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‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids

Runaway youth have always fled to cities but they now find themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even the fully employed are barely scraping by

The first thing Zach Hicks did after he was run over in Roanoke, Virginia, was to write a Facebook post. He kept it simple: I just got ran over by a truck. The first commenter was his mother, hundreds of miles away in the midwest, who also kept it simple: WTF!?!?!?!?

He was retrieving a dog, Sobaka, that hed been given by a band of Hells Angels. The dog had bolted and was cowering beneath an 18-wheeler truck. Against his better judgment, Hicks crawled under to pull Sobaka out, and was hit.

The wheel started going over my leg, and then my side and then the side of my face, he says. I know what tire treads look like from underneath.

That was August 2015, two years after hed left home in Oregon. Today he is resting in a secluded alley on Masonic Avenue, a stones throw from Haight Street in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, the children with windy feet ran to this very block from parts unknown, in search of something anything during the Summer of Love.

The kids are still coming, along with legions of tourists who ensure this neighbourhoods street signs are among the worlds most photographed. But this is a side of San Francisco few will ever see.

Hicks is joined by a dozen tattooed and pierced young men and women wearing luminescent orange vests. They smoke, sip Gatorade, and all but inhale three donated pizzas between shifts sweeping the pavement and wiping graffiti off the walls. Some of these young people ran away from home, some were abandoned, and some experienced a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Christian Calinsky, the founder of Taking it to the Streets, a work and housing programme for young homeless people, considers it largely a difference without a distinction in his mind they simply left home.

Theyre both on the same playing field, man. I really cant distinguish, says Calinksy, 44, a former runaway who was homeless for large stretches between ages 12 and 34. All their traumas are the same in my mind. But I dont see people as their trauma. I see them as their potential.

Hicks, 22, has plenty of both. He sports a beard like a rhododendron bush and a rugby players build. He has piercing blue eyes, a ready smile, and the phrase 25 Jokes tattooed across his knuckles. Thats how I make my bread when Im on the road. And its five for a dollar; when you buy in bulk you get the extra joke.

A
One in every 25 public school students in San Francisco is homeless. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

His story is instructive of the modern nature of runaways in the US. Hicks grew up in the economically depressed, dope-saturated Pacific Northwest. He shows me his ID; yes, he really was born in 1995. Mum was around bikers, he says. I grew up in a double-wide trailer and she ran meth for bandits. She had me and stopped but we still had all our connections to the brotherhood.

He says his father would take him away as a toddler, only to mistreat him. After interventions by Child Protective Services, he ended up back in his mothers custody. Before too long, Hicks says, I got into some bad shit. He burgled the medical marijuana outfit, making off with four pounds of pot; the next time he tried it, he found himself with a gun in his face.

After several years at a facility for at-risk youth in rural eastern Oregon, he was placed with an older family member who had started smoking meth and was living in a backwoods, hickerbilly town where the only things to do are smoke meth, smoke weed or drive a big truck around in circles.

Like many young men and women across the country, he says he had no choice but to leave. He ended up in a fetid squat, first rooming with meth friends and then, after a police raid, sleeping alongside them in a cave in Bend, Oregon. There, high and morbidly curious, they set his sleeping bag ablaze.

At the age when most young people are ready to start their adult lives, Hicks was ready to end his. But then he met a train-hopper traveller kid who asked me to smoke a bowl with him and tell him why I was crying. Hicks confessed that he couldnt take being homeless in this town forever (he still refers derisively to non-transient homeless people as home bums) but had no money to leave. The traveller laughed, and said: Alls you need is a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tarp, and a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie [pen] so you can make some money. Thats your credit card.

And so Hicks ran away to a new life. He hitched three rides over five days from Virginia to San Diego. If you get in the wrong car or piss off the wrong person, youre dead. One false move and youre done. And then he smiles. But it is fun, man.

Larkin
Larkin Street Youth Services provides housing and education for young people in San Francisco

Counting runaways

New kids like Hicks arrive at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre in San Franciscos Tenderloin district every day. Theres still an honest-to-goodness bulletin board here, where hand-written messages are folded and pinned. One features several selfies of a grinning teenage girl and the words, Olivia, call Abuelita. A pair of kids amble in and glance at the board. Ah, says a tall boy. A new one.

Kids have always run away from home. The places they flee to, however, are changing. Todays runaways are finding themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even fully employed and well-educated people are finding it increasingly difficult to scrape by. In San Francisco a city with a $10bn municipal budget and a population of only around 870,000 one of every 25 public school students is homeless. Thats about one in every classroom.

