First of four parts

He lingered hour after hour, day after day, on a basketball court jammed between a fast food joint and a drug rehab center. Others came and went for a few games before moving on. But Iven Bailey, tall, sinewy and 17 years old, stayed put as the summer sun disappeared over Northeast Baltimore. You could say the court was where he belonged. It would be truer to say he belonged nowhere else.

After midnight, exhausted and parched, he could finally abandon the blacktop. Iven stole down the street to a rowhouse a block away. He rapped on a basement window, softly enough, he hoped, to avoid waking his friend's grandmother, so he could sneak inside. Otherwise, he would have to look elsewhere for a place to sleep. This had been his routine for the past two years: one night a friend's couch, the next someone else's basement. No solution was permanent, no bed his own.

At school almost no one knew about his vagabond existence. That was how he wanted it. Even in a city where destitution abounds, Iven's hand-to-mouth life embarrassed him; he labored to keep the details hidden.

Then one day in his senior year, he unexpectedly found someone to confide in, someone with a covert life of his own. After football practice, a teammate invited Iven to tag along with him to his rowhouse on Guilford Avenue.

What Iven found astonished him. Gary Sells had no heat, no hot water, no food. And it was plain that Gary had no parent either, not there anyway.

Gary was on his own, too.

Iven and Gary were among the 2,289 Baltimore students - 2.6 percent of the total - who were believed to be homeless at some point during the 2004-2005 school year. Of those, 1,049 were listed as having lived in a shelter.

But not Iven and Gary. They were part of a nearly invisible group of teenagers living unsupervised by parents or any other adult. The most cunning and persistent are able to get by, but in the face of considerable risk and privation.

Gary invited Iven to spend that first night with him in his second-floor bedroom, one of only two rooms in the house with electricity. Iven understood that Gary had shared the grimness of his situation, and now Iven found that he wanted to do the same.

Together, they boarded a bus for the hourlong ride to the unheated, overcrowded apartment in West Baltimore where Iven had been staying. That night, they shared a bed with several of his relatives. "I took him up there to show him like we aren't different, for real," said Iven.

That was last fall, the beginning of Iven and Gary's senior year at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School. In some ways, they participated in the normal joys of teenagers - cutting up with friends, flirting with girls, getting behind the wheel of a car. Their friendship deepened in the course of their tumultuous year even as their paths diverged.

It would be a time of fits and starts for Iven and Gary, and also a time of resilience, connection and, even in dire circumstances, the glimmer of hope that the future could be better than the present. But only if someone stepped in to help. And only if they got away.

Their neighborhoods - filled with both kindness and menace - might have been the only homes Iven and Gary ever knew, yet the boys understood that those communities also could destroy them.

Both had already found their way into drug dealing, and with the prevalence of violent crime around them, it seemed as possible that Iven and Gary would end up in prison or shot dead as that they would graduate.

They were like so many teenagers living precariously in Baltimore, improvising their way to adulthood. The city's prospects for ameliorating poverty, crime and addiction might turn on what happens to young people much like them.

As their senior year began, both boys fastened on escape from their neighborhoods as salvation. Iven, lean and shy, wanted to go to college. The husky, boisterous Gary hoped at the least for a career that would pay for a home in the suburbs.

Either way, one steppingstone struck both Iven and Gary as mandatory. Finishing high school - an audacious goal, given their situations and the high drop-out rate - was the only route out.

An adored father
Iven Elliott Bailey II was named for an uncle, a boxer from Philadelphia, but the man Iven adored was Ronald Franklin "Chicken" Bailey, his father.

The rowhouse Chicken and his wife, Janet, rented within sight of Clifton Park bulged with children, and not just Iven and his two sisters. There were also Janet's grandchildren (she had a son in another relationship) and a few cousins. Chicken didn't mind. He liked kids.

He worked as a truck driver for the city and was apparently a good provider and attentive to his kids. In the backyard, he set up a milk crate, so he and Iven could shoot baskets. On weeknights, Chicken prepared the dinners, huge meals with meat, potatoes and vegetables. Saturdays, though, he declared "Everybody for Themselves Day," when everyone could raid the refrigerator.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, Chicken unfolded a long table in the living room and covered it with pies and cakes he had baked for the neighbors.

