No Place Like Home
Kitten had been gone for a week or so, trying to patch things up with her father, but it hadn't worked out. So one early fall day, she headed back to the downtown mall where she'd been living on the streets since August. Hands thrust deep into the pockets of her baggy purple jeans, auburn hair and huge blue eyes glowing under the hood of her oversized sweatshirt, the 14-year-old girl looked even tinier than she was.As she approached the intersection of Willamette Street and Broadway, Kitten saw the group of kids she thought of as her family. Noah, as usual, sat astride his bike in front of the Taco Time. Dopey, Wolfman and TKO, wearing t-shirts, ball caps, and sweats over their skinny frames, kicked a hackeysack over by Rosewater's deli. Sierra shrieked and laughed at the same time as one of the guys tried to tickle her. Baby Girl talked in hushed tones with a 50-ish man. In the middle of a group of teens, Kitten spotted a familiar blue beret. She walked faster toward the man, Jay, who was wearing the hat."Hey, Kitten," Jay called out. "C'mere, babe."She walked over and gave him a hug."Where've you been?" one of the gangly boys asked Kitten."Out in Veneta," she replied. "But I'm back."As she told her story about how things didnÕt work out with her dad, the morning grew warmer. Jay took off his flannel-lined denim jacket, but Kitten kept on her baggy, borrowed black sweatshirt, her hands nestled in the pockets. Jay offered her a cigarette, and then lit it for her. Other kids gathered around, glad to see her."I've got something," Kitten said. She smiled slyly, reached under her sweatshirt. The kids leaned in to watch as her hands emerged. Chartreuse glinted between her fingers. Jay put his hand on her shoulder, peering down at her. Kitten opened her hands like a magician turning a handkerchief into a bird. There, covering her palm, was a bright-green iguana. She'd agreed to hold it for one of the other kids who'd gone up to Seattle, or maybe San Francisco, she couldn't remember. Now the iguana was hers."Can I see it?" asked Crumb.Kitten gently handed the reptile to the diminutive 12-year-old, and his usual scowl vanished as he caressed it. As the kids gently passed the lizard from hand to hand, Kitten dropped her red book bag at her feet, sprawled out on the steps, brought the cigarette to her mouth, leaned back, pointed her chin to the sky, and exhaled slowly. It was good to be home.Six weeks earlier, when Kitten first arrived, the mall didn't seem so inviting, but she thought it was better than her mom's house. Her mom's boyfriend, Chuck, was cruel to Kitten and her older brother, and to their mother. One day, Chuck knocked KittenÕs mother on her back during an argument. She'd already had a back problem and now she was in real pain, and that meant she'd be drinking again. She drank a lot.So Kitten moved to her dad's place. But he hit her when she stayed out too late or wouldn't do what he said. There was no way to get away from him in his one-bedroom condo.Where could she go? She knew a girl from school who had joined the "mall rats," those teenagers who lived on the streets of downtown. Most of them were runaways; most from the Northwest. Like Kitten, many were fleeing homes where they were beaten, raped, or otherwise abused by the adults. Often, the parents got drunk or took harder drugs. Some of the kids didn't even know where their parents were.Settling into life on the mall in late August, Kitten had only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and the leaves were already starting to drop from the trees. So she borrowed clothes from Tanya -- an older (and larger) woman who sometimes looked out for people on the mall. Tanya also gave her some earrings and a red book bag. Everything Kitten owned was in the bag.The mall rats also gave the young girl her street name. Her real name was Olivia, and they probably called her Kitten because she looked so cute and helpless. And she felt that way when she arrived. She knew it'd be tough to live on the streets, but here kids knew what it was like to have nowhere to go. To her, to them, the mall felt safe.Kitten soon learned that only about a dozen of the mall rats were truly homeless. Another dozen or so could usually be found hanging out. Others were just skipping school. Some were former mall rats who had found a place to live but came back to hang out and maybe get high with their old friends. Some were homeless teens and young adults who were just passing through the mall but hung out in other parts of town -- around the University of Oregon campus or the Whiteaker neighborhood.Kitten arrived when the number of kids on the mall was highest -- during the summer, when sleeping outdoors didn't look much different from camping in the backyard. The population surged even higher right after school started in September when kids faced the tensions of a new school year. To that "hip to be homeless" crowd, life on the mall looked superficially like some teenage daydream, a place where they could be with other teens their age, no one told them what to do, and they didn't have to worry about a job or insurance or the other challenges of the adult world they were about to enter. Later, the numbers dropped as the "summer warriors" realized that life on the streets wasn't nearly so appealing when the temperature plummeted into the 30s and the rain never seemed to stop.Kitten found out that true mall rats were