I tricked with the hustlers in those days, says Jeff Sheehy, who is now a city councilman representing the predominantly gay Castro district, a Mecca for many rudderless LGBT youths running from untenable home lives.

Nearly half of San Franciscos young homeless people identify as LGBT. Sheehy left home in 1988 after he was blackballed by his family for revealing his homosexuality a common storyline in this city, whether they live in a luxury condos or in a van by the river. Sheehy partied with kids who were hustling and lived four or five to a room, in single-room occupancy hotels on Polk Street. He worked a series of menial jobs to pay for food, beer and $300 a month rent.

Now those single-room hotels are gone; Polk Street has gentrified to the point that its no longer even a gay neighbourhood, with 400 sq ft flats in Sheehys old building now starting at $2,564 a month.

Its hard to know for certain whether there are more or fewer runaways now. A federally funded national tally is due this year the first since a Department of Justice survey back in 1999, which estimated that 1.68 million young Americans had experienced a runaway/throwaway episode.

Zach
Zach Hicks left Oregon, and found himself in San Francisco. Photograph: Joe Eskenazi

But counting young homeless people is hard. As the billboard at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre testifies, they excel at only being seen when they want to be seen. Fluctuations in national tallies more likely represent changes in the counting system than in the on-the-ground situation.

A recent jump in runaways could be due to a new law which mandates that foster service providers file reports when their charges go missing, explains Preston Findlay of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). You never want to be an alarmist when you say theres been a dramatic increase, Findlay says. In this case, one small silver lining is that it may in part be due to better reporting.

Once away from home, young people are more vulnerable than the adult homeless population. They can, as Hicks noted, get in the wrong car.

I do have to be more cautious with [some folks] in my speaking to them because of the trauma they suffered from males, says Calinsky from Taking it to the Streets. Findlay confirms that of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways who reported to his organisation in 2016, one in six was deemed a likely victim of child sex trafficking. Of those, seven out of eight were in the care of social services before they went missing.

As well as LGBT youth, foster children are also heavily overrepresented among the runaway population. In San Francisco, one in every four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child; and one in every five foster children is expected to experience homelessness within four years of leaving the programme.

Audrina is all of the above: a transexual former foster child who ran away to San Francisco from Billings, Montana. She is the eldest of six children; her mother was just 15 when she gave birth. I ended up getting taken away from her. I was in foster care for five years, says the shy, petite 24-year-old. I got adopted by what I thought was a good Christian family. But they became more and more abusive of me.

Following a violent confrontation when she was 17 with her adoptive father, she left home and has been travelling ever since. She started drinking, then doing stronger stuff. This is my one-year anniversary of being sober from meth, she says with a wan smile. I was walking around each night looking for a fight, carrying knives. And the one night I didnt have my knives on me was the only night I ever got into a fight.

The fight was both a horror and an exhilaration and it took its toll. My chest started tightening up and I ended up falling down and having a seizure on Van Ness Avenue. I was overdosing on meth. She quit cold turkey. I have no idea how.

She recently formed her own group at the citys LGBT centre aimed at helping fellow young people. Shes doing great, says Calinsky, though Audrina is a harsher critic: My life has been a series of stupid choices.

A
In San Francisco, one in four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

A homeless homeless centre

Fuck sciatica, fuck the fact heroin makes me throw up and fuck these stairs, says a barefoot young woman. She is young, but walks with a cane as she climbs the steps to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, passing Mary Howe who props up a sign reading Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA).

This is an office shift for Howe, the organisations executive director and a former heroin-addicted runaway. On Christmas Day in 2013, the HYA lost the lease on its longtime drop-in centre. Ever since, the homeless centre has itself been homeless.

Theres something to be said for putting a lot of effort toward youth who are homeless, Howe says. In the long run, its cost-beneficial. They are the ones who will become a part of the adult homeless population.

At every level of government, money has been allocated towards alleviating chronic adult homelessness. Adults remain the neediest and most visible representatives of a shameful national epidemic. But Darla Bardine, the executive director of the National Network for Youth, notes that the federal funding necessitated by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2008 has been flat for years.

In San Francisco, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars is allotted annually to combat homelessness, but only 8% of it is directed toward young people despite 21% of the citys tallied homeless being younger than 24.

In California, homeless youth advocates were overjoyed to secure an additional $10m in yearly state funding to be split among Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Thats a step up from the $1.1m the four counties split for the prior 29 years but its still a paltry sum, representing less than 0.01% of the states $125bn budget.

There have been some wins: in recent years San Francisco has opened several hundred housing units earmarked specifically for young homeless people. Many units are additionally reserved for extended foster care youth. In 2012, California expanded its foster care system to cover young people up to their 21st birthday, eliminating the draconian scenario of youths who grew up in turbulent situations getting the heave-ho as their 18th birthday gift.

