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AT COMPASS HOUSE, MANY FIND THEIR WAY

The one-story building on Main Street is a blank face -- white concrete, glass block windows, almost ugly in its plainness. Nothing about its appearance hints at what goes on here. Nothing suggests that it is, for many kids, the social net's equivalent of the Last Chance Hotel.

There are hundreds of them out there -- lost kids who have been kicked out of or run away from broken families. They are on their own, usually with no money, no job and little hope. Many of them find their way here, to the Compass House resource center.

"We're the last line of defense between some of these kids and jail," said Sylvia Nadler, Compass House director. "They've been thrown out of every place else."

The recent torture killing of 18-year-old James Jerome Mack reminded every social agency worker how high the price of failure can be. Mack's body was found, burned, in a church dumpster.

The killing hit particularly close to home here. The five young people accused of the murder were regular visitors to the Compass House resource center.

The news devastated the staff.

"None of us have any idea of a motive," said Nadler. "None of the (suspects) knew (the victim). My guess is a four-letter word -- rage. There's an anger level these kids have, because of where they are."

The five suspects came from broken homes; two were reportedly abused as children. But that history is typical of those who come here, said Nadler, and no justification for violence.

"So many of our kids have had horrific lives," she said, "and they don't go out and harm people."

In fact, she said, the kids here are far more likely to be victims than victimizers.

"They're trusting," said Nadler. "They don't think that somebody who gives them money or a cigarette or a place to stay might harm them or want them for sex."

No one knows exactly how many kids are out there, living in shelters or at crash pads with friends. Nearly 250 of them last year found their way to the resource center. They ranged from 20-year-olds with records to frightened teenage runaways. Caseworkers and counselors try to lure them back to the real world. Many times, they do.

It's a measure of success that four of every five kids who came to the resource center last year stayed out of the court system.

Kids come here for counseling, a meal, a safe place to hang out. Case workers try to get them jobs, a place to live or back home or in school. They learn how to cook, to do laundry and to settle disputes with words, not fists.

"They do a lot of things," said Tonia, 20, a runaway and resource center regular, "for people who don't have nobody or nothing."

They found Tonia an apartment last year. Like dozens of these kids, she spent Thanksgiving and Christmas at the resource center. Her Christmas gifts were pots, pans and a toaster oven from resource center workers.

Nobody has to come to the center, or come back.

"Maybe they come four times a week," said Nadler, the director, "but then they leave and go back to where they crash with other kids. They can't get jobs. Some of them can't read. They don't have social skills.

"We try to convince them," she added, "that it's more noble to work at McDonald's for minimum wage than to sell drugs for three times as much."

High staff turnover

Nadler has trouble keeping staffers.

Starting salary for full-time caseworkers, with a college degree, is $14,000. Nadler works a 60-hour week and makes $39,000. There is a budget of $843,000 (mostly federal, state and county money) to pay 28 staff workers and run the resource center and a nearby 13-bed residence house, an emergency shelter for runaways and abused teens.

"I can't hire staff for the salary I pay," Nadler said. "Most of them have a second job so they can afford to work here. Every time a caseworker leaves (for a better-paying job), kids feel abandoned like they've been abandoned so many times before."

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, calls the staff salaries "ridiculously low."

"These people are incredibly dedicated, but they've got families to feed," said Hoyt, a former Compass House board member. "If they hadn't been there for thousands of kids, who knows what would have happened?"

The day the five were arrested, Nadler brought in counselors to talk to distraught workers. Though she is no stranger to tragedy, she said she "spent half that day crying."

The mood inside the center is usually lighter. On a recent afternoon, there was laughter and hugs. The feeling was as much clubhouse as counseling center.

Kids hear about the place from a friend, a cop, somebody on the street. Unlike court- or school-referred agencies such as Baker Victory or Gateway Human Services, nothing forces them to come.

"We can't fix a kid in a week or two," said Nadler. "But if we can get them to trust us in that week, maybe they come back long enough so we can help them."

Some show up the first time in ragged clothes, smelling bad, with everything they own in a plastic garbage bag.

"Some of these kids don't see themselves living past 23 or 24," Nadler said. "It's not like, 'If I mess up again, it means I'm not getting into Harvard.' "

Success stories

Nearly 600 kids last year came through the Compass House residence and resource center. There are plenty of successes. Compass House "graduates" are working at M&T Bank, Client Logic and other local companies.

"For every one we don't save," said Leslie Potempa, resource center director, "I can think of several who -- because we spoke for them in court and kept working -- ended up off the street and in a real job."

Amber Cain came to Compass House at 17, after saving her mother from the live-in boyfriend who beat her. He was about to stab her mother with a hunting knife when Cain, screaming, ran to the bedroom phone and dialed 911.

Afraid that the mother's boyfriend would kill her, she took to the street. She had no ID, crashed in a roach-filled apartment, didn't eat on some days and washed her clothes in the bathtub.

Soon after coming to Compass House, she wrote:

"When I cut myself today I had no intention of killing myself. I did it because I need to see my blood sometimes to know that I am still alive. . . . The weak kill themselves while the strong live to die every day."

Five years later, she is working and going to college.

"If it wasn't for the people (at Compass House)," she said, "I'd be dead, a drug addict or a prostitute. I was pretty much curled up on the floor."

But many are not saved. Nadler remembers a kid so damaged he wore pajamas to court appearances. He eventually hanged himself in jail. As next of kin, he listed his Compass House caseworker.

The ongoing battles, Nadler said, distract from the losses.

Robin is 17, talks almost in a whisper, plays with a cigarette she never lights. She doesn't know her father. Her mother kicked her out last fall.

She lives at the YWCA. She comes to the resource center for meals, bus tokens and counseling. They give her laundry soap to wash the clothes she's wearing -- Army jacket, big shirt, floppy jeans. Those are the only clothes she has.

Where would she go, if not here?

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know."

Weeks after Mack's killing, the staff is still shaken. Asked about it recently, caseworker Kelly Perkins started crying.

"I know we can't help everybody," said Perkins, 24, "but this (murder) is just overwhelming, so completely sad."

What happened, said Nadler, reminded the kids here of where the streets might lead.

"The reaction we got from some these kids," said Nadler, "is, 'It could have been me in that dumpster.' "

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