the ones who really had no choice but to live on the streets, and who were able to get along with the others. You had to get along to learn the rules of survival. Those who didn't -- who refused to share food when they had it, or who took things from the other rats, or narked to the cops about a mall rat who was doing something illegal -- were ostracized, sometimes beaten up. They wound up back with their families, or in foster homes, or in some state institution.Kitten had a lot to learn, and quickly. All the things she'd taken for granted at home weren't there for her now. At home, even though there was trouble with her mom, at least she had a bed of her own. When it rained, she had a roof between her and the menacing sky. If she needed clothes -- and she was still growing -- her mom or dad would buy them for her. When her stomach growled, there was always food in the refrigerator and a microwave oven to cook it in. All that was gone now. That first time she felt hungry and had no food, no money, was scary. But she wouldn't go back to her mom or her dad. She had to make it here. She'd watch what the other kids did. They survived, didn't they? And they were willing to help her.After she'd borrowed some warm clothes, Kitten's next challenge was find food and safe shelter immediately. The first thing mall rats learned was how to get money by panhandling, or "spangin'" (a conflation of "spare change" that rhymes with "changing") and sometimes by selling pot or crank. A few still could call their parents for occasional money help.There was also free food, if you knew where to look. The veteran mall rats showed the newcomers which restaurants would let you stay there all night, until the 5 a.m. breakfast crowd came in, as long as you paid 99¢ for a bottomless cup of coffee. The nearby IHOP was their current favorite hangout. They could get food boxes (sometimes only one per week) from Catholic Community services, St. Vincent de Paul, or Looking Glass/New Roads, an intervention program for homeless youth. Any mall rat who had food shared it with the others.As the sun began to settle behind the Taco Time, Kitten looked around nervously. Where would she sleep at night? A young girl asleep on the streets was an obvious target for sexual predators. On the other hand, if a cop found her, she could be locked up; city ordinances prohibit sleeping outside or in a park after 11 p.m. Mall rats knew certain alleys or even fire escapes they could sleep when it was warm. But a favorite spot was one of the many green newspaper recycling boxes scattered around. The mall rats knew the location of every one of them in the downtown area. And that's where Kitten slept on her first night -- she tossed out the papers and flattened cardboard boxes, climbed in, and covered herself with more papers, and, after along time, fell asleep.Kitten found out that sometimes a mall rat would get a job, usually temporary, and then scrape together enough money to rent an apartment, where everyone could crash. They'd have a place for a month, maybe two, then be back on the streets. Other times, mall rats would pool their spanging take and rent a hotel room for the night -- as many as15 of them crowded into one tiny room. Some mall rats, like Kitten's friend Sierra, had cars but no homes, so they would look for a place to park where they wouldn't get spotted by cops, since itÕs against the law to sleep in a car. As a last resort, they might camp down at the Willamette River. Even though it was illegal, they crammed into tents rented by older homeless people. But often the cops would often come roust the campers and confiscate the tents.After taking care of food and shelter, Kitten had to learn where to get cleaned up (public restrooms downtown near the mall). How to get around town (the central bus station, across the street from the mall). Which of the downtown cops were good guys and which were assholes who'd hassle people for spanging. KittenÕs transportation needs were met one day when one of the veteran mall rats, K.O., arrived with bus passes that he'd managed to forge using a photocopier."All right, dude!" shouted one boy. As K.O. passed them out, TKO said, "It's almost dinner time," and right on cue, a man delivering Friday's weekly free pizza from a nearby restaurant arrived. The rats descended on him like eager puppies, crowding around the pizza. Within a few minutes, both boxes were empty.As it grew dark on her first day back, Kitten started looking around a little warily. She needed more than food and a warm place to sleep. She needed safety -- they all did. Now that she was back on the streets, and even in a college town like Eugene, there were people who preyed on kids on the streets, especially girls. That's why she was lucky to have her street family. They watched out for her.Jay's presence reassured Kitten. He looked out for the others, even though he wasn't always above temptation. Jay saw himself as sort of father figure among the mall rats because he was older than most -- 25.Jay had been homeless, off and on, since leaving the Army and getting kicked out of his parents' house for stealing from them. Jay could be moody, but in the early afternoons, he was usually talkative, though his train of thought switched tracks abruptly and often. Jay had helped show Kitten how to survive when she'd first come down to the mall to live. Now she considered him and some of the others her street brothers.The