Maybe you have seen those smelly homeless guys asking for money. But did you ever stop to think that one of them might actually be a teenager? I spent a year and nine months on the streets. What I saw and experienced, no teenager should have to go through.
I grew up in an abusive family. When I was a little kid, I would stay out as long as I could around my neighborhood and at the park to avoid getting beat by my dad. When I was 5, my dad burned me on the stove and I was put into foster care.
I spent eight years in one foster home in the San Fernando Valley. I liked it. It was actually a normal family. We had dinner together. But I’d still get sick of it sometimes because I was the middle child and would get blamed for everything. I also got into fights with my foster parents over stupid things like my room being clean or homework. Sometimes I would run away for weeks and go to a friend’s house. I was used to running away. The streets were like my home.
But when I was 13, I was taken out of my foster home. Social workers said there wasn’t enough food or clothes and supposedly my foster dad was beating my little brother and sisters. I was sad to leave and surprised because I didn’t think those things were true. I was placed in a group home where I lived with five other foster youth.
Going to a group home after spending so long in one place was hard. I didn’t like how the group home staff didn’t care when I told them I was getting picked on by the other kids because I was the new kid in the house.
I was in three group homes over the next month but from each one I went AWOL, Absent Without Leave. I would hang out on the streets by myself until I got stopped by police for being out past curfew. The cops would bring me back to the group home, but the staff wouldn’t take me back.
Running away was my first instinct
Then I was placed at a group home in Pasadena. It was cool because the staff listened to my problems. I stayed there for a year until I got caught with weed. They said they were going to kick me out. I thought that was unfair because it was nothing big. It was only weed. I was mad so I went upstairs, packed my bag and left. I took the bus to my friend’s house in downtown L.A. As always, I didn’t know how long I was going to be on my own.
I liked it at first. The freedom, drugs and everything were freakin’ great. My friend’s mom told me I had to get a job to help with rent. I tried to get a fast-food job or anything I could get. I filled out applications and asked if they had openings. But no one wanted to hire a kid with no education and who was a runaway. So after a few months, my friend’s mom kicked me out.
I went to MacArthur Park near downtown. It was cold and smelled really bad. There were a lot of drug addicts and jumpings. I’d make friends and they would be like, “You wanna get high?” I started doing crack cocaine and other drugs like crystal meth, coke and speed. I had never used those drugs before, but when I was on drugs, I didn’t worry about falling asleep, getting caught or eating.
When I wasn’t high I would go to the library and go to sleep far away in the corner. Sometimes on Sundays I would go to the park and play basketball.
At night I would sleep in the jungle gym, in the slide that was a tube, because it was warmer. When it rained I would sleep under the freeway bridge. Once in a while I could get a good night’s sleep. But other nights I couldn’t because I was worried about getting caught by the police. Every now and then I would hear gunfire and it would keep me up at night.
My clothes were dirty and ripped. I smelled like piss and body odor. I would eat out of garbage cans or steal food. Before I started living on the streets I was a good 135 pounds. I lost a lot of weight. I looked like a twig. I would go a few days without eating. For the first couple days I would be starving, but on the third day the hunger went away and I couldn’t feel anything.
‘Can I borrow a dollar?’
I had to beg for money. I would ask for 50 cents or a dollar. I’d say, “Can I borrow a dollar so I can catch the bus?” I asked guys with their wives or girlfriends because they were more likely to help a kid out. Some people would look at me and say, “What a waste” or “Get the hell away from me, you bum.” The ones who felt sorry for me would give me money and say “Poor kid.” On a good day, I made $40 to $60. I’d go get something to eat. Then I’d buy drugs, alcohol and cigarettes with the rest of it. I smoked a lot of cigarettes and crystal meth. Drugs were more important than food. That’s how it is for addicts.
It was scary at times. One time I was hanging out with this guy who had done a stupid drug deal. Later, we were sitting on a park bench and the guy he’d ripped off came back and started shooting at us. I ducked and fell to the ground. It was an adrenaline rush. I saw my life flash before my eyes. Luckily, we didn’t get hurt.
While I was homeless, I thought of myself as nothing. I had no feelings whatsoever. I couldn’t see myself still alive because of all the drugs I was doing, all the stuff I was seeing, all the people I was ripping off. I was breaking into houses and robbing them. I was afraid I would get caught. I thought I would overdose or get killed. Seeing little kids with their families was hard. I wished I had a family of my own.
I don’t remember exactly when or how old I was, but I moved to the San Fernando Valley because it was familiar. I also had friends from middle school there. Once or twice a week I would shower or get something to eat at a friend’s house. I made sure to go to different friends’ houses so they wouldn’t find out I was homeless. I’d tell them, “No one’s at my house and I don’t have a key.”