There is no shortage of sound ideas to pre-emptively stave off runaway situations. Children in California can no longer be charged with prostitution after many years, the legal mindset has finally changed to view them as victims, rather than criminals. Ive heard from some kids that prostitution may be a better choice for them than what they feel theyre facing in a foster situation, says Eliza Reock, a child sex-trafficking specialist at the NCMEC. But at what point would we accept abuse of a child as a solution? Its a big indicator we need to step up and do better.

In Los Angeles County, interventions are triggered when children exhibit certain warning signs, such as chronic truancy or substance abuse. On the federal level, Bardines organisation has created a comprehensive System to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness broken down into prevention services, early and crisis intervention services, long-term services and after-care services.

We have to be looking earlier, says Doug Styles, the executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, a San Francisco-based agency ministering to young homeless people that was formed in 1967. More than nine in 10 young people who show up at Styles door are eventually reunited with their families. But the real trick would be preventing that trip in the first place, he says. We can probably identify some profiles of people likely to become homeless. We should be working with them earlier on. We should be working with school systems.

These are smart ideas but not revolutionary. Los Angeles is already doing some of these things. For the most part, the problems are in the execution, or lack thereof. Most plans run aground on the need for additional money and housing two things few major cities ever really have enough of.

Youth providers are careful not to bite the government hand that feeds them, but cant help noting theyre fed far less (proportionately) than providers serving adult homeless populations. Statistically, underserved young people are likely to be tomorrows visible and resource-intensive chronically homeless adults, but dollars are prioritised to help the homeless people the taxpayers see, rather than the homeless kids they do not.

Hicks, however, has a message for those taxpayers: dont worry about him. Look, I come from nothing, he says. This is normal life for me. In San Francisco, you could be the scummiest person, you could be a doctor. You can be whatever you want to be. This city gives you all the skills to do it.

As were talking he suddenly decides to barrel across a three-lane road to catch a bus. Two cars bear down on him. Hes not looking, and doesnt appear to care. They slow and swerve at the last moment, and this time they dont hit him.

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  • This piece was amended on 9 October 2017 to clarify the circumstances of Jeff Sheehys departure from home and the type of road Hicks ran across.

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Marissa Safont‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids
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How Uruguay made legal highs work

The South American countrys move to full legalisation of cannabis has so far proved a success, especially for its 17,391 users

Every afternoon a long queue of people gathers outside a tiny neighbourhood pharmacy in Montevideo. The shop is so small that they can only be let in one at a time. Its a slow process but the mostly young clients dont seem to mind. They stand outside or sit on doorsteps chatting in groups of twos and threes as they wait their turn in the warm southern spring.

A chemist inside in a green medical coat asks them each to press their thumb on a fingerprint scanner. The electronic device is connected to a central government computer that will either authorise or deny the purchase of their allotted 10 weekly grams of legal marijuana. It is a state-controlled, high quality product guaranteed to provide excellent highs.

On the street 25 grams of marijuana would cost you 3,000 pesos, thats about $100 for something with probably a large amount of pesticide, seeds and stems, says Luciano, a young buyer who is next in line. But here the same amount would cost you only $30, and it comes in guaranteed, premium quality, thermosealed 5g packs.

In July this year, tiny Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale of marijuana across its entire territory.

The most important thing has been the change of paradigm, says Gastn Rodrguez Lepera, shareholder in Symbiosis, one of the two private firms producing cannabis for the governments Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. Uruguay dived in at the deep end without too much international support. They said it wouldnt work. Well, its working now.

With a population of only 3.4 million, squeezed in between its two giant South American neighbours Brazil and Argentina (population 208 million and 43 million respectively), Uruguay has long been at the forefront of liberal policies not only in South America but worldwide.

A divorce law that allowed women to separate from their husbands simply by asking a court for permission was passed as far back as 1913. Abortion was legalised in 2012, with Uruguay the only country in Latin America to do so apart from Cuba.

Part of the reason for Uruguays liberal temperament is a longstanding separation of church and state in a region where the Catholic Church remains dominant. There is no official Christmas day on Uruguays state calendar. Most Uruguayans refer to the holiday by its government denomination of family day. Easter week is referred to as tourism week.

Uruguay locator map

Uruguays switch to a legal marijuana market has not been without its hitches, however, notably the resistance of most pharmacists to act as outlets for the recreational marijuana (medical marijuana remains illegal in Uruguay).