day after Kitten got back from Veneta, Jay sat on one of the benches scattered around the mall, his pupils dilated as usual this time of day. To his left were two other mall rats: Dopey, about 15, and tall for his age; and Wolfman, a long-haired 16-year-old. Dopey giggled with an emaciated young girl with lank black hair.The mall rats generally clustered with others their own age, but on this day, Jay stayed near Kitten, even though he was a decade older than she. He offered her a cigarette. As they got reacquainted, Kitten flirted, played with her hair, made little teasing remarks, stood real close to him so his face was about even with her chest, then walked away to talk to another mall rat, Sierra. A couple of girls in tight jeans walked by."Nice ass," Jay muttered to Dopey and Wolfman. Jay took a drag on his cigarette, nodded over at Kitten, who was talking to Sierra. "In about four years, that's gonna be some some serious stuff, you know?""And legal," laughed Wolfman.Kitten flounced back over."Are you talking about me?" She put her hands on her hips."I'm predicting your future," Jay's voice grew a bit thicker. "In four years you're gonna be filling out those jeans, and that shirt.""Will I be fat or skinny?" she asked, pulling up her shirt to show her tight, tanned belly. Jay put his hand on it and she squealed, "Cold hands!" He tickled her. Then he pulled back."Stand on my feet," he commanded her. She did, and he stretched out his legs horizontally, lifting her in the air above him."I weigh 105 pounds," Kitten said. "You must be strong. ""Gives the quadriceps a good stretch," Jay said. She slid onto his lap. Just then, DopeyÕs hand slid under his girlfriendÕs t-shirt, roamed. "Stop," she said -- but halfheartedly, giggling, obviously stoned. Jay glanced over at them, frowned."When she says stop, stop," Jay snapped. "Chill, Dopey. If she says let go, let go. ""Don't even start, Jay," Dopey laughed. He'd heard Jay's lectures before."It ain't right," Jay glowered. "I'm tweaky about that shit.""You're too serious about it, man," Dopey said, sliding his hand out from under the girl's shirt and using it to take off his backward Chicago White Sox cap. He ran his hands through his hair."That's the way I am," Jay said.Jay mock-punched Dopey. Everyone was laughing again, but Dopey left the girl alone.After three months on the mall, Kitten seemed harder. Her voice sometimes had a strain in it. She looked around warily more and more often. She didn't flounce around as much. Most mall rats soon learned that, in spite of their pretensions to family, few could really be trusted all the time.Kitten was also learning the truth about her new home. She had now been out of school for most of a semester. Even if she went back to her parentÕs houses, she'd have to repeat a grade. And she didn't want to go back. Yet life on the mall, with its tedium, its danger, and, increasingly, the cold, wet weather, was losing what little appeal it once had. The iguana was long gone. And the things she saw going on around her would make anyone a little warier, a little tougher. Today, Kitten watched Baby Girl, whoÕd had been trying to escape the mall for years. In her late-20s, she had a 4-year-old boy, and was trying to keep a small apartment. Baby Girl hadn't been around the mall much lately. She'd just got out of jail and was now on probation for forgery. Big round sores blotched her caramel-colored arms.Baby Girl was talking to Max, who sometimes hovered around the mall like a buzzard, looking for young girls. Below his dirty white cowboy hat, which he wore pulled low over his eyes, Max's scraggly white beard bore a tobacco stain on the right side. "Twenty bucks in the crack, forty in the mouth," he murmured. Baby Girl walked him over to a bench where they muttered in low voices, then they headed off toward his car, his Western shirt half-hanging out of the back of his faded Wranglers. Kitten looked away.By the time winter arrived, he number of kids hanging around the mall had dropped along with the temperature. Only the true mall rats were left. With the sky usually slate, the sun gone by around 5 p.m., and, on this day, fog rolling in, the mall was especially gloomy. All around the knot of shivering teens, people wearing business attire, some carrying briefcases, hurried to their cars or buses; it was quitting time. Several of them were talking about the local TV news story about the mall rats broadcast a few days earlier. The mall rats had missed it -- they didn't have TVs. As they approached the kids, the rush-hour people veered around them, avoiding eye contact. The kids ignored them.The mood around the mall was subdued, matching the gloom; even the traffic noises seemed muffled by the high fog. But Jay, Kitten, Sierra, TKO and the rest stood around, hands in pockets. They had nowhere else to go.Kitten especially needed cheering up. The weeks had taken their toll. Though she had only been living on the mall for three months, she seemed much older than when she arrived. It rained so much now -- she was always worrying about where she could sleep and not get drenched. Her stomach growled a lot. It was like she could never really relax. She didn't even have the few moments at night she used to have at home when she could crawl in bed and pull the cover up over her head. She didn't have any covers. She didn't even have a bed. When the weather turned colder, it became harder and harder to find a vacant