, then the crystal meth numbs them from the pain of performing sexual acts for money, say the kids. Many of them don't eat much. Peter, 21, who spent three years on the streets, painfully recalled agreeing to perform oral sex for 50 cents after not eating for days.

Because he found hustling emotionally devastating, Peter spent much of his time "spanging" -- street youth lingo for begging change.

Back at the corner, a shout of joy bursts out of a dark man named "Malaysia" dressed in pastels, skipping away from the 24-hour burrito stand on the corner.

He repeatedly called out "Jason," as he approached the van, nearly tripping over the homeless man slumped against the wall across from Wittman's station.

"He's like our daddy," said Malaysia twirling his hair wrapped up in pigtails. "He takes us to the doctors and to meetings. And he feeds us."

This is why on the Hollywood streets kids call Wittman the "Crystal Angel," because he can help rescue them from the miserable depths of addiction.

"I call it sneaky counseling," Wittman said. "They [the kids] think 'hey I just shoot the bull with Jason."'

Many of the kids don't know he is giving curbside counseling to help them get out of the gutters in which they have fallen.


Over the last five years, Wittman has redirected approximately 100 youths off the streets, said Mangan, who has served as chairman of Wittman's Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services board of directors during that time.

"He plays three different people," said Manny, 20, sitting on the curb under the glare of the boulevard lights. "He juggles between a family member, a friend and a counselor, depending on the moods we are in."

Manny left home to chase a dream of Hollywood rock stardom three years ago. Since then, Wittman has been preaching sermons of self-love to remove the demons of addictions dwelling in his soul.

The street counselor understands the youngsters' dilemmas: having battled addictions of his own 23 years ago, before a 12-step program helped him recover.

Wittman went on to earn a master's degree in counseling psychology, hitting the streets of New York City in the early '70s with a heart full of empathy.

Finally accepting his own homosexuality, Wittman specialized in offering a helping hand to troubled gay youths who reminded him of himself at that age.


One of the first things Wittman does for street kids is sign them up for Medi-Cal through county social services.

Then it's back to Wittman's office where the youth are instructed on how to create a resume and dress for a job interview.

He'll then set them up with voice mail and bus passes.

"Outreach strategies are an effective way to find youth and link them to our services," said Susan Rabinovitz, associate director of the division of adolescent medicine at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, who is familiar with Wittman's work.

"Jason has been there for it all," said David, a client of Wittman's for four years. "It was anything from 'Jason, I need water' to 'Jason, I need a college education."'

David is now off the streets. He works for a restaurant in the evenings while attending Santa Monica College during the day.

As the two embraced at the WeHo Cafe on a recent Friday night, Wittman proudly shared David's triumphs. But not for long. He was soon interrupted by the jingle of his cell phone. On the line another youth explained his evening crisis. Duty called. With a smile, Wittman shot a look at the clock. It was half past midnight. "I do whatever it takes," he said with a well-worn smile.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

Please write to Jason Wittman, the Executive Director with your comments and questions.

Copyright © 1996-2014, Los Angeles Youth Supportive Services, Inc. All rights reserved.