Only 12 of the countrys 1,100 pharmacies have signed up so far to supply the 17,391 government-registered consumers served by the system, which explains the long queues outside. The low price and slim profit margin partly explain their reticence. But the main problem is that banks have threatened to close the accounts of pharmacies selling marijuana, said one chemist who sells marijuana in Montevideo, but who did not want to reveal his name for fear of such bank intervention.

Although sales of the drug have been legalised in various US states, they remain illegal at federal level, leading to a situation where most banks refuse to handle marijuana-related accounts anywhere in the world. Even now that sales in Uruguay have been completely legalised, the fear of running into trouble with the US federal authorities has become concrete.

The problem with the banks was an unforeseen hitch, says Eduardo Blasina, president of Montevideos cannabis museum, set in an old house in the artsy Palermo district of the capital city. But these bumps will get smoothed out eventually.

The potency of the original government-licensed marijuana also failed to satisfy consumers at the start. The government made a mistake because the first batch they released to the market in July had a potency level of only 2% THC, says Blasina.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis content. This is much lower than the levels found in legal recreational weed in US states like Colorado.

The government quickly got the message and has now upped the content to 9% THC, says the Montevideo pharmacist. A consumer himself, he adds: Ive tried it and I can assure you that it provides a most satisfactory experience.

Registered
Registered users queue outside a pharmacy to buy legal marijuana in Montevideo. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters

For those who would rather not buy their legal weed at a pharmacy, Uruguays marijuana law allows consumers to plant their own at home (up to six plants) or join special privately run cannabis clubs with a maximum of 45 members who are allowed to withdraw 40g per month from the clubs crop.

The transformation of consumers has been astounding, says Blasina. Theyve gone from buying low-quality products from street dealers to becoming gourmet experts who compete with the crops at their clubs.

Confident that pharmacists will eventually find a way to work round the refusal of banks to handle their accounts, Blasina is more worried about the ban on selling legal marijuana to visitors from abroad in a country where tourism keeps growing, partly due to Uruguays beautiful beaches, but also because of its growing reputation as a liberal haven in South America.

Visitors arrive here hoping to enjoy freedom in one of the most liberal countries in the world, so they feel disappointed when they find out they cant buy legal marijuana, says Blasina. They end up buying it on the street, which contradicts the whole point of the law, which is to cut traffickers out of the business.

Blasina and others have started pressing the government for the passports of tourists to be stamped with a permit to purchase a small amount of marijuana during their stay. A record number of visitors will arrive this summer and what will we say to them? Sorry, you cant smoke? he says.

There are ways round the problem, however. The quality of the marijuana is so high that the 40 monthly grams permitted by the government far exceeds what I could smoke on my own, says one Uruguayan who works with foreigners travelling here. So I always have enough to share around with visitors.

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Marissa SafontHow Uruguay made legal highs work
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Canadian marijuana advocate blasts hypocrisy of ex-police cashing in on cannabis

Former public servants and police officers are finding opportunities in the countrys fledgling industry including some who were once adamantly anti-pot

One of Canadas most prominent marijuana activists has taken aim at former police officers who have entered the countrys fledgling cannabis industry, saying it was hard to stomach that those who spent years sending people to jail for pot offences are now poised to profit as the country moves towards legalisation.

Its a mix of hypocrisy and pure profiteering, Jodie Emery told the Guardian. They made a living off tax dollars for trying to keep people out of the cannabis business and now theyre going to position themselves to cash in.

Her remarks come as legislation aimed at legalising recreational marijuana by 1 July 2018 was passed in the House of Commons. The bill will now head to the Senate, paving the way for Canada to become the first country in the G7 to fully legalise the drug.

Former public servants, politicians and law enforcement officers have gravitated towards the sector, which analysts say could eventually be worth somewhere between C$5bn and C$10bn annually.

The most controversial of these would-be entrepreneurs is Julian Fantino, a former Toronto police chief who once likened the decriminalisation of marijuana to legalising murder and, just two years ago, declared his complete opposition to legalisation.

Julian
Julian Fantino was opposed to legalisation but now is aiming to profit from the likely billion-dollar industry. Photograph: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Fantino recently announced that he would helm a company that connects patients to medical cannabis among other services. Medical marijuana is already legal in Canada.

A former Conservative MP, Fantino was also part of a government that sought to crackdown on marijuana offences, passing legislation stipulating mandatory jail time for those caught with six plants or more.

At the launch of his company, Aleafia, last month, Fantino waved off questions about his past views. Days gone by, we all had a certain attitude and certain perception of things being what they are and what they were, he told reporters.

Fantino said he had embarked on a fact-finding mission after being approached by Afghan war veterans who wanted access to marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and pain. [I] learned a lot about this whole space and medical marijuana and that to me was the conversion, if you will, to enable us to be more helpful to people who are not presently attaining the kind of results from their medication, which is usually opiates. Fantino did not respond to a request for an interview with the Guardian.

