Seattle, Washington, USA. At a downtown intersection an unchildish group of 'kids', none of them over 16 and many much younger, are gathering. They are there to sell drugs to each other, or their bodies to 'dates'. This is where they live. Now, in the documentary film Streetwise, their lives will be seen in Britain.
February 2, 1986
Report: Mike Bygrave

The short stardom of a child prostitute.

Erin "Tiny" Blackwell has her problems. She is 16, her mother is an alcoholic, she hates her stepfather, she is a prostitute, she is pregnant by a black pimp, and she lost $16 on Friday and therefore didn't have the money for her favourite discotheque on Saturday night. Two years ago, when the photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, the British director Martin Bell, discovered Tiny and put her in their Oscar-nominated film Streetwise, things were pretty much the same, except for the pregnancy.

While Streetwise features a dozen or more characters, to Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny--then 14--was always the star: "Even the other kids think she's a star. She has that rare quality of being able to be totally honest and open about expressing her emotions on camera."

But Tiny Blackwell is no actress and Streetwise is no Hollywood entertainment. Tiny's problems are real problems and Streetwise is a documentary about some of the estimated 600-800 children who quite literally live on the streets in Seattle, Washington. The film is an extraordinary close-up look at a world thousands of people drive or walk past every day, but never really see, in any of a score of big American cities.

It's a world of teenage runaways, prostitutes and addicts, forming their own makeshift subculture closely parallel to that of Britain's punks, skinheads and soccer hooligans--a world of boredom punctuated by sudden outbursts of violence, of despair and deadpan humour, of "dumpster diving" (scavenging food from rubbish bins) and "dates" (the invariable euphemism for prostitution).

Rat and Mike (with gun), who feature in Mary Ellen Mark's and Martin Bell's film Streetwise, photographed in 1983 for a Life magazine story which led to the film. For them nothing has changed in Seattle.

Above all, it's a world of children. Jerry Esterly, a Seattle probation officer with a maverick reputation, says: "All kids live in a narrow world--of school, their friends, their families but with delinquent kids, it's really tunnel vision." And Mary Ellen Mark, an internationally-known photographer who has covered major disasters like the famine in Ethiopia, adds: "Because they're part of my own culture, more than any story I've worked on it seems as if these kids have become involved in my own and my husband's lives. They're so needy, these kids, your heart goes out to them."

Getting something to eat, finding a place to sleep and making enough money to go dancing or buy alcohol and drugs make up the daily routine of street life as seen in Streetwise (which opens in England this month) and there can be no greater proof of the strength of these invisible boundaries than the history of the film itself. Since it was shot 30 months ago, Tiny Blackwell and some of the other kids have flown to New York for the premiere, attended the Oscar ceremonies in Hollywood and became, for a while at least, local celebrities in Seattle. Go back to Seattle today and the same kids are in the same place doing the same things.

Ask them about seeing themselves on screen and they shrug with the sulky embarrassment common to teenagers the world over and mutter "it was cool" or "it was OK". Whatever it was, it wasn't real, not as real as the action at First and Pike Streets, the downtown intersection where the street kids gather to sell dope or themselves, alternately to support and to savage one another, and where Tiny Blackwell got her nickname (she is a slight 5ft 3 1/2 in).

Yet it didn't have to be that way. Mary Ellen Mark recalls: "So many people wanted to help these kids, and Tiny in particular. A very reputable New York agent wanted to take her on and she was brought down to Los Angeles and offered an acting role in a good film. She turned her back on the people and wouldn't read for them, and she's not normally shy. She just doesn't know how to relate to anything positive for her. To me, it's inconceivable, seeing what she's gone back to."

So what went wrong? Tiny doesn't like to talk about her lost chances, except to say she "couldn't have done the other movie 'cos I was pregnant". About anything else, she talks remarkably openly. She ran away, aged 13, from a mother whose drinking was out of control and at times she has got as far as Portland or Los Angeles, but she prefers to stick around Seattle because "I can't live on my own in another state, like in LA you need money and stuff. Here I always have somewhere to stay." Besides, in Los Angeles, a much bigger city than Seattle, things are too violent and too threatening even for the Tinys of this world. "I was staying down there in this hotel which is like for crazy people and the manager didn't want me there 'cos I wasn't crazy, so he hit me in the leg with a machete."

