[deck]Homeless Youth Carve Their Niche on the Streets.[/deck]
[cap]A[/cap] boy in a brown fur trapper hat jolts awake to the alarm clock of a clattering cargo train. His concrete slab of a bed lays thirty feet from the tracks, under a highway bridge notorious for homeless inhabitants. It’s a welcome change – for the first time in two weeks, the police haven’t woken him.
Upon first glance, Steven “Panda” Thomas doesn’t appear to be homeless. With plaid shorts and a blue American Eagle T-shirt, he’d have no trouble fitting into a group of high school peers walking to class. Very few would guess that he carries a knife in his pocket for protection.
And nobody would suspect that the hat he’s wearing has accompanied him on a three-year journey from Alaska to Oregon, without a dollar to his name.
Living the homeless, transient, or “street kid” lifestyle like Panda, has become a growing trend among the young American generations. Approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them youth, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year, as reported by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2007. Estimates from many research organizations point to a steady increase in youth homeless, although exact figures are difficult to obtain. In a 2008 report, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported a major increase in the number of homeless in nineteen out of twenty-five cities.
A growth in the number of street dwellers isn’t the only issue. Recently, a new shift in how the homeless youth are dealing with, and increasingly embracing their situation, has brought a whole new attitude to the sidewalks.
New Kids on the Block
Panda got his nickname from the street kids in downtown Eugene, Oregon for both his fuzzy hat and seemingly placid demeanor. The eighteen year old has been a homeless runaway since the age of fifteen. He speaks of his past three years like a blur of monotony, hitchhiking from city to city, sleeping wherever he ended up each night, meeting hoards of different people, and moving to the next city on a whim.
His ultimate goal was to make it to California to surf. He got as far as Eugene, until eventually discovering his need to be more ambitious.
He left Alaska after a few punches were thrown when his stepfather “said the wrong thing.” In the end, nothing was broken but family ties.
Family struggles like this are a common impetus for youth deciding to live the homeless life; Panda impulsively began traveling, never to look back.
“Everyone thought I was gonna be something,” he says. “But I guess if they saw me now, they’d still think it was the same old me.”
Panda found that surviving on the streets meant living a lifestyle of apathy. For him and for many, the lifestyle consists of quitting school and spiraling into a world of drugs, malnourishment, and constant insecurity. While Panda has opted to be a solo traveler, homeless youth often stick together and move in groups, forming their own subculture.
“It’s become problematic,” says Mike Langley, program director for Hosea Youth Services in Eugene. “More and more [homeless youth] seem to be content with this lifestyle than have in the past.” With a bushy white beard and trademark straw hat, Langley is better known as “Cowboy Mike” to homeless youth all over the city.
Hosea, one of the few homeless centers for youth in Eugene, is situated in the basement of a church and opens for dinner three nights a week. It’s a well-kept space with couches and a pool table, a place where the youth can shed their burdens for a few hours.
With a smiling staff and couches to nap on, it’s a welcoming environment. But it’s unavoidably obvious if someone doesn’t belong. After long days and nights on sidewalks together, the young homeless community is tight knit.
As they wait in line for a dinner of enchiladas, some of the youth are gracious toward the smiling volunteers serving them, but many hold their plates out in silent expectation. “I’ve had people I like to call ‘Hosea Alumni,’ the now-adult success stories, come back to visit and ask ‘Were we like that?’ They’re shocked when they see that lack of appreciation,” says Langley.
He attributes these attitudes to a new sense of entitlement he’s never seen before, due in part to many of the kids simply taking for granted the services provided for them.
But homelessness is far from a new problem.
What has changed are the attitudes and culture behind it, leaving a distinct chasm between old and new. Langley comes face to face with these generational differences every day.
“It’s like many of [today’s homeless youth] have accepted it with a mindset of ‘this is it’.”
Often, the homeless youth traveling in groups create a social dynamic and peer pressure that perpetuates these attitudes. Since these street kids are creating their own mock families, Langley says they tend to feed off each other’s weaknesses rather than strengths. He adds that these travelers present a whole new aspect of youth homelessness. “They’re not just accepting it, they’re reveling in it.”
Unemployed: Where it Hits the Hardest
Meanwhile, most older homeless are far from any reveling and instead are left desperately searching for a solution to their own predicament.
Fifty-year-old Dave Harrington sits on a busy corner off Sixth Street breathing in gas fumes and holding a sign that reads, “Unemployed. Hungry. Anything Helps. Thank You.” He became homeless five years ago after getting laid off at his retail management job.
The Eugene native, who was quick to proudly declare his relation to famous Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington, blames the economy and high unemployment rate in Oregon for his situation. He added that there should be more support for the “good” homeless people, defined as “the people who have a heart; who don’t take advantage of the system but, work with what it offers you.”