Emery described Fantinos message as deeply offensive. Im always happy to see our opponents admit that we were right by adopting our messaging and what weve been saying for so long, she said. But its hard to stomach when he isnt saying that hes sorry for arresting people for cannabis, hes not saying sorry for ruining lives and trying to prevent access to patients and veterans for all those years.

Emery who along with her husband Marc own the Cannabis Culture brand, which at one point included more than a dozen marijuana dispensaries across Canada was arrested in March on charges of drug trafficking and possession.

Her arrest came amid warnings by government and law enforcement officials that despite the legislation snaking its way through parliament, recreational marijuana remains illegal in the country.

The charges bar Emery, who has been released on bail but faces life in prison, from participating in the marijuana industry once it is legalised. So its sad to think that not only are we not allowed to compete against the cops getting in the pot business, but were still forever branded criminals, she said.

The government is currently mulling whether those convicted of minor drug offences should be allowed to work in the sector.

Emery said at least 11 high profile former police officers were now tied to the pot industry, including a former second-in-command with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who had joined forces with Fantino to head Aleafia.

Others include a former West Vancouver police chief who has for years consulted for medical marijuana companies and a former deputy of the Toronto police who, after 38 years in law enforcement, began working with marijuana businesses in 2012. The Liberal governments plans for legalisation are being led by Bill Blair, another former Toronto police chief.

Emery described the situation as unfair. They not only enforced the law against people in a way thats recognised as racially biased, targeting poor, marginalised people but they actively opposed reform to the law, she said. Its like a creationist being put in charge of teaching evolution in university.

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Marissa SafontCanadian marijuana advocate blasts hypocrisy of ex-police cashing in on cannabis
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‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids

Runaway youth have always fled to cities but they now find themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even the fully employed are barely scraping by

The first thing Zach Hicks did after he was run over in Roanoke, Virginia, was to write a Facebook post. He kept it simple: I just got ran over by a truck. The first commenter was his mother, hundreds of miles away in the midwest, who also kept it simple: WTF!?!?!?!?

He was retrieving a dog, Sobaka, that hed been given by a band of Hells Angels. The dog had bolted and was cowering beneath an 18-wheeler truck. Against his better judgment, Hicks crawled under to pull Sobaka out, and was hit.

The wheel started going over my leg, and then my side and then the side of my face, he says. I know what tire treads look like from underneath.

That was August 2015, two years after hed left home in Oregon. Today he is resting in a secluded alley on Masonic Avenue, a stones throw from Haight Street in San Francisco. Fifty years ago, the children with windy feet ran to this very block from parts unknown, in search of something anything during the Summer of Love.

The kids are still coming, along with legions of tourists who ensure this neighbourhoods street signs are among the worlds most photographed. But this is a side of San Francisco few will ever see.

Hicks is joined by a dozen tattooed and pierced young men and women wearing luminescent orange vests. They smoke, sip Gatorade, and all but inhale three donated pizzas between shifts sweeping the pavement and wiping graffiti off the walls. Some of these young people ran away from home, some were abandoned, and some experienced a bit of column A and a bit of column B. Christian Calinsky, the founder of Taking it to the Streets, a work and housing programme for young homeless people, considers it largely a difference without a distinction in his mind they simply left home.

Theyre both on the same playing field, man. I really cant distinguish, says Calinksy, 44, a former runaway who was homeless for large stretches between ages 12 and 34. All their traumas are the same in my mind. But I dont see people as their trauma. I see them as their potential.

Hicks, 22, has plenty of both. He sports a beard like a rhododendron bush and a rugby players build. He has piercing blue eyes, a ready smile, and the phrase 25 Jokes tattooed across his knuckles. Thats how I make my bread when Im on the road. And its five for a dollar; when you buy in bulk you get the extra joke.

A
One in every 25 public school students in San Francisco is homeless. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

His story is instructive of the modern nature of runaways in the US. Hicks grew up in the economically depressed, dope-saturated Pacific Northwest. He shows me his ID; yes, he really was born in 1995. Mum was around bikers, he says. I grew up in a double-wide trailer and she ran meth for bandits. She had me and stopped but we still had all our connections to the brotherhood.

He says his father would take him away as a toddler, only to mistreat him. After interventions by Child Protective Services, he ended up back in his mothers custody. Before too long, Hicks says, I got into some bad shit. He burgled the medical marijuana outfit, making off with four pounds of pot; the next time he tried it, he found himself with a gun in his face.

