By Yvette tenBerge
On any given night, hundreds of
runaway, throwaway and homeless youth wander the streets of downtown
and thousands are estimated to roam San Diego County. By day,
these children, teens and young adults blend in with the throngs
of people that make their way to and from work. By night, as many
of us are tucked away in our beds, these youth make their way
along these same streets, forced to fend off or accept offers
from sexual predators. La Prensa took to the streets to
hear what our forgotten youth have to say.
Although the majority of the people with whom La Prensa spoke are now legally adults, they shared their views of and their experiences with life on the streets. For each of the more than 20 youth with whom we came into contact in one corner of downtown, alone, their lives on the streets began when they were under the age of 18. The following are excerpts from these conversations.
"Raven," now 26 years-old, began living on the streets when she was 17. "Ravn," now age 23, began his life on the streets at age 14. "MBEF3RD," age 20, began living on the streets at age 14.
Although reluctant to speak about their own experiences with commercial sexual exploitation at first, MBEF3RD eventually dives right in and addresses the topic head-on.
MB: "Many of us have had experiences with this, I know that I certainly have. Someone, usually an older man who hasn't dealt with his inner demons or hasn't come out of the closet, will pick you up. Within minutes you can feel the tension, and you know that something will be expected of you. You will be expected to get high with them, whether or not you want to. You will be expected to get drunk with them, whether or not you want to."
Ravn: "Before you know it, they pop in a porno, sit next to you and start feeling you up. You know exactly where it's going to go from there."
MB: "One thing, and you guys may disagree with me, but one thing I think is that a lot of black kids on the streets are forced to be bisexual. This happens because of the things that happen to you on the streets. Even in your own squats (the places in which street youth gather to sleep), if there aren't any girls around you are forced to, well, you figure it out. You know, like many kids on the streets, I was molested when I was really young. I still have flashbacks. This is the main reason that many of the kids on the streets get high. We do it to escape the past; we do it to escape the present."
Ravn: "We're not getting stoned because we are "bad," we do it because it's better to sit and laugh at the trashcan in front of you than think about your life on the streets."
(A security guard comes over at this point to move some of the kids along.)
Raven: "The worst part of being on the streets is being treated like we are trash. We see people with money, nice clothes and jobs and they are treated like royalty. People take one look at us and they treat us ..."
MB: "No offense, but I think you are sugar-coating it when you say that we are treated like trash. I get treated like I'm not even there; like I'm invisible. It's gotten to the point where I have to think of things to do to entertain people so they don't walk right past me. I've walked up to people in Ocean Beach and said, `Can you spare some change for a pickle and a penguin, no questions asked?'"
Raven: "Mine is, `Can you spare a nail for my coffin?' That's usually good for a laugh and a cigarette."
(When asked about the youngest children they have seen living on the streets.)
Ravn: `The youngest kid I've seen is six years-old."
MB: "I've seen a six year-old, and I "adopted' a seven year-old girl for two and a half years. A lot of these kids get preyed upon by sexual predators, they end up dead in the gutter or they end up getting some street kid mad and being forced to leave their squat. Alone, they don't last too long."
(About what they wish people understood about children who live on the streets.)
MB: "You know, one thing people don't realize is that a lot of kids on the street have mental health problems. I am bi-polar and I suffer from depression."
Raven: "I wish that people who looked down on us knew just how smart we are. I wish they knew that it isn't easy to get a job when you're sleeping on the streets or when you don't have a place to shower other than a shelter where you have to wait in a three-hour line. It's not easy to get a job when you are wearing the same pair of clothes every day."
Ravn: "It's not easy for us to get a step up when we are in the situations we are in. I do want to say one thing. I agree that the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings were sad, but thousands of street kids die every year and nobody says anything. There may be a line in the paper, '19-20 year-old male dies of heroin overdose,' if it even makes the paper at all. If it does, then it's somewhere in the middle, in an itty-bitty space that nobody looks at."
MB: "He's right, I've had so many friends die that it's not even funny. I've cried for weeks, and the world doesn't even care about these people."
Raven: "People say that kids today are desensitized, but I think that for street kids it's even worse. We see so much and go through so much, but we are not allowed to show it."