Even where homeless shelters exist, many street youths seek refuge in abandoned buildings - sometimes because the shelters are full and sometimes because minors don't want to be under adult supervision.
Many have left home because of abusive adults, so they steer clear of organizations that lawfully must report them. Better to camp out, some conclude, than to risk having parents, police, or the Department of Social Services know their whereabouts.
Shilo Murphy and Sarah Lippek are intimately acquainted with teenage life on the streets. Both lived it for several years in the University District, which surrounds the University of Washington.
They found that the alliance of shelters, soup kitchens, and social services in this area was a help (see main story, page 11). Still, they found that it was necessary to be resourceful, resilient, and tough in order to survive.
Both have drawn on their own experiences in assisting runaway teens, Mr. Murphy as a former staff member at a downtown drop-in center and Ms. Lippek as a U District health-clinic worker.
Both now have their own apartments. As minors, though, they often scrambled for a place to rest their heads at night.
"Sleeping is the most dangerous thing you'll ever do on the street, because once you are asleep you are vulnerable," Murphy says. "You can get everything stolen and anyone can beat you and you'll never have a chance. So you sleep with people or you don't sleep at all."
For survival, runaways often form tight-knit "families" to which they are very loyal.
"If you have to sleep out in the cold and rain, your friends will sleep out in the cold and rain with you," Lippek observes. "If someone messes with you, there'll be six people there to help you."
She remembers sleeping on the ground, on grates, and hardly at all - riding buses till daybreak.
"A lot of people [on the street] are totally exhausted," Murphy says. "Everyone is emotionally drained. It's like every moment they have to decide if they're going to fight or going to run. It takes a toll."
Inhabiting empty buildings is usually preferable to sleeping outdoors. "As soon as it's dusk, kids shoot into these squats," Murphy says. "If there's power in the building they'll rip it out so there's no way to turn the lights on, so there's no proof they were ever there. Eventually they get busted and move on to another house."
Being displaced after several months in an empty building always hurt, says Lippek. "We'd paint the walls and put up curtains. We'd all have our little rooms and sleeping bags laid out. It's so sad when I look back now because we were like kids playing house. We really wanted to stay there and hoped no one would notice."
Some runaways manage to get jobs. Even so, the living style is very much hand- to-mouth.
When soup kitchens and food banks aren't open, Lippek says, runaways ask people on the street for spare change or their leftovers. And when that doesn't work, "you shoplift food, sell drugs, whatever."
For girls, the "whatever" option can mean having consensual, though mostly unwanted, sex.
"A lot of kids get into relationships with older people," Lippek explains. "It's understood that if someone is really hard up they can go to that person's house for food in exchange for whatever favors that person requires.
"Survival sex happens; it's not prostitution. There's no money changing hands, there's no spoken agreement. But you know if you're really, really beat or hurt or sick you can call so-and-so and he'll let you stay there in return for whatever.
"This isn't a great relationship, but compared to all the other relationships these kids have with adults, at least they have control. The power and right of refusal is in their hands."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society