After several years at a facility for at-risk youth in rural eastern Oregon, he was placed with an older family member who had started smoking meth and was living in a backwoods, hickerbilly town where the only things to do are smoke meth, smoke weed or drive a big truck around in circles.

Like many young men and women across the country, he says he had no choice but to leave. He ended up in a fetid squat, first rooming with meth friends and then, after a police raid, sleeping alongside them in a cave in Bend, Oregon. There, high and morbidly curious, they set his sleeping bag ablaze.

At the age when most young people are ready to start their adult lives, Hicks was ready to end his. But then he met a train-hopper traveller kid who asked me to smoke a bowl with him and tell him why I was crying. Hicks confessed that he couldnt take being homeless in this town forever (he still refers derisively to non-transient homeless people as home bums) but had no money to leave. The traveller laughed, and said: Alls you need is a backpack, a sleeping bag, a tarp, and a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie [pen] so you can make some money. Thats your credit card.

And so Hicks ran away to a new life. He hitched three rides over five days from Virginia to San Diego. If you get in the wrong car or piss off the wrong person, youre dead. One false move and youre done. And then he smiles. But it is fun, man.

Larkin
Larkin Street Youth Services provides housing and education for young people in San Francisco

Counting runaways

New kids like Hicks arrive at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre in San Franciscos Tenderloin district every day. Theres still an honest-to-goodness bulletin board here, where hand-written messages are folded and pinned. One features several selfies of a grinning teenage girl and the words, Olivia, call Abuelita. A pair of kids amble in and glance at the board. Ah, says a tall boy. A new one.

Kids have always run away from home. The places they flee to, however, are changing. Todays runaways are finding themselves adrift in much costlier cities, where even fully employed and well-educated people are finding it increasingly difficult to scrape by. In San Francisco a city with a $10bn municipal budget and a population of only around 870,000 one of every 25 public school students is homeless. Thats about one in every classroom.

I tricked with the hustlers in those days, says Jeff Sheehy, who is now a city councilman representing the predominantly gay Castro district, a Mecca for many rudderless LGBT youths running from untenable home lives.

Nearly half of San Franciscos young homeless people identify as LGBT. Sheehy ran away in 1988 after he was blackballed by his family for revealing his homosexuality a common storyline in this city, whether they live in a luxury condos or in a van by the river. Sheehy partied with kids who were hustling and lived four or five to a room, in single-room occupancy hotels on Polk Street. He worked a series of menial jobs to pay for food, beer and $300 a month rent.

Now those single-room hotels are gone; Polk Street has gentrified to the point that its no longer even a gay neighbourhood, with 400 sq ft flats in Sheehys old building now starting at $2,564 a month.

Its hard to know for certain whether there are more or fewer runaways now. A federally funded national tally is due this year the first since a Department of Justice survey back in 1999, which estimated that 1.68 million young Americans had experienced a runaway/throwaway episode.

Zach
Zach Hicks left Oregon, and found himself in San Francisco. Photograph: Joe Eskenazi

But counting young homeless people is hard. As the billboard at the Larkin Street Youth Services centre testifies, they excel at only being seen when they want to be seen. Fluctuations in national tallies more likely represent changes in the counting system than in the on-the-ground situation.

A recent jump in runaways could be due to a new law which mandates that foster service providers file reports when their charges go missing, explains Preston Findlay of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). You never want to be an alarmist when you say theres been a dramatic increase, Findlay says. In this case, one small silver lining is that it may in part be due to better reporting.

Once away from home, young people are more vulnerable than the adult homeless population. They can, as Hicks noted, get in the wrong car.

I do have to be more cautious with [some folks] in my speaking to them because of the trauma they suffered from males, says Calinsky from Taking it to the Streets. Findlay confirms that of the more than 18,500 endangered runaways who reported to his organisation in 2016, one in six was deemed a likely victim of child sex trafficking. Of those, seven out of eight were in the care of social services before they went missing.

As well as LGBT youth, foster children are also heavily overrepresented among the runaway population. In San Francisco, one in every four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child; and one in every five foster children is expected to experience homelessness within four years of leaving the programme.

Audrina is all of the above: a transexual former foster child who ran away to San Francisco from Billings, Montana. She is the eldest of six children; her mother was just 15 when she gave birth. I ended up getting taken away from her. I was in foster care for five years, says the shy, petite 24-year-old. I got adopted by what I thought was a good Christian family. But they became more and more abusive of me.

Following a violent confrontation when she was 17 with her adoptive father, she left home and has been travelling ever since. She started drinking, then doing stronger stuff. This is my one-year anniversary of being sober from meth, she says with a wan smile. I was walking around each night looking for a fight, carrying knives. And the one night I didnt have my knives on me was the only night I ever got into a fight.

