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Shepherd of the Streets Gave Direction to Drifters

Four years on Boston streets are over for Ron Woolley. In some ways he was a little like a mailman, always there, rain, shine, or snow. But forget letter delivery. His trade was helping lost souls.

"It's really been a privilege to be this close to street life," Mr. Woolley says, standing in the rain near Harvard Square., one night recently, "and not be caught up in it so much that you can't make sense of it."

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Five nights a week for four years, in jeans, shirt, and cap, Woolley would approach clusters of teens including baby-faced drifters, recent runaways, or seasoned street dwellers looking for drugs and hanging out at Harvard Square. Or it was more serious addicts in Boston's "Combat Zone," or young male or female prostitutes near Park Square.

"Hey, what's up?" he would say, balancing a low-key demeanor with a no-hassle directness. "I work at this place called Bridge. It has a bunch of free stuff like medical care, some services, education and if you just want to chill out and talk to someone."

He'd offer a card with the "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" address to add a touch of credibility that can cut through the distrust clouding teens on the streets. Sometimes he'd stay and talk, hearing a lot of bluffing from teens going nowhere, sometimes it was the beginning of the slow turnaround of a young life.

But four years of street work have ended for Woolley. Changed and honed by his experiences, he is walking off the streets into Harvard University. "I'll be studying for a master's in education," he says, and then on to teach high school students somewhere.

The streets that Woolley learned to know so well are often a dumping ground for the problems of teens and families today. Many of the unwanted, unloved, and unmotivated end up on the streets. The Children's Defense Fund estimates that more than 1,200 young people run away from home every day in the US, and experts say the numbers are increasing.

"We've had a huge influx of 14- and 15-year-olds in the last two years," says Woolley," and many of these kids are sort of off-the-wall and out of control with substance abuse." The lower age level is a change from the 19- to 20-year-olds who were more common on the streets in the past.

In Harvard Square the number of in-depth contacts with teens has jumped from 119 in 1991, to 766 in 1995. Woolley and two other street workers made the all-important initial street contact for Bridge, an agency that has been rescuing street kids since 1970. Bridge offers counseling, medical and dental services, support for pregnant teens, or provides transitional housing plus education and job training.

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Difficult lives at home

"The potential for rape and victimization is always high on the streets," Woolley says. "But what says a lot about where these kids are coming from these days is that they will tolerate things that are intolerable. Some of the young women who are raped say, 'Well, that's the price,' and you wonder what was going on at home."

Every night Woolly would drift back and forth between Harvard Square, and downtown Boston. "Harvard Square isn't hard core," he says. "It's mostly punk-rock kids and hippie kids. On the surface it looks like a crazy community of sorts, a friendly place where they can party and get away from feeling bad about themselves."

Yet kids get beaten and drug deals go bad as teens drift in and out of the scene. Many are not homeless, but testing the open waters because of difficult home lives.

Downtown Boston, around Park Square and the Commons, is "hard core" at night. Here addicts are dealing and using. "Crack cocaine is huge," says Woolley, who was such a steady presence downtown that older "residents" there knew him. "In four years I had only one incident," he says. "A drunk guy pulled a knife. I said, 'Look, that's not why I'm here,' and backed away. It caught him off guard."

Woolley joined Bridge after graduating from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., "I was arrested during a political demonstration at Cornell," he says. "Part of my sentence was community work in a shelter, and I came away thinking direct service was more important to me than political action."

Virginia Price, clinical director of Bridge, says, "Ron's interpersonal skills with kids who were distrustful of social worker types was just phenomenal. Kids trusted him, yet he had the ability to be confrontational when he needed to be."

To be effective at getting kids to recognize their needs, street workers at Bridge have learned to practice a kind of tough love and to be honest. "It's really important to be straight with them because no one else on the streets is honest," says Woolley. When friendships started to build with some of them, Woolley took that friendship and connected it with Bridge services, not just leaving it at the personal level.

"A kid says to me he really wants his GED [high-school equivalency diploma]," says Woolley. "I tell him where to go to start the process. Two weeks later I see him and he says, 'I really want my GED.' I tell him he really doesn't because he's not doing anything. So I say to him, 'Let's talk about something else,' " Woolley says. "We're not just supposed to be nice to these kids. I tell them the connection isn't really for me, but to help them explore things." Sometimes it would boil down to when it was appropriate to offer a teen a chance to sit down and talk. "To get the kid away from the others, "says Woolly, "to get him to relax so he didn't have to be whatever it is they are in that environment, I would sit down with him."

A deep sense of obligation

Woolley, who loved being outside all the time and had respect for what some kids endured, also had a deep sense of obligation for the professionalism of the job. This helped him not to bear what could have been a burden.

"Kids have died and kids have been shot," he says, "and I know there is nothing I could have done about that, either that I did have or didn't have a conversation that could have prevented it."

Woolley seldom saw the full cycle of street drifter turned into responsible job holder or student. "Part of the nature of street work," says Ms. Price, "is that your successes leave. Each night Ron saw the kids that haven't succeeded. Our highest priority is to get the kids before they get into the street scene."

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