In contrast with Iven's father, his mother, Janet Bailey, was an intermittent presence in the boy's life. She disappeared from the Tivoly Avenue home for periods of time, Iven said, but his father always took her back when she returned.

Iven liked school, but by the eighth grade, he was causing trouble in the back of the English classroom with other boys, and he was failing. He didn't want to be forced to repeat a grade, as he had once before, so he went to see his teacher. She told him to start sitting in the front row. When other boys jeered him, he would say to them, "I am going to pass." He did.

The next year, he began at Lake Clifton, a colossus of a school built in 1971, which was ruled as much by the students as by the administrators and teachers. Many of Iven's peers dropped out, but Iven knew his father wouldn't approve of such a step. Besides, staying in school gave Iven the chance to do what he liked most of all, playing football and basketball.

But all was far from well. Iven's father had heart trouble and eventually started using a wheelchair. He had heart surgery, suffered a stroke and then, in September 2002, another stroke. Iven watched as his father was loaded into an ambulance. The next day, Iven went to the hospital and found him lying unconscious. He hugged and kissed him. A few days later, while Iven was practicing football on the school field, someone broke the news. His father was dead. Iven was not yet 15.

The loss of his father made his mother's absences more harmful. Iven had long sensed that he couldn't depend on her, but then, he'd never felt that he had to. "I felt like I wasn't going to be taken care of," he said. He moved out of his house and in with a friend named Brandon Butler and his mother, who lived a few miles away in a brick rowhouse. The mother, who had once lived next door to Iven on Tivoly, had walked him to elementary school for years. "She treated me like a son," he said.

Iven kept a tattered photo of his father in his pants pocket. Sometimes, Iven had the feeling that his father came to him in dreams with advice for his son. "Me and my father was real close," Iven said. Brandon sometimes heard Iven crying inconsolably in the basement.

A few months after his father's death, Iven was walking to school with friends when he saw his family's possessions piled up against a tree outside the Tivoly Avenue house. He was too embarrassed to retrieve any of his belongings and simply walked by as though unconcerned about the eviction. "I was hurt," he said. "It seemed like everything was crumbling, and I wasn't used to it."

During the next two years, Iven said, he moved around the neighborhood, living for a few days or weeks at a time at one house or another. But he noticed that people became less and less willing to take him in. He didn't want anything to do with social services, having heard horror stories from a relative and friends who were sent to group homes.

His clothes sometimes looked grungy, and his pants were so large that he usually held them up with one hand while he walked. But he liked the way he looked with gold fronts on his teeth.

At first he relied on charity from the neighborhood and from selling drugs. Iven had no moral objections to dealing. He just didn't want to get arrested or shot.

He could have tried to get a job at a fast-food restaurant, but, Iven said, "the money was easier" with dealing. Also, the hours fit better in his schedule. "In the morning you would hustle, then go to school," he said. At night, he would resume dealing.

By the end of Iven's junior year in high school, he was selling drugs every day. When school ended, he couldn't help wondering if he'd even be alive when Lake Clifton opened its doors again in the fall. Still, he told himself, he knew no other way. "You've got no choice, for real," he later said.

In July 2004, the police arrested him in his neighborhood with six vials of crack cocaine in his mouth. "I was on my bike, and I was waiting for someone to come through so I could sell, so I could get me something to eat," he said.

At 17, Iven was locked up. He doubted anyone would come bail him out. But someone did.

"I don't know how they found my mother," he said.

Losses pile up
Gary Sells Jr., "Geezy" to his friends and family, craved order. He ironed his T-shirts, hung his hats and lined up his shoes neatly. He had his beard meticulously carved into a thin crescent. He was too fastidious for a tattoo.

It was the chaos that drove him out of his home at age 14, the screaming babies, bottles of soured milk and late-night partying of nine relatives squeezed into a two-bedroom house. He loved his mother, Deborah McCrorey, but he knew she was hardly a model parent. She used drugs and didn't much care whether Gary and his three sisters went to school. "I started getting a big head on my shoulders," Gary said. "I don't need no mother."

He moved to his grandmother's Guilford Avenue rowhouse, where Alice Sells had lived since 1967, a force of stability in his family. Sometimes his father, Gary Sr., joined them.