The fight was both a horror and an exhilaration and it took its toll. My chest started tightening up and I ended up falling down and having a seizure on Van Ness Avenue. I was overdosing on meth. She quit cold turkey. I have no idea how.

She recently formed her own group at the citys LGBT centre aimed at helping fellow young people. Shes doing great, says Calinsky, though Audrina is a harsher critic: My life has been a series of stupid choices.

A
In San Francisco, one in four homeless people under 25 is a former foster child. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

A homeless homeless centre

Fuck sciatica, fuck the fact heroin makes me throw up and fuck these stairs, says a barefoot young woman. She is young, but walks with a cane as she climbs the steps to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, passing Mary Howe who props up a sign reading Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA).

This is an office shift for Howe, the organisations executive director and a former heroin-addicted runaway. On Christmas Day in 2013, the HYA lost the lease on its longtime drop-in centre. Ever since, the homeless centre has itself been homeless.

Theres something to be said for putting a lot of effort toward youth who are homeless, Howe says. In the long run, its cost-beneficial. They are the ones who will become a part of the adult homeless population.

At every level of government, money has been allocated towards alleviating chronic adult homelessness. Adults remain the neediest and most visible representatives of a shameful national epidemic. But Darla Bardine, the executive director of the National Network for Youth, notes that the federal funding necessitated by the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2008 has been flat for years.

In San Francisco, nearly a quarter of a billion dollars is allotted annually to combat homelessness, but only 8% of it is directed toward young people despite 21% of the citys tallied homeless being younger than 24.

In California, homeless youth advocates were overjoyed to secure an additional $10m in yearly state funding to be split among Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Thats a step up from the $1.1m the four counties split for the prior 29 years but its still a paltry sum, representing less than 0.01% of the states $125bn budget.

There have been some wins: in recent years San Francisco has opened several hundred housing units earmarked specifically for young homeless people. Many units are additionally reserved for extended foster care youth. In 2012, California expanded its foster care system to cover young people up to their 21st birthday, eliminating the draconian scenario of youths who grew up in turbulent situations getting the heave-ho as their 18th birthday gift.

There is no shortage of sound ideas to preemptively stave off runaway situations. Children in California can no longer be charged with prostitution after many years, the legal mindset has finally changed to view them as victims, rather than criminals. Ive heard from some kids that prostitution may be a better choice for them than what they feel theyre facing in a foster situation, says Eliza Reock, a child sex-trafficking specialist at the NCMEC. But at what point would we accept abuse of a child as a solution? Its a big indicator we need to step up and do better.

In Los Angeles County, interventions are triggered when children exhibit certain warning signs, such as chronic truancy or substance abuse. On the federal level, Bardines organisation has created a comprehensive System to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness broken down into prevention services, early and crisis intervention services, long-term services and after-care services.

We have to be looking earlier, says Doug Styles, the executive director of Huckleberry Youth Programs, a San Francisco-based agency ministering to young homeless people that was formed in 1967. More than nine in 10 young people who show up at Styles door are eventually reunited with their families. But the real trick would be preventing that trip in the first place, he says. We can probably identify some profiles of people likely to become homeless. We should be working with them earlier on. We should be working with school systems.

These are smart ideas but not revolutionary. Los Angeles is already doing some of these things. For the most part, the problems are in the execution, or lack thereof. Most plans run aground on the need for additional money and housing two things few major cities ever really have enough of.

Youth providers are careful not to bite the government hand that feeds them, but cant help noting theyre fed far less (proportionately) than providers serving adult homeless populations. Statistically, underserved young people are likely to be tomorrows visible and resource-intensive chronically homeless adults, but dollars are prioritised to help the homeless people the taxpayers see, rather than the homeless kids they do not.

Hicks, however, has a message for those taxpayers: dont worry about him. Look, I come from nothing, he says. This is normal life for me. In San Francisco, you could be the scummiest person, you could be a doctor. You can be whatever you want to be. This city gives you all the skills to do it.

As were talking he suddenly decides to barrel across a three-lane highway to catch a bus. Two cars bear down on him. Hes not looking, and doesnt appear to care. They slow and swerve at the last moment, and this time they dont hit him.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/09/one-false-move-and-youre-done-how-us-cities-are-changing-for-runaway-kids

Marissa Safont‘One false move and you’re done’: how US cities are changing for runaway kids
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Study finds mushrooms are the safest recreational drug

People taking mushrooms in 2016 needed medical treatment less than for MDMA, LSD and cocaine, while one of the riskiest drugs was synthetic cannabis

Mushrooms are the safest of all the drugs people take recreationally, according to this years Global Drug Survey.

