These are not the pretty poor,” says Father Bruce Ritter. “Nothing touches the heart about a Times Square hustler. They’re America’s lepers.” Yet the Franciscan priest has taken on the seamiest strip of New York’s Eighth Avenue to try to salvage the teenage prostitutes, runaways and con artists who have no other hope. “If you wanted to create a system that would feed an unending supply of young people to the sex industry, you couldn’t devise a better one than New York City’s,” he says of the estimated $1.5 billion traffic flourishing there. Some 25,000 kids dead-end in Times Square every year, pathetic quarry for the 1,000 pimps police believe operate in the area. “Since the children have nothing to sell but themselves, they’re easily victimized by the so-called victimless crime of prostitution.”
An expert on child pornography and prostitution, Ritter, 51, has testified before a Senate committee on the problem—and on his own solution. He founded and directs Covenant House, which operates 10 residences for runaways who fall between the cracks of New York’s social services system. His proudest achievement is Under 21, a crisis center in Times Square that provides food, clothing and refuge to youngsters around the clock. Of the 8,000 who have sought help there, nearly 1,000 were 13 and younger. “Over 60 percent have had some contact with prostitution and pornography,” says Ritter.
Ritter himself grew up in Trenton, N.J. in a “very close, loving family.” But His widowed seamstress mother couldn’t afford the $50-a-year parochial school fee for her five children. After two years in the Navy, Ritter loaded freight cars and went to night school. He entered the Franciscan order in 1947. As a professor of medieval theology in the sheltered comfort of Manhattan College, Ritter first decided in 1968 to “exercise a ministry of availability” in New York’s East Village. With a small grubstake and his superiors’ approval, he moved into a $64-a-month junkie-ridden tenement. Suspected at first of being a narc, he supported himself by begging, preaching, teaching part-time and driving a cab.
“The only thing I’d brought with me from the 14th century that applied in the East Village was the concept of sanctuary,” he says. So when runaways began appearing at his door because no social agencies would help them, the by then streetwise Ritter set up his own illegal child care agency. He also began taking out $50 “nonfatal contracts” on junkies in his building, hiring sympathetic toughs to rob them of all their possessions and to disconnect the plumbing. As the junkies who had been hassling his operation moved out, Ritter eventually filled 18 apartments with his young urban nomads.
In 1972 the state finally sanctioned Covenant House, and today the staff numbers 130 paid and 180 volunteers. Thirty of them live in a nonsectarian but monastic religious community adjacent to the crisis center. These workers, including the 60-year-old widow of a state supreme court justice, run the crisis center, do the cleaning and laundry—and earn just $10 a week. “I have to raise a million dollars total each year,” Ritter says, indignant that public funds don’t provide more support. “I get most of it by preaching, sometimes seven sermons a Sunday.”
Though he’s faced bankruptcy “hundreds of times,” Ritter remains unmoved by bribes from massage parlor operators to stay away. Pimps insolently offer him “$500 for the youngest girl you got in there,” and the staff has been forced on occasion to defend the doorway against some men brandishing weapons. Ritter finds “It’s not a good idea to react with violence because they’ll always do you one better.” He sadly ticks off cases of kids who went back to the streets. “We had three girls murdered last year. One, Veronica, was 12. She was thrown out of a window. Another was chopped to pieces—she was 15. Another…”
Explaining that he has to have a “poor memory” or he would give up, Ritter counts his triumphs a day at a time. “If 40 kids don’t have to sell their tails tonight or rip somebody off because we gave them a place on the floor, no questions asked, that’s a success,” he figures. Poignantly, he estimates his permanent “success rate” at 10 percent. The sense of frustration and despair is so deep he commits his staff to only one year. Ritter believes he himself hasn’t quit because “I’m competitive, I’m stubborn, I’m arrogant and I hate to lose. I wish I could say I do everything because I love God and my neighbor and I’m kind and gentle. But sometimes,” Ritter adds knowingly, “when your virtues fail you, you fall back on your vices to survive.”