But Gary's change of address did not spare him sorrow or trouble. In March 2003, Alice, who instilled good manners in her grandson, succumbed to cancer.

Gary had begun selling drugs and was on the street one night that May, thinking not so much about hustling as about getting in shape for football, for what would be his junior year next season. "I was debating ... whether to walk around and condition my body or sell drugs for a couple more hours," he said.

That's when he heard the shots, and in a flash was sprinting away. But after a half-block, he felt something warm and wet trickling down his leg. He stopped under a street light next to a church and looked. It was blood. He started running again, propelled the rest of the way home on adrenaline. "Dad! Dad!" he yelled as he burst through the front door. "I've been shot."

An ambulance took him to the hospital. Gary was treated for gunshot wounds in his foot and thigh and was released the next morning.

There was no evidence that Gary was an intended target. Two gunmen wounded five people, including Gary, and killed a sixth over two weekends. Both men were convicted and sentenced to prison.

After Alice Sells' death, Gary's father entered a veterans hospital for treatment of his heroin addiction, leaving Gary on his own. When the father completed the treatment, he moved in with a girlfriend in Northwest Baltimore and did not invite Gary Jr. to join them.

"I just stopped my responsibilities at the house," the elder Sells said. "I wasn't really making any money ... to take care of myself, much less a household. And I was getting high, and it just wasn't working out.

"My son was seeing this, and he knew what was going on. I had to get myself out of there in order to get myself together. If I am not happy, then no one around me is going to be happy. So if I am not well, then no one is going to be well. So I have to do what I have to do for me first."

For Gary Jr., the losses kept coming, the worst of all on Oct. 9 that year when his mother died of narcotics and cocaine intoxication.

Iven and Gary were on the sidelines at a varsity football practice when one of Gary's male relatives jogged up and told him of her death. Gary fell to the ground sobbing, while his teammates circled around him.

It was the same field where one year earlier Iven had learned of his father's death.

'Daddy's not coming back'
Lisa Tarter was sitting in her office at Lake Clifton in early August 2004 when she heard screams from somewhere in the empty school. When she investigated, she found a skinny, grimy boy with dreadlocks, stretched out on a hallway floor wailing and yelling expletives. Standing nearby was a slight, drawn woman who was responding to the wails with a lament of her own: "Daddy's not here; he's not coming back."

That was Principal Tarter's introduction to Iven Bailey and his mother, Janet.

Tarter was not one to give in to juvenile tantrums, but there was something about the desperation in this scene that moved her. "I don't like to see any child go down," Tarter said, "but it occurred to me that any child that dirty - there has to be something more to this story." She ordered Iven to pull himself together and join her in an office.

Iven calmed down enough to explain to Tarter what had gone wrong. An assistant principal had just informed Iven that he couldn't play football as a senior because he had failed a world history course his junior year. But sports was one of his few pleasures, the main reason he came to school. He couldn't stand the idea of not being able to play.

Tarter listened and relented. She drew up a contract with Iven. If he did extra schoolwork that she assigned, he could play football. That August, he did the work under the street lights at night and at school in the afternoons.

From then on, Tarter took an interest in Iven. "It takes a lot," she said, "when you are that young to have to walk through a drug-infested area, across the street into a school that has had a miserable history up until now ... and say, 'I want to do this.'"

Tarter is a blunt, indefatigable woman who came to Lake Clifton in the fall of 2003. At the time, many school districts across the country were making efforts to break up big, unmanageable urban schools. That certainly described Lake Clifton, where the hallways had become the staging ground of dice games, assaults and sexual liaisons.

Lake Clifton was reduced from 2,100 students in the first two years that Iven and Gary attended to just 296 students by their senior year, after which the school was to be closed for good. The downsizing would prove crucial for the two boys, who got attention that otherwise would have been unlikely.

At 52, Tarter radiates authority. She is perpetually composed, armed with a dry wit, and almost always dressed in a suit. She came to Lake Clifton after 25 years as a teacher and administrator in other city schools and believed herself well acquainted with poverty and its challenges.

About one-third of Baltimore's children live in poverty and half are in a household where no parent has a full-time job, according to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report based on the 2000 U.S. Census. At Lake Clifton, about half of the students were poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program, and fliers advertised help for homeless families.