Of the more than 12,000 people who reported taking psilocybin hallucinogenic mushrooms in 2016, just 0.2% of them said they needed emergency medical treatment a rate at least five times lower than that for MDMA, LSD and cocaine.

Magic mushrooms are one of the safest drugs in the world, said Adam Winstock, a consultant addiction psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, pointing out that the bigger risk was people picking and eating the wrong mushrooms.

Death from toxicity is almost unheard of with poisoning with more dangerous fungi being a much greater risk in terms of serious harms.

Global Drug Survey 2017, with almost 120,000 participants in 50 countries, is the worlds biggest annual drug survey, with questions that cover the types of substances people take, patterns of use and whether they experienced any negative effects.

Overall, 28,000 people said they had taken magic mushrooms at some point in their lives, with 81.7% seeking a moderate psychedelic experience and the enhancement of environment and social interactions.

The
The Global Drug Survey 2017 reveals the percentage of people who reported taking certain drugs in the last 12 months who also sought emergency medical treatment. Photograph: Global Drug Survey 2017

Magic mushrooms arent completely harmless, notes Winstock. Combined use with alcohol and use within risky or unfamiliar settings increase the risks of harm most commonly accidental injury, panic and short lived confusion, disorientation and fears of losing ones mind.

In some cases people can experience panic attacks and flashbacks, he added, so his advice for people thinking about taking them is to plan your trip carefully with trusted company in a safe place and always know what mushrooms you are using.

Even bad trips can have positive outcomes, according to a separate piece of research carried out by Roland Griffiths and Robert Jesse at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

In their 2016 paper they surveyed almost 2,000 individuals about their single most psychologically difficult or challenging experience with magic mushrooms. Of that group, 2.7% received medical help and 7.6% sought treatment for enduring psychological symptoms. Nevertheless 84% of those surveyed said they benefitted from the experience.

In a way, its not really so surprising, said Griffiths in a Q&A about the paper. When we look back on challenging life events we wouldnt choose, like a bout with a major disease, a harrowing experience while rock-climbing, or a painful divorce, sometimes we feel later that the difficult experience made us notably stronger or wiser. We might even come to value what happened.

Outside of recreational use, magic mushrooms have been shown in clinical trials to treat severe depression and anxiety.

Of the almost 10,000 LSD consumers who took part in GDS 2017, around 1% of them 95 individuals reported seeking emergency medical treatment, five times more than those who took magic mushrooms.

LSD is such a potent drug, said Winstock. Its so difficult to dose accurately when tabs you buy vary so widely. Its easy to take too much and have an experience beyond the one you were expecting.

He added that drug manufacturers are starting to incorporate novel super potent psychedelics such as NBOMe into tabs, which adds to the risk. He suggests making efforts to get a reliable, trustworthy supply and always take a tiny dose to start, waiting a few hours before taking more.

One of the riskiest drugs, according to the survey, was synthetic cannabis. Over one in 30 of users in the sample sought emergency medical treatment the highest of any drug studied except crystal methamphetamine. That rises to one in 10 among people who use the drug at least 50 times per year. These figures echo the data from the previous years report.

Synthetic cannabis, sold as spice and black mamba, is an umbrella term for hundreds of chemical compounds that mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, in the brain. These synthetic forms are often extremely potent, cheap and odourless, which has led to them flooding the market in the US and Europe. Theyve been particularly popular in prisons in the UK, where theyve had a devastating impact and have been linked to deaths, serious illness and episodes of self-harm among inmates.

Brad Burge from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (Maps) urged caution on relying on peoples self reports for data as people often take multiple drugs at the same time, so you cant be sure which one is causing the problem.

He also highlighted that seeking emergency medical treatment means different things for different drugs. With a drug such as heroin, a trip to the emergency room is a life-or-death situation requiring resuscitation and medication. With LSD or mushrooms, there is no toxicity and the effects wear after a few hours.

There is no known lethal dose for LSD or pure psilocybin, he said.

Both Winstock and Burge said that the findings indicate a need for drug policy reform, with a focus on shifting psychedelics off the schedule one list of the most dangerous controlled substances.

Drug laws need to balance the positives and problems they can create in society and well crafted laws should nudge people to find the right balance for themselves, said Winstock.

People dont tend to abuse psychedelics, they dont get dependent, they dont rot every organ from head to toe, and many would cite their impact upon their life as profound and positive. But you need to know how to use them.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/23/study-hallucinogenic-mushrooms-safest-recreational-drug-lsd

Marissa SafontStudy finds mushrooms are the safest recreational drug
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