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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.

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 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 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.

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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