Waiting on the World to Change

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Abandoned homes, empty lots, gunfire, police sirens.

These are the sights and sounds of Camden, N.J.

Camden has been named America's most dangerous city twice by City Crime Rankings, an annual reference book. During the 2005 Christmas holidays, there were four slayings in 48 hours, all too characteristic of a place with a murder rate more than seven times the national average.

A typical morning in Camden, detractors say, could see 33 drug busts in less than three hours. Crack, heroin and marijuana are the currency of the streets, making up by some estimates a $43 million industry.

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Imagine trying to survive in this environment. Now imagine being a child, struggling to thrive.

Three young citizens allowed "20/20" to document their lives for 18 months: 6-year-old Moochie, who promised to get straight As in school; Billy Joe, a teenager determined to be the first in his family to graduate high school; and a homeless 4-year-old, Ivan, who had one big dream: "I want my room, and I'm never gonna get it."

Ivan Prays for a Superman to Find Him a Home

In a park, the "20/20" team met Ivan Stevens; his mother, Precious; and his little brother, Imere. Sometimes they spent the whole day dirty, hungry and homeless, with no place to go.

The owner of an illegal boarding house occasionally gave them a place to sleep. He padlocked the refrigerator to keep them from taking food, and all three of them slept on one chair, surrounded by clutter and roaches.

Ivan wished he could be Superman and fly on someone's back to find his family a home. "Superman" had also heard of kindergarten.

"I wanna go to school so bad. I wanna read," Ivan said excitedly on the first day of school.

On the way to school, though, reality set in, and Ivan realized that for the first time he'd be without his mother's protection. He was also afraid that the other kids would be mean to him, and he started to cry.

"It's alright. … You can be scared," his mother said. "But you gotta be a big boy. I'm not going to ever leave you where you [are] not welcome."

The teacher welcomed Ivan to the class, and he reluctantly said goodbye to his mother. A school administrator sat down and helped him get started.

"Do you know your threes?" asked the school district supervisor. Ivan easily counted the three wheels on the tricycle, but he was stumped when asked how many meals you are supposed to eat in a day.

Ivan, who has gone to school without eating breakfast, was puzzled. The words lunch and dinner seemed foreign to him. In fact, at the end of the day, when commenting on how great kindergarten was, he proudly showed the extra juice box he was able to take with him.

"I'm not going to cry no more, and I'm going to be a big boy," he said, noting that he also had eaten cheese with bread and applesauce.

Billy Joe's Academic Dream

In another part of town, 17-year-old Billy Joe Marrero was fighting the temptation to make easy drug money, and struggled to fulfill his wish of being the first in his family to graduate from high school.

"I'm very worried about my grades," he said. "I'm very scared. … I don't want to be a failure to myself and to my family. My father deserves to see me graduate."

It was Billy Joe's critical senior year, and his grades were rocky. If he didn't pass one of his English classes, his graduation would be in jeopardy. His teachers said, "He'd be miles past everybody" if he applied himself.

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