My best friend got me into a crew. A crew is like a gang but you can get out when you want and they do smaller crimes like tagging. Being in the crew meant a lot to me. They were like family. They gave me food, a place to take a shower and sometimes a place to sleep. I would sometimes tag with them. They gave me the name AWOL after I told them how I ran away.
But one day I was asleep at a park and the cops came by. They saw me and ran my name through the police computer. I came up as a runaway so they took me in. I was mad because I was used to staying on the streets and living on my own. I had been on the streets for a year. I didn’t want to go back to a group home.
After that, I was in and out of 13 group homes. I’d run away or get kicked out for having dirty drug tests. Each time I left I thought, “Here we go again.” I would stay on the streets for one or two months, sleeping in parks or churches, then I would turn myself in. I don’t remember much about this time because I don’t want to and my memory is messed up.
I do remember that I went back to my crew for help. But they turned their backs on me. They said they weren’t going to help me because I had lied to them about God knows what. But my best friend from the crew, Tommy, knew I hadn’t lied so he let me stay with him. But I felt like I was interfering with his life. I was wearing his clothes and eating his food. I felt bad, so I left and was all alone again.
One night I woke up in the middle of the night crying, wishing I had a family to go to. I regretted leaving Tommy’s house. I thought about selling myself for food and money, but I didn’t.
I hit a breaking point when I was at a party with Tommy. I got in a fight and some guy came behind me and stabbed me in the side. That was it. I called my social worker and got the number for a runaway shelter in Hollywood. I stayed there for two months. I went to Narcotics Anonymous to get help with my drug problem, went to therapy and got my stab wound healed.
Then I was put in a foster home in Pacoima near San Fernando. But my rival crew was in the area. I got into fights and got threats every day. They’d say, “I’m gonna kill you. Get the hell out of this neighborhood.” My foster mom didn’t do a thing about it. So I ran away from there, too.
I felt really jacked up in the head when I realized I was going to be on the streets again. I was really scared that I would go back to my old ways of drugs and alcohol. After spending so long on the streets I felt like I had lost my mind. I had been stabbed. I had been shot at. I had seen people get shot and die or die from an overdose. I was tired of it. I started stealing and cutting myself and trying to overdose. I wanted to get caught. I wanted to die.
After just a week, I got picked up by the cops one night because I was falling asleep in a shopping center in West Hills. They asked, “What are those marks on your arms?” I told them I was feeling suicidal so they took me to the hospital. I was happy because I had food, a shower every day and a warm bed to sleep in.
Because of my running away and drug history, I was sent to a locked-down group home in Culver City called Vista Del Mar. I stayed there for more than a year. Sometimes I would act like I was back on the streets. I wouldn’t sleep or eat for a few days and sometimes I did drugs. I still get the cravings to do drugs, but I’ve stayed clean.
Finally, someone believed in me
One time when I was 18 they pissed me off to the point where I just walked out the front door. One of the staff stopped me by the gate. But they didn’t kick me out. I don’t know why. I guess they saw something in me. They said, “William, we know what you’re going through. We’re going to work with you.” I guess they knew I was frustrated. I was 18 in a locked-up facility with no family, no freedom. They thought I was a good person. Holy crap. That made me feel weird. If they had kicked me out, I would have been on the streets for good.
A few months later I graduated from Vista. When I found out I was going to transitional housing, which is where older foster youth live, I had nightmares where I was back on the streets. I had been a screwup my whole life. I was worried that I’d screw up and get kicked out.
In transitional living I get more freedom. I can go out for 24 hours on the weekend and spend the night at a friend’s house. It’s still hard because I’m not used to having a roof over my head, being able to eat three square meals a day and having people that care about me, like the staff and my friends. I still sometimes want to AWOL but I don’t. I’m older and wiser. I know I have no place to go to.
For the first time, I have plans for the future. I want to go to a trade school to learn roofing. I also want to get my own place soon. Then I’ll have all the freedom I want. I know I won’t return to drugs. I don’t want to end up like my biological father in prison.
Like they say in the movie Friday, “You win some, you lose some, but you live. You live to fight another day.” My past is part of me. It will follow me wherever I go, but hopefully it will be put in the past. Sometimes I don’t regret living on the streets because it made me wiser. I know what I have to do to survive. I’m going to get a job and be somebody.
If you are a runaway or homeless youth, be safe by staying off the streets. Shelters for young people provide a free place to stay, plus food, clothing and medical care. Call the National Runaway Switchboard at (800) RUNAWAY to be referred to a shelter. Or call:
• Covenant House’s Hollywood shelter, 1325 N. Western Ave. (866) COVDOVE. (Or call hotline at (800) 999-9999 for a shelter referral.)
• Angel’s Flight’s emergency shelter provides a place to stay for 21 days for ages 10-17. 357 S.Westlake Ave. near Macarthur Park in Los Angeles. (800) 833-2499.