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Undergraduate took to streets for Stanford homeless study

STANFORD -- It was research, but Stanford University student Todd Rubin found his year-long study of homeless teenagers anything but statistical and impersonal.

"There was one girl - I'll call her Rosa - who was a 14-year- old from Gilroy, California," Rubin said. "Her mother had a boyfriend who was hitting on her for sex, and the mom felt threatened, so she ran Rosa out of the house."

When Rosa first went on to the streets, she was taken in by a man and three of his friends, who sexually abused her for a month in exchange for shelter.

"The last time I saw her, she was living under a freeway in San Jose with a group of homeless kids and homeless adults," Rubin said sadly. "Her new 'parents' were a couple of 17-year-olds. 'These are my family,' she told me. 'My parents don't care about me; my mom told me I was a mistake.'

"All Rosa really wanted was for her mother to love her, but that wasn't happening. So she was living under this bridge, and she was trying to have a baby. She was trying to get pregnant."

Rosa's story was poignant, but not unique. Rubin interviewed 50 homeless teenagers at length last year as part of the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth, and almost every one spoke of verbal and physical abuse at home - and the despair of living on the streets.

"These kids told me about things most people have never heard of," Rubin said, shaking his head. "Satanism, cults, molestations, physical and emotional abuse - parents who said, 'You're worthless, you're nothing, you were a mistake, I don't want you, I don't love you.'

"One of my questions to them was 'Do you have problems with hearing "voices" '? And this one kid said, 'Yeah, I hear my mom even today screaming at me and telling me I'm worthless. I'd rather have my best friend beat me up than have my mom yell at me.' "

Rubin, a 21-year-old Stanford junior, comes from a loving suburban home in Washington, D.C., but he is no newcomer to the world of homelessness. As a teenager, he worked in legal clinics for the poor and in organizations designed to help homeless adults.

"Issues of social justice have always appealed to me - it's just the way I was brought up," he said. "My parents were good people who instilled a lot of ideals that really sank in."

He had a harder time finding his niche in the academic world.

"I had no real idea of what I was going to do with my education," he said of his first two years at Stanford. "I had already decided to take a year off - to get a little distance from school - when I heard about this project."

The Stanford study appealed to Rubin because of its youth- centered approach. Most of the existing literature on the subject had described the teenage homeless population through the eyes of service providers.

"I wanted to get a holistic view of the kids' lives," Rubin said. "I wanted to find out where they had come from, what decisions they were making, what their life on the street was like, their fears and worries, what kinds of services they wanted, what they saw in their future."

With the help of Stanford sociologist Sanford Dornbusch, Rubin designed an 18-page questionnaire covering the teens' reasons for separation from home, their life on the streets, use of public services, family background, school attendance and health.

He contacted the teenagers with the help of social worker May Petersen of the Emergency Housing Consortium in San Jose.

Dressed in torn jeans, a sweatshirt and baseball cap, Rubin played it cool and worked hard to gain the trust of the wary teenagers long before he ever took out a pencil. Those who finally did agree to a two-hour interview were taken to a local restaurant and given a meal.

In the end, though, what the teens seemed to appreciate most was the chance to talk.

"I think the kids found it satisfying to be able to tell their whole story, not just one piece of it," he said.

"Maybe, if people really understood these teens as human beings, there would be more sympathy and understanding."

Rubin was one of 35 Stanford students who assisted with the Stanford Studies of Homeless Families, Children and Youth. The students helped to design questionnaires, conducted interviews, coded data and assisted in analysis and interpretation.

Besides the study projects, at least three senior honors theses and two doctoral theses are expected to come out of their efforts.



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