Despite Tarter's experience, she found herself appalled by the particulars of her students' circumstances.

There was the mother who told her daughter in Tarter's office that she was leaving the country and that the girl wasn't coming with her. And the boy with seven siblings and a drug-addicted mother who had been living for months without electricity. There was the girl who went into labor during school, and no one from her family wanted to take her to the hospital.

Tarter was outraged by what her students endured and angry about a society that didn't do more for them. The school system wanted principals to concentrate on improving test scores and graduation rates, but Tarter knew her students couldn't accomplish as much without help on family and social problems.

Like every principal in Maryland, she was required to report to the state suspected cases of neglect, homelessness or abuse related to children under 18.

Iven and Gary had both turned 18 by the fall of 2004, making it harder to find help for them. But Tarter tried, going well beyond the requirements, as she so often did.

With the help of teachers and staff, she contacted one social service agency after another on behalf of at least 30 different students. For Gary and Iven she made several attempts but found few programs available for their age group. She set up a work-study program specifically at her school for those who were most financially strapped.

She called her students "children," signaling to them that although they faced harsh realities they deserved carefree hours. She strove to make Lake Clifton a haven, where birthdays and holidays were celebrated and accomplishments trumpeted. And, even with a largely impoverished population, she insisted on spreading a message of hopefulness. Posters in the hallways proclaimed, "We are college ready."

Iven and Gary found refuge in that setting as their senior year commenced. Each morning they greeted their friends at their lockers, their pant legs mopping the tile floors as they grabbed hands and hugged. At 6-foot-4, Gary towered above others, making it easy for him to spot Iven.

"Whenever I get in school," Gary said, "first thing I say is 'Where is Iven?'"

It was as though Gary needed reassurance every morning that his friend had made it through the night, that he was, in their words, "maintaining." Iven did the same with Gary. Each seemed to always know where the other was during the school day.

Despite their affection for each other, they were contrasting personalities. Iven enjoyed nonfiction books, which he borrowed from twin girls down the street, and said he liked going to church, sampling a different one every Sunday. Gary avidly played video games, rolled dice and strolled around the neighborhood with the three pit bulls he had acquired for companionship and protection after his father had moved out.

They were temperamentally distinct. Iven was an optimist, either too naive to appreciate the size of obstacles before him or willfully unconcerned. Gary was a fatalist and less willing to indulge in hope.

Each encouraged the other to get through the year and try to realize their goals. Iven wanted to go to college, even if he didn't know how exactly that could be accomplished. Though a miserable student, Gary had ambitions, too. His mother might not have insisted that he attend school each day, but he remembered her admonishing him that he'd never amount to anything if he didn't get his diploma. He put a metal bracelet on his wrist to remind him of his intention to graduate. He put on a second one to symbolize his desire to do even better - either go to college or get a job that paid well.

The boys were not entirely different. They both loved sports, although neither was unusually gifted. In the fall, they played football, Gary at tackle and center, Iven at wide receiver or quarterback. The team finished with a mediocre record, and then it was on to basketball season. Iven, who had been a point guard for the three previous years, persuaded Gary to go out for the team.

Gary didn't show up for the first practice, and Iven worried. The next day, Gary arrived, but without the right shoes for basketball. The coach found a used pair of his own for him in a back room. Luckily they fit.

Twice a day the players had to run timed sprints. Iven easily completed his laps and then dashed back to push Gary along toward the finish line.

Creating a sanctuary
If the boys were sad, it didn't show. Actually, Iven and Gary thought of themselves as doing better than many of the young men they knew from their neighborhoods. "I am still here. Still standing tall, still walking tall. I don't see things got harder for me yet," Gary said.

Gary had created a sanctuary for himself in the front upstairs bedroom, which he shared with his 19-year old cousin, Kevin Braxton. He had paid a guy $50 to run electricity from a utility pole to power the room. He had a mattress on the floor, a recliner, a microwave, a space heater and an iron. Curtains covered the two big windows overlooking Guilford Avenue. "I may not have everything legal, but some people don't have their own house," he said. "You can do what you want to do... have company you want to have."

He pinned up photos of his family, including a discolored shot of his mother in a bright print shirt standing with him as a little boy on a porch.

