It was one of those spring-like, end-of-winter Saturdays mild enough to tease many of us out of our sealed homes for relief from the winter blues. Eastern Market was full of people taking advantage of the opportunity to get some fresh air and shed the head-to-toe layers needed for warmth over the past months. As a friend and I were leaving one of the local coffee shops and saying our good-byes, I heard the voice of someone asking a passerby for food. Sadly, I’ve heard that question more times than I can count and too many times to give it attention every time. So it wasn’t the question itself, but the youthful voice speaking it that made me turn to see the source: a young lady who looked to be about 16, layered in jackets and carrying a pink backpack.
I approached her as I said goodbye to my friend and asked her name and what she wanted to eat. “I would like an egg sandwich and a cranberry juice but I’ll take anything,” she said, adding, “They sell it under Shed 3 at the stand near the door.” I wanted to hear her story and get her some help. Since we were about a block from Shed 3, I told her that I would get her meal if she walked there with me. She agreed.
As we walked, I asked about her living situation. “I live around,” she said, “but right now I’m sleeping outside.” It is that “living around”—couch surfing—that makes youth homelessness so difficult to track. I told her that I work for COTS (Coalition On Temporary Shelter) and could see if we had any beds open. She said she didn’t want to be in a shelter. I tried to reason with her about the dangers of sleeping on the street versus the undesirability of sleeping in an emergency shelter, especially for a young girl, but it didn’t change her mind. Youth are reluctant to identify themselves as homeless even when they are.
I caught a glimpse of a “RIP” tattoo on her neck. “Tell me about your tattoo,” I said. She slowed her pace and looked down. “It’s in memory of my dad.” I asked her to tell me about him, and she described how he had been killed at a skating rink when he was only 17 years old, just before she was born. I asked her to tell me the rest of her story– “the real one,” I added. She exhaled deeply and said, “my mom is a drunk and drinks every day.” She talked about how her brother knew how to take the verbal abuse, but she couldn’t. She looked at me and, in true teenager form, said “if she thinks she can say anything to me, she’s crazy…” This made me even more suspicious that she was an underage runaway. Her earlier declaration that she was 18 sounded like a part of her “script”; I suspected she was younger.
I asked her if she could imagine that her mom had issues that were never dealt with and that she was acting that way because she is hurting, that maybe, in part, she was still in pain over the loss of her dad. She nodded in agreement. I asked her if it was safe in her home. She said yes, but she didn’t want to stay there. “I would rather be on the street,” she said. In my mind, this was further proof of her adolescence.
I noticed her exchange a quick glance with a man getting in his car with some bags of produce. I stopped walking, put my hand on her shoulder, and said “you know, it’s really dangerous out here, and there are sex traffickers and people who will hurt you or even kill you. I don’t want that to happen to you.” I saw tears gathering in her eyes as she looked away and said “you’re making me cry.” She quickened her pace a bit and we arrived at Shed 3.
Realizing that I would not be able to hold her attention once her sandwich was ready and that she was not willing to go to an emergency shelter, I asked if she would be open to a plan. She nodded in agreement, so I laid it out. She could go back home and get back into school (she had dropped out), which would keep her out of the house most of the day and away from her mom’s abuse. She could spend time studying at the library and maybe even get a part-time weekend job to avoid any run-ins with her. I added that it would probably be good for her to be there to support her brother. She nodded in the affirmative, mentioning how much she missed school and what a good student she was.
We parted company but I spotted her pink backpack again about an hour later. I called her name and she came over to my car smiling. I gave her my card and told her to come to COTS if she needed anything or needed help. She said okay and turned to walk away, flashing that pink backpack. I figured I’d give it one more try, so before I rolled up the window I said, “Please go home.” She looked at me, smiled, and said “soon…”