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Anywhere but home

Illustration by Raymond Carrillo, 18, Polytechnic HS (Sun Valley)

The first night, I stayed at a park in a playhouse for kids. I couldn’t sleep. The metal under the floor of the playhouse was hard and hurt my back. It was cold. I kept thinking, “I can’t believe I’m sleeping right here.” I started thinking about why I had run away from home. I thought about the arguing, the money problems, the problems I had at school. It was all too much. I thought running away would make it all go away.

I was never happy growing up. I had problems opening up to anyone, even my mom. Everything that happened to me got held inside.

First of all, my family didn’t have a lot of money. It got worse in ninth grade so my mom started working more. When she got home, she’d be too tired from work and she’d go straight to sleep. It was like I didn’t know her anymore. 

Then something even worse happened that I kept inside. My friend’s 19-year-old boyfriend sexually assaulted me. After that, he started popping up at my school in Long Beach waiting for me. I didn’t go to school so I could avoid him and my grades dropped. I didn’t tell anyone because he threatened that he would kill me if I told.

At home it was like war in my house, fighting every day. We always broke out into arguments at the dinner table. It would start with something simple like “You’re passing too slow” or questions like “How was your day?” and someone would be rude. Why couldn’t we just be a happy normal family?

I also argued all the time with my stepdad. He was strict. I was never able to use the phone. He’d say, “You saw your friends at school. What more do you have to talk about?” I tried to go outside but he’d say to come in the house. I never ate at school and when I got home I’d be hungry. He did crazy stuff like hide food and cut off the gas for the stove so I couldn’t make anything. “Why can’t you leave me alone?” I’d ask. “You think you’re grown, wait until you get out into the real world,” he’d say.

Sometimes he would lie to my mom about me, like say I started an argument. She didn’t listen to me. It’s like she chose my stepdad over me. “You always believe him,” I’d yell.

I couldn’t stand to be in the house. So I started doing what I wanted. They would tell me to be home after school but I wouldn’t listen. I wouldn’t come home until some time between 6 and 9 p.m. They tried grounding me in my room with no TV, they took away my tight jeans and cute clothes and said I couldn’t drink soda, but nothing worked. I didn’t listen. When I was out, I was hanging with gangbangers, smoking marijuana and drinking. It was fun; I had nothing to worry about.

By 11th grade, when I was 16 years old, I was tired of my life.

At first, I thought I could make it on my own

On Dec. 12, 2006, I went to the movies with my cousin and my boyfriend. I never returned home. I didn’t plan it but as the hours went by I was having fun and I thought, “This is better than being at home.” When the movie was over I lucked up. My cousin allowed us both to spend the night. The next day I left after dinner and I went to my best friend’s house. I thought I was just going to go home late, but as it got later, I decided I wasn’t going to go home at all.

When I left her house I began to walk, to where I didn’t know. I decided to go to a big park I knew of. That’s when I began to think, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Some people might have been scared but I was happy because I wasn’t in my house arguing with my stepdad. I wasn’t thinking about my future.

After a day I stopped going to school because I knew my mom was looking for me. That first week, I didn’t have anywhere to go. I walked at the beach. One night I tried to sleep on a bench next to the bathroom. I was in front of the water so it was extra cold and I didn’t have a blanket. It’s dark on the beach, you don’t know who’s lurking. I kept hearing footsteps, people walking by. It was too much. At midnight, I left, tired, and eventually went back to the park where I had spent my first night.

There were no rules on the streets. At first I had fun. The people I was hanging out with would buy me alcohol and drugs. I wanted to hurry up and get drunk because I thought that if I got drunk or high I wouldn’t have to worry about my problems. But it didn’t work. I’d wake up and my head would hurt.

I was living a double life. I would go to my friends’ houses or cousin’s house after they got out of school. Later I’d say “I’m going home now,” then I’d leave and go back to the park. One time I slept in my best friend’s laundry room. I tried to act normal but my friends asked a lot of questions. I wanted to tell them but I didn’t. They had problems of their own.

Sometimes I’d steal food, like chips, from the store. At McDonald’s when someone would say “order number 417,” if it took the customer a while to come, I would grab it. I felt bad. I don’t like stealing but I needed to.

I’d go in McDonald’s and wash up in the sink. One time I used the outdoor showers at the beach. But I didn’t have deoderant so sometimes I still smelled. I stopped hanging out with people for a few days because I had only the outfit I was wearing the day I left and some clothes I had at my cousin’s house. I was borrowing clothes from friends and stealing them from Fashion Time.

I felt so alone. When you’re a runaway you walk down the streets and see people at home and happy with their families. But you’re by yourself.

Was my mom worried?

Most of the time I was around the corner from my house. I’d walk by to see if my family was outside. One time I saw my younger brother on his bike and I wanted to say “come here” and ask him how he was doing, ask “How’s mom?” But I didn’t. I was still stubborn.