hotel room. She wanted out of here, but she didn't know where she could go. She couldn't go back home, and she didn't know how much longer she could stay out here.She had decided not to go by "Kitten" any more. It was a child's name. She just wanted to be Olivia again.In the recent TV report, Olivia was one of the featured mall rats. The footage showed her about to go to sleep in a tent at the river. She looked haggard in the camera's harsh light. As she talked to the TV reporter, the camera zoomed in on her face. A fierce black eye bulged out against her delicate pallor. She was sleeping in the tent of the guy whoÕd hit her."No one would live like this if they had any choice," she told the reporter as rain drummed on the tent above her. "It's degrading." She turned her face away from the camera, as if to hide her mark.Several weeks later, the scene hadn't changed much. Some of the younger kids were clustered along the steps up to the fountain, stacking what at first appear to be Lego blocks, but were actually bullets and cartridges from a .38. Three volunteers from the Looking Glass/New Roads program headed over to a sheltered bench about 30 yards from the mall fountain. The volunteers came three times a week to check in with the kids and distribute goodies.Hands in pockets, steam rising from their mouths, Olivia, Jay, and some of the older mall rats followed the younger ones over to the New Roads volunteers. The women asked how things had been going, and answered questions about New Roads. "I want a tootsie roll!" cried Crumb. "Are there any tootsie rolls left?" He and the other younger kids -- who just a few minutes ago had been playing with bullets -- crowded around the bright blue plastic shopping bag, scrabbling for gum and candy.The older kids reached out their hands as well. The volunteers gave them crinkly packages of brightly colored condoms.After about half an hour, the volunteers packed up the pamphlets and cards and candy and joined the stream of downtown workers heading toward fireplaces, hot dinners, televisions, families, warm beds.Olivia, Jay, and the other rats headed back down the mall.SidebarWhy ItÕs Getting WorseHomeless runaway teens like the mall rats are becoming more visible across the Northwest, says Leesa Schandel, projects manager for Northwest Network for Youth, a federally funded nonprofit agency that provides training and technical assistance to youth-serving agencies in the region. The area's relatively mild climate and grunge-image trendiness are attractive to teens, especially when they have to sleep outside, she says.The problem has become more acute in mid-sized cities such as Eugene, Bellingham, Berkeley and Olympia than in major urban centers like Seattle and Portland. "Those towns are smaller, more like the towns a lot of these kids come from," says Schandel. "Maybe they're less threatening. They know the ropes." Runaways often make the circuit of such towns, meeting others like themselves and finding a place to stay with them. College towns and others that have lots of shops and centrally located pedestrian traffic also provide good opportunities for panhandling, Schandel notes. Eugene has both.Eugene's homeless kids are typical of those elsewhere in the United States. Hard numbers are hard to come by, but according to the National Council on Families and Youth, half the kids admitted to shelters said they had troubled relationships with one or both parents. Around a quarter reported physical abuse and the same number emotional abuse and neglect; slightly less said they'd suffered sexual abuse. (These self-reported numbers are probably low; many kids are reluctant to talk frankly about such troubling issues.) A 1993 study by the federal government's Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), found a strong link between family circumstances, especially substance use, and the high-risk behaviors of runaway, throwaway, and homeless young people. More than half said that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving or did not care. That's why FYSB calls them, not runaways, but "throwaways." Of the estimated more than one and half million American kids who leave home each year, more than 100,000 are believed to be living on the streets for periods ranging from a few days to a months or years.Looking Glass's Diana Avery says that in past years, most runaway teens would have been picked up by the state's child protective services division, or their families would have gotten help from federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children or other sources. But funding cutbacks have forced those agencies to focus on the youngest, most vulnerable children, leaving teens to fend for themselves. Thanks to an economy that forces most working-class people to work longer hours than ever just to pay the bills, overstressed parents have less time and energy to devote to child raising, and face greater pressure to resort to substance abuse. And they receive less support from extended families than in years past, when grandparents or grown siblings usually lived nearby and could help smooth over conflicts or lend support .The result: more and more teens are plunging through the widening gaps in the social safety net that would earlier have caught them in foster homes, alternative schools, or other options. So they end up on the street -- no longer runaways, Looking Glass Director Pearl Wolfe says, but "stayaways."