He turned elsewhere for other necessities. He hauled laundry to a relative's house and showered at the home of his girlfriend, Alexis Lewis, and her mother, who lived a few blocks away.

Without parents around, Iven and Gary found themselves leaning more heavily on the adults in school. Gary especially liked Cheyanne Zahrt, a young science teacher from Nevada who attended all his football games, listened to his complaints and lightheartedly fussed at him when he missed school or didn't do homework. She also invited him along with Iven and other boys to lasagna dinners at her house on Sunday nights.

On the outside, Gary might be the tough kid, but what Zahrt saw was a "caring, respectful and intelligent young man. ... I think he knew, and I knew, that if I gave up on Gary, no one else would push him."

Money was scarce. Gary, like Iven after the death of his father, got several hundred dollars a month in Social Security benefits after his mother's death. Gary Sr. kicked in a small amount on top of that. Gary made extra cash by reselling merchandise he bought on trips to Sam's Club with Zahrt.

Until Iven turned 18 in October 2004, his death benefit had gone to his mother. Even after the Social Security check began coming to him directly, he felt compelled to hand over a portion of it to his family.

Iven was still living a nomadic existence. If he regarded any place as home, it was his school. He stashed clothes in his locker, wandered into Zahrt's room for snacks of oranges, apples or homemade cookies and stopped by Tarter's office nearly every day to talk for a few minutes.

In the fall of senior year, he wound up in a west-side apartment with his mother and two older sisters, Sherita and Ebony Bailey. He hoped his mother had straightened out.

"I remember when she was sober, but more I remember when she wasn't," he said.

One day last winter, Janet said in an interview that she enjoys drinking beer but added, "I am trying to stop drinking."

Iven told himself that the reunion meant that they could all start living like a regular family again.

The apartment was cold, though, and there was never enough food. Iven slept in a bunk bed with his head lying inches from a broken window patched with cardboard.

Living there entailed an hour-long bus ride to school each morning. Sometimes, he arrived hungry. One morning, he told Tarter that he hadn't eaten since lunchtime the day before. She gave him breakfast. Tarter was so disturbed by the incident that she resolved to find Iven a better living situation. There was no way he was going to graduate if he was poorly fed and living on the other side of the city. Shelters for women and children didn't allow older teenage boys, and men's shelters were reluctant to take them.

Sometimes, Iven would flop at Gary's, and sometimes at the home of a woman named Betty Jones, who lived two doors from Iven's former place on Tivoly. Jones was an old friend of his family's, and Iven referred to her as his godmother.

Iven told Tarter that he wouldn't mind living with Jones.

Soon after, Tarter and Zahrt paid Jones a visit, along with Iven. When they got out of their car on Tivoly, a crowd of men and boys stared suspiciously at the smartly dressed principal and the young teacher. "We were all being eyeballed, like we were coming to invade on their property," Tarter said. Then someone recognized her. "That's Ms. Tarter," a voice said. "She's the principal of Lake Clifton."

Iven led them up the steps to Jones' well-maintained house. Tarter entered with the sharp eye of a social worker, pleased to note that Iven was comfortable enough to go straight for the refrigerator. The house was neat inside, furnished with green leather couches and a dining room table of glass. Tarter thought it a good sign that Jones was so organized that she already had put up her Christmas decorations.

Tarter made a decision on the spot. She asked Jones if Iven could live there. Jones was agreeable but only if she were paid rent. The women quickly negotiated an amount - $150 a month, which Iven could pay out of his work-study wages from school.

Tarter called Iven in from the kitchen. When she told him of the deal, she said, he was silent. "I said, 'Iven, if you live life, you have to pay for where you live.' So he just nodded. I said, 'Is this agreeable to you?' He said, 'Yes, ma'am.'"

Iven was satisfied with the arrangement. He would be assured of food, a room of his own, a place where he could wash his clothes. Best of all, he was again within a five-minute walk of Lake Clifton. And in the days after the move, his teachers were encouraged to see that he was cleaner and seemed more focused on his work.

But Iven was not without misgivings about being back on Tivoly. He worried about the drug trade that flourished there and the bursts of violence that occurred without a moment's warning. And, in truth, he didn't fully trust himself, his own capacity to avoid trouble.

Iven knew the sorts of things that happen on Tivoly.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com