Tiny displays her wounded leg. There are other wounds, scars which are visible only in the matter-of-fact way she talks of rape and the mechanics of prostitution, and the indifference which could be any 16-year-old's act, but isn't. "I got raped and this friend of mine knew about it and was getting money to help with it. This was like a long time ago [about three years]. I figure she was talked into it or something. She's apologized since and stuff. I was a virgin and this guy devirginised me and made me do anal sex and things. He was a date." (Tiny means a customer.) "He'd done this to a lot of girls and he wouldn't even pay them afterwards." Tiny shakes her bead at this ultimate outrage. "He was weird. But I figure, if you're on the streets, that's what happens when you trust someone too much, like I trusted this girl."

Tiny wasn't always so worldly-wise. When she first ran away from home, she actually went about two miles, from her house to First and Pike. Since Seattle is a city of 17 million people including suburbs, with a working-class tradition, in climate and in feeling something like Leeds or Manchester, First and Pike Streets aren't Broadway or the Champs Elysées; and whatever glamour downtown Seattle has is mainly mental. As Teresa Killsguard, who spent 11 years as a social worker on Seattle's streets, says: "What these kids find downtown is a combination of total freedom and an instant family. The other kids take care of newcomers for a while and support them. Then, of course, they find they have to go out and turn tricks to pay it back."

Teresa Killsguard actually met the then 13-year-old Tiny on Tiny's very first night downtown. As Killsguard and a number of other helpers, both professional and amateur, do with every newcomer, she told Tiny the facts of street life. But Tiny didn't listen. "She said it would never happen to her, which is what they all say. Later that same night, I heard a friend say to Tiny: 'I'm going to turn a trick, do you want to come watch?' and Tiny got in the car and that was her introduction." Killsguard, who quit social work when she got married a year ago, explains: "The kids don't regard prostitution as a crime. There are kids who won't deal dope or rob anyone, but they'll hook or pimp each other, and that's just what you do to make a living. One of the reasons I quit is I started looking at it in the same way, and you can't do that and remain effective."

Tiny herself says she isn't "working" much as a prostitute these days because she's seven months pregnant. She finds that irritating, since it cuts her off from the "fast, easy" money she's used to, but on the other hand she doesn't really want to be a prostitute. She doesn't really want to be, or do, anything, except go to the all-night disco, find somewhere to sleep and, of course, have her baby. "I want a girl. Because they're so much fun, you know, you can dress them nicer, in cuter clothes than boys, and you can do their hair real nice. I jumped up and down when I found out I was pregnant, I was so happy. It's mine, all mine. It's my baby, nobody else's."

If Tiny talks about her forthcoming child as if it were a doll or a pet, her views on things like birth-control and abortion echo those of America's leading politicians, up to and including President Reagan. Tiny is currently having a falling out with her friend Kim, now 18, who was also in Streetwise but who has left Seattle, moved to New York, found a job and wants to be an actress. "Kim makes me real mad," says Tiny. "I hear she's pregnant by a black guy and she's going to get an abortion. That's murder, you know. She could have used a condom. Me, I knew it was going to happen sometime, I just didn't know when. I wanted it so I didn't take precautions."

Tiny's new best friend Elisabeth, who is 15 and has also worked as a prostitute "a few times", adds: "You mean, except with a date."

"Oh yeah, with a date!" says Tiny.

Kim (left) with Dewayne, who had a crush on her. He later committed suicide.

Who are these children and why are they living like this? According to Jerry Esterly: "The street is like a drug. It has a certain glamour to begin with, your body's strong, maybe you've got a little fat, your coat is warm, you're not hungry, you can take it. There are three kinds of street culture. There are the black kids who go down to prey on the white kids. Many of the black kids have homes and families, and they'll go downtown to deal or be the pimps, then go home at night. Then there are the white kids from middleclass, good homes who may be looking for excitement. These are the ones like Kim who, if they're lucky, will survive and grow out of the street and get back into society. Lastly, there are the ones who have no place else to go, who are down there for serious stuff, like Tiny."

But Tiny does have a place to go, currently the bare subsistence apartment of one of the two men her mother Pat lives with, if living is the word. Unemployed and alcoholic, Pat Ropell loves her second husband Tom, who is also a drunk, refuses to hold a job and beats her, while she is loved in turn by quiet, romantic Larry, a dishwasher whom she despises for not standing up to her. It sounds like the plot of the television soap operas Pat Ropell watches all day in between doing jigsaw puzzles and drinking and making periodic trips to the charity Food Bank for giant tins of beans and apple sauce and cast-off turkey legs. There are three rooms in the apartment and only mattresses for beds, and while Tiny and Elisabeth (who's not even sure where her own mother is living right now) retreat there to change their clothes and snatch some daytime sleep after their nights at the disco, they are frequently frustrated in their quest. This very weekend, Tiny has spent half of Friday night fighting with her mother and her stepfather, who were fighting with each other. Tiny threw a pot of chilli at her stepfather, which at least was less lethal than the knife she threw at him on another occasion, or the time he tried to choke her. Mary Ellen Mark says: "Sometimes I think all of these people in Tiny's family thrive on the violence in some awful way." Tiny says of her life: "I have so many fights with my mom and [step] dad. We fight all the time, so sometimes I don't feel I have a life." Certainly it's a ménage where everybody throws everybody else out of the house with regularity, and everybody always comes back, having no place else to go unless it's to an abandoned building, another relative, another street kid's place with equally awkward parents, or the Greyhound Bus Station.

