By Anne Ryder, WTHR reporter
INDIANAPOLIS – In Indianapolis right now, more than 3,000 children do not have a home of their own. 13 years ago, former Channel 13 anchor Anne Ryder went under bridges and into storm sewers to show us the hidden world of "children of the street." Recently, she returned to find them.
Life can change in an instant for these kids in an act of violence, abuse, or a parent who dies or loses a job. We were shocked by the conditions in 1998 when we followed a small group called Outreach into the world of homeless children. Now, their numbers have tripled.
In 1998 the children of the street were children of the night. They slept in storm sewers beneath the city and in abandoned concrete storage bins.
Back then, Outreach worked by foot and flashlight, three Christians in their twenties venturing out in the middle of the night. Outreach founder Eric Howard had food, clothing and first aid in his van. but the magic was in his eyes.
We met April, who was selling sex for drugs.
"I needed that comfort feeling," she said.
Howard never saw April again.
Chad was a graffiti artist and rail rider, a freedom junkie who'd been kicked out of his house. That was then.
Now, Chad is living, working and still painting in California, an Outreach success story.
A decade ago, Mary Provence was a trained social worker who connected with homeless kids when she washed their blistered feet. Now, she has two children of her own.
But the homeless kid no one could forget was the self-proclaimed witch, with magic marker makeup living under the bridge 13 years ago – Raven.
At the time, Raven had already been four years on the run from an abusive past. We followed Raven through stoned nights, illness and repeated attempts by Outreach to get him help.
"Know when the last time I cried was? When I was really really little. I'm incapable of doing that anymore," he said.
Years later, Raven burglarized the Outreach office, confessed and did jail time.
Raven, whose real name is Michael Bauges, is now a man of 30. We took him back to his stomping grounds.
"I thought I knew what was best for me. Everybody seen that when I was underneath the bridge all painted up and looking crazy and that isn't what I really needed," he said. "What I really needed was to put myself together and there was nothing in me that could do that."
Bauges said he was saved by a pastor and his wife who enrolled him in Bible college.
"They treated me literally like their own kid," he said.
But he dropped out after a year when she died of breast cancer.
"I'm not homeless because I bounce from house to house to house but home is where the heart is and I have no place to have a heart where I can say this is mine," he said.
Love, faith and home are the foundations of Outreach, which is still serving kids and growing. The Outreach drop-in center looks like a house, the table set with china plates, and the smell of tempting food.
The kids trade chores for laundry privileges and help finding permanent homes and jobs. Outreach caseworkers are in now every IPS school helping homeless kids like Kalecia graduate.
"I'm actually the only one of my mother's kids to graduate and actually make it to college," she said.
Fifteen years after Outreach began, it has grown from a tiny street team to a multifaceted resource for homeless children. A program that started in the trunk of Eric Howard's car, serving a few kids, now serves over 600 young people a year, and its staff of 13 has blossomed, say organizers.
On the street, where it all began, the numbers and needs have tripled. Campfires by the river have become small tent cities, and for kids living in tunnels and tents, the risks are greater than ever.
One girl showed us a large knife that she kept in her tent for protection. The kids on the street are tougher now. They have to be.
But the biggest surprise is that children now comprise the largest percentage of homeless people in Indianapolis on any given night. The average age of a homeless child is eight years old.
Next week, we track the so called "invisible" homeless children as they get off the school bus hoping they wont be seen as they walk to the shelter – what they call home, for now. There is hope and help for these kids. We'll go there, too. Watch my story next Wednesday at 11pm.