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Children take shelter

The kids staying at the Southwest Key Program in San Diego were already homeless.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | SAN DIEGO, Calif. | October 31, 2003

"It was an amazing thing that our facility was spared."

—Ismael Avilez

The kids staying at the Southwest Key Program in San Diego were already homeless. The 17 of them, ranging in age from 7 to 17 and hailing from places like Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala and China, were found rambling around the United States without their parents.

That's how they came to have bunks at Southwest Key, a nationwide nonprofit that provides homes for foreign refugee kids, said Ismael Avilez, the director of the San Diego program.

"Some of them are being smuggled in for child labor," he said. "Some venture to the United States trying to better their quality of life with a job or education."

Now these children have been forced out of the only home they did have, Avilez said, because of the fires that swept through the suburbs of San Diego.

The building incurred relatively minor damage - blown out windows, smoke stains but it came through much better off than several others that were destroyed in the immediate neighborhood.

"It was an amazing thing that our facility was spared," he said. "In comparison to everyone else, we fared very well."

But the children have not been able to return to the building, Avilez said, because of safety concerns about propane lines and general structural integrity.

In the meantime, the kids are bedding down in sleeping bags on the floor of the Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in the town of Poway, about 20 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Ron Stebenne, the church's youth director, said the kids are doing fine, but they could use cots to sleep on. Stebenne, along with workers from The Salvation Army, are trying to find the kids some temporary beds.

"Right now we're basically just opening the doors," Stebenne said. "We're trying to do the best we can to make them comfortable, but it's not like home, that's for sure."

The Salvation Army is providing the children with food, water and hygiene products, said Captain Angela Strickland. The kids are also provided with recreational activities - "mostly indoor activities because the air quality's not the greatest right now," Strickland said. And on Halloween, the kids are having a special barbeque as well as a volleyball tournament.

But, after Halloween, the kids will still need something softer than the church floor to sleep on. And soon, when their Southwest Key building is ready for use, they will be back in a home of sorts.

From then on, Avilez said, he and his coworkers will continue their efforts to locate family members of the children, in order to move the kids out into a stable family environment.

"Once we have the adolescents in our facilities, we go everywhere in the United States and try to find family members who can sponsor them. And we try to reunite them with their families."

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