It's a familiar story to anyone who has read Up The Junction or seen the likes of Cathy Come Home, as true in England as in America: what takes place when working-class existence hits bottom and, under the impact of illness or unemployment, booze or bad luck, splinters into anarchy. Only in America they up the ante. In America, you can wind up not just destitute but dead.

If Tiny is the star of Streetwise, Lulu Couch deserves the title of Best Supporting Actress. "Lulu," says Teresa Killsguard, "was known as 'the queen of the streets'." A hefty, cheerful lesbian with a whisky-and-cigarettes rasp, Lulu went "downtown" from the age of nine, egged on by some of her seven brothers and sisters, escaping from her ramshackle house where there is precious little furniture but a state-of-the-art stereo and projection television, where 20 people of various races and ages live, where strangers are viewed with suspicion but others are always arriving and departing on mysterious "business" and where, as at Tiny's, it is very hard to get enough sleep. On the streets, Lulu says, "I got beat up a lot at first--like for about six years, man, I took everybody's shit. After that, I just thought, I'm going to let every little kid who comes down here thinking it's cool know what's happening. Like Tiny--I stood up for her a lot."

Indeed she did (a favour Tiny later repaid by accusing Lulu--to the police--of acting as her pimp), and not just for Tiny. Lulu became the enforcer and unwritten arbiter of First and Pike. Whenever there was a fight, Lulu would be in the thick of it, sorting out the combatants, knocking heads together and, as shown in the film, on occasion forcing miscreants to make formal apologies to each other. Lulu's form of unpaid social work was only somewhat vitiated by her penchant for alcohol and under-age girls, but in the eyes of the street kids she was a heroine. "I was always a tomboy, a tough-ass," she said. "I'm the type of person who says, 'Never say you can't do anything."

Lulu Couch (right), defender of Seattle's street kids, with her girlfriend Dawn.

Still, at the ripe old age of 22 (and it is a ripe old age on the street), Lulu had a feeling she couldn't keep doing what she was doing for much longer. She did 10 weeks in jail last summer and it was "one too many" arrests for fighting and drinking. She'd been severely shaken by the suicide of a young kid named Dewayne, shown in Streetwise, who was "like my own kid". She was thinking of getting a job, but she had no skills and no education. Still, she was determined not to feel sorry for herself. "Sometimes," she said, "I think about what my life would have been like if I hadn't gone downtown. Probably have some stupid dishwashing job by now."

Shadow, who is 20, is another of the Streetwise characters currently feeling his age. On the street in several cities since his father threw him out of the house when he was 10, he is one of the toughest kids in the film, if only from necessity. Now he says he's given up that life and is studying social work at a community college. "Things have changed a lot [since the film was made]," he claims. "Money's harder than hell to come by because I'm not doing anything illegal to get it. What got me off the streets was my last jail sentence when the judge told me if he saw me before him again I'd get my 'max', and my 'max' is 10 years."

Teresa Killsguard is doubtful about Shadow's chances of success. "He says he's trying--and he has tried in the past--but in the next breath, he tells you he was drunk all day in class. These kids live in a cycle of failure. They're so used to the streets and the code of aggression and lack of trust, of survival, that when they get a job or something, at the least hint of criticism, or someone ordering them about, the kind of irritants we all have to deal with, these kids overreact wildly, get fired or thrown out, and end up back on the street, having failed again."

Jerry Esterly says: "Most of the kids in the film won't end up as criminals, most of them are going to turn out just to be very inadequate, pretty hopeless adults. Take Tiny. She can't see she's well on the way to repeating her mother's life, to turning out like her mother. How do you tell any kid that? We learn everything from our past but we don't learn anything because we don't see it."

Esterly is known as a maverick among probation officers because "I don't have any faith in the system and I never have had"; but it is hard for any system to help those whose needs, emotional as well as physical, are so great.