I had so much anger built up in me that I didn’t care. I was just trying to survive. I was thinking about what I was going to do next, how I was going to get food. I didn’t think about my family or going home, except a few times. One night I tried to imagine being in my mom’s shoes, sleeping at night without one of my kids there, not knowing if they’re alive or dead. I started to see how she could be worried. It made me feel sad. I had left and didn’t give her a warning.

Toward the end of the month, I would go to the beach at night to walk around. I’d think, who am I? What have I become? I was tired of living on the streets and felt like it wasn’t going to end. I never thought this would cross my mind but I thought about young women who prostitute. I was not going to do it but I felt that they had the easy way out, making money doing the things they liked the best.

Then one day I was talking to my cousin and the conversation turned serious. I told her, “I’ve been living on the streets.” Her eyes started watering. She said, “We’re calling your brother.” He was 18 and had his own place. I asked him if I could stay at his house and he said yes.

I now had somewhere to go, but lying down at night I’d think there was something missing. I lived there for three months until six of us got in a fight and were arrested. We were charged with assault with a deadly weapon. I faced four years in prison. The court sent me to a placement (a facility where you live with other girls who are on probation or in foster care), where I finally started working on my relationship with my family.

When I first came to the placement, I gave everybody attitude. I didn’t want to be there. But I had a lot of time to think. I started thinking about what I did as a runaway, the drugs and alcohol and stealing. I started thinking about changing. I didn’t want to go back to my old habits of running from my problems.

I started slowly. I would say good morning and sit down and talk to the adult staff members. I started playing board games with the girls and talking to them. All my life I had always felt isolated. At my placement I realized I wasn’t the only one who had problems.

What also helped me were the staff members who actually cared. The most devoted was Bill. The first time I met Bill, he smiled and took the time to talk to me. It took months to open up to him. I’d take him away from the other kids and talk to him alone. We’d start off small. I’d tell him about how my day went. Then I started asking him for advice, like questions about my boyfriend.

The staff saw a big change in me. I didn’t fight as much. I stopped cussing and was more respectful to others. I was smiling. I was less angry. 

My family and I started getting along

I started getting back on track with my family, which I didn’t expect to happen. It started with talking to my mom on the phone. She asked me the questions she should have asked when I came home from school, like “How’s your day?” I’d tell her, “I’m trying to hang in there.” I’d yell at the girls while I was on the phone and my stepdad gave me advice. He said not to hit them. It showed me that he wanted to get along.

My mom said me going to jail opened their eyes. It made her and my stepdad realize something was wrong and they needed to improve. She said she needed to talk to me more. She said my stepdad agreed he was too strict.

Then my mom started coming to therapy sessions. It was nice to see her more. We played board games that were kind of like Monopoly; you landed on a space and picked up a card that gave advice or asked you to reveal something. We laughed and had fun so it was a good way for me to get stuff out. Once my mom picked up a card. The advice said, “You work too much. You need to take time.” I told my mom she works too much. She agreed. It showed she was listening.

When I went home on weekends, we all ate at the dinner table and talked, there were no arguments.
After six months in placement I went home. I have peace now. I can talk on the phone and go where I want as long as I’m home by curfew, which is 10 p.m. I have more privacy, privileges and respect from my mom and stepdad. It makes me feel good.

My mom and I talk every night on the couch. Being able to sit and talk is something I’ve been wanting for the longest time. She read this story and I told her about why I had been drinking. She didn’t know my depression was that bad. I’m starting to talk to her about more stuff now, like why I broke up with my boyfriend. It’s a relief having someone to talk to.

I feel a lot lifted off of me because I’ve worked things out with my family. But I’m still depressed thinking about the past. I’m still trying to get over it.

People think that when you run away it’s a gateway to freedom. It’s not. It’s a trap in the long run because you end up on the streets and in the juvenile justice system. Still, I don’t regret running away. Sometimes making mistakes can help you. I’m no longer running from my problems. It’s also shown me I am a strong person and I know I will be able to handle the obstacles in my future.

Where to turn

If you are a runaway or homeless youth, be safe by staying off the streets. Call the National Runaway Switchboard at (800) RUNAWAY to be referred to a shelter for young people.

Or call one of these local shelters:

Covenant House’s Hollywood shelter
1325 N. Western Ave. (800) 999-9999.

Angel’s Flight’s emergency shelter provides a place to stay for 21 days for ages 10 to 17.
357 S. Westlake Ave. near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. (800) 833-2499.

Los Angeles Youth Network’s Hollywood shelter provides a place to stay for up to 90 days for youth ages 12 to 17.
1550 N. Gower St. (323) 957-7364.

Click here to read a story about how living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles affected one teen’s life. (January – February 2006)

Click here to read William’s story about being homeless. (May – June 2005)