Donna Schramm, a social researcher, says that when the film Streetwise came out, it split the social work community. "There were people who thought the film exploited the kids. I disagreed. My only criticism of the film is that it doesn't show many of the middle-class kids, or the middle-class families who simply lost their child to street life and drugs, not through any abuse or neglect on the family's part. The kids in the film look like other people's children. In fact, street kids are anybody's child."

Tiny and her friend Elisabeth got their money to go to the disco that weekend. They got it "the easy way", by letting "an old man" listen to them go to the lavatory--and "we weren't in there more than three minutes: that, and a couple of strokes". A couple of hours later, they were in the teenage dance club giggling together, wearing sweatshirts with pink roses on them (which hid Tiny's pregnancy), sipping banana creams, feeling too shy to dance until the floor filled up and generally acting like the epitome of sweet sixteen.

Their disco closed down around 6.30am and, after an unsuccessful attempt to crash with a friend, they showed up at the Sheraton Hotel and slept on the couch in a journalist's room for a few minutes. After that, the rest of the day presented itself to them in its usual fashion: get some sleep, get some food, get some money to go out again.

Lulu Couch didn't get home on Saturday either. She missed the last bus and had to wait until 6.30am to make the 20-mile ride out to Rainier Valley, where it was as empty and grey as any English Sunday. There she tried to get some sleep, curled up on a couch in the house full of 20 people. She was having rows that weekend with her new girlfriend, Olwen, a girl who had seen Streetwise, searched out Lulu and announced that Lulu was her heroine (much to Lulu's suddenly shy delight). Now Lulu kept going downtown without Olwen. "I had to tell her," said Lulu, "that two people in a relationship can't be together 24 hours a day. I need some privacy and time on my own."

That argument went down about as well as it usually does, and by the following Thursday Lulu had relented enough to take Olwen downtown with her. On First and Pike it was business, and boredom, as usual and the two girls went into a video arcade. They encountered some Hispanic guys who started hitting Olwen. That was a red rag to a bull to Lulu, who leapt in there with her usual mixture of temperamental bravado and genuine desire to defend the underdog. She didn't leap out again. This story began with a dance and ends with a death. Lulu Couch died of stab wounds received around 11.58pm on December 12, 1985. According to Seattle homicide detective Lieutenant Gray, "Thanks to extraordinary co-operation from the street people" he has a suspect in custody charged with second-degree murder. The suspect, as far as anybody knows, was also living on the street.

Portfolio of a street girl



The 'star' of Streetwise is Erin 'Tiny' Blackwell, 14 when she was photographed dressed up for a Hallowe'en party while the film was being made, 16 when Mary Ellen Mark met her again recently. On the strength of her performance Tiny was offered a part in a reputable film--and refused even to read for the role. Now she is pregnant, and still living by picking up 'dates'.

Tiny, at least, has somewhere other than the street to go from time to time. Her alcoholic mother Pat (left with Tiny) lives with two men: one, her husband, whom she loves; the other a man who loves her (and is the only person with a job in the apartment).

As Tiny's baby grows (it's mine, all mine… nobody else's') she spends less time 'dating' and more with her mother (above).

Recently she went to Hollywood, to the Oscar awards (for which Streetwise was nominated) and was photographed (right) with the film's British director, Martin Bell.

Angela Wilkes

In Britain most prostitution by juveniles (under-17s) is “underground”, organized through contact magazines and clubs. Thirty girls aged between 14 and 17--and two between 10 and 14--were dealt with by courts in England and Wales in 1984 for offences like soliciting. “But the criminal statistics will never let you know the scale of the problem,” said a Home Office spokesman. “And they don’t take into account adults charged with having intercourse with children under age (16).” There is a link between sexual abuse and prostitution. Says child psychotherapist David Pithers, Of the National Children’s Homes. “Some 70 percent of sexual abuse takes place within the family. Many of these kids tell us that they later went into prostitution because it gave them some independence and they could make money out of what was being taken away from them anyway.” Pithers estimates that there are “thousands” of youngsters involved. He also sees an increase in juvenile male prostitution, often by boys in care who’ve absconded : “It’s a common route and it’s difficult to extricate them because they’re moved on so quickly.” Metropolitan police inspector Alex Fish, who has worked in a special squad dealing with street prostitution by juveniles, says : “There are men operating the ‘meat rack’ – a parading point near Picadilly Circus – who can supply boys as young as 8. “Up to 300 boys aged 8 to 16 “taking a day off school, going home at night” might work for a ring. There are comparatively few women under 16 on the streets, he says. Child prostitution is not new. “In Victorian London,” says Pithers, “there were around 100,000 including children of seven and eight. We are just discovering what has always been there.”