Harrington contrasts his lifestyle with what he considers the ”bad” homeless, classified by those willing to hurt or steal from others just to get by, or those who leave piles of trash in their wake. He groups most of the homeless youth into this category.
He, like many of the older homeless, doesn’t glorify life on the streets. Harrington tries not to take for granted any help he gets from social welfare systems such as food stamps. But even in a sympathetic city like Eugene, he says the resources are still very limited for homeless trying to make it out of their situation. “Employers don’t want to hire homeless; renters don’t want to rent to homeless.”
Dustin James, a sixty-five-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, holds the same view about the attitude and ethics divide in the streets. He has sat in his old, broken wheelchair on the same busy street corner every day for a year and a half. “I don’t ever ask for anything, just talk to people,” he says, before thanking a woman profusely for a small plastic bag of fruit she hands him from her driver’s seat.
He’s been homeless for eleven years after disabilities from a car accident prohibited him from continuing his work in the bar business. “There’s a lot more homeless out here than people think,” he says, “Vietnam vets were hit the hardest.”
But while the economy has put a heavy burden on young and old, the youth homeless are at the bottom of the survival chain.
Lane County’s unemployment rate was a steep 11 percent for September 2010, with a nation-wide rate of more than 9 percent. With fewer jobs available, older and more qualified candidates are scooping up the jobs, leaving the youth to cope with empty plates.
When asked about the youth homeless, Harrington grimaces under his Ducks baseball cap. “They’re awful. They’re so violent now. You can’t talk to them or they just cause a scene.” James argues that the youth are much more indifferent than they should be. “My age, we want to work. They just don’t want to go through the hoops; they aren’t thinking about the future.”
Most of the older generation became homeless for the same reasons as the younger generation do now, whether it’s family issues, disabilities, addictions, choices made, being a victim of circumstance, or a variety of these factors. But they watch the youth’s new attitude from afar with confusion and little sympathy.
“We have to live with what we have,” says James. “But the younger ones, they could give a damn.”
Eugene: A Place For Nomads
Panda spends most of his days mingling around downtown Eugene, never panhandling or attempting to make money. With no jobs, and often no place to go, displaced youth are left to float around cities aimlessly, like ghosts on the streets. And like him, many of those ghosts drifted here from all over the country.
Kimberly Shaddy, twenty-two, was standing at the corner of Broadway with a sign reading, “Are you drunk enough 2 spare $1.00?” She traveled here on a school bus with four friends from across the country, but now lives in a car. After dropping out of high school, she hit the road because as she puts it, “I’m a nomad. I had nothing else to do.” With a big grin, Shaddy excitedly explains that the homeless culture is like a journey with similar characters everywhere you go, “Everyone knows each other, and there’s always drama.”
Even with this drama, most agree that there are solid reasons why Eugene is a well-known spot on the homeless map. John Reynolds, nineteen, made his way here from Dallas and says he never wants to leave. “I’ve been all over; Eugene has some of the best homeless resources in the country;” Resources such as Hosea, with the sole purpose to serve homeless youth.
After being on the streets for five years, Reynolds is noticing how young the already youthful homeless are getting, and how the streets are becoming increasingly more violent, despite the city’s peaceful reputation.
A hot spot for homeless crime is the infamous Washington-Jefferson Bridge. “I quit going down there, ‘cause I’m sick of watching my friends die,” says Reynolds, looking down at his dirty hands with somber eyes.
The bridge, sometimes referred to as “the pit,” is a place where homeless of all ages can be found sleeping on their belongings, often avoiding rain and police. Here, the age divide is unavoidable.
Both Reynolds and Shaddy emit contempt for the older homeless. Even without any future plans of their own, they grimace, expecting that by middle age, no one should be begging on a street corner.
“They’ve had decades to figure out how to get off the streets,” Reynolds says. In the past, he’s seen the clash of the two groups result in anger and violence. “They always seem to go after us or to blame us, but they’re the ones that just seem pathetic.”
Panda passes by older homeless on the street with a look of disdain; he also finds it hard to muster up any compassion for them. “It seems like they’ve had so many more options, but they’re just being irresponsible,” he says, not understanding how they ended up where they are.
He considers their situation as far easier to remedy than that of the inexperienced, vulnerable youth. “I never want to end up like them,” he says, a look of repugnance on his childish face.
At the Drop of a Hat, A New Life
Panda says no one in Eugene has tried to mess with him, other than an instance where another homeless kid tried to steal his beloved hat. “I made him pass out with a choke hold, then helped him back up,” he says. “This hat’s like a part of me.”
Eventually, he knows the hat will have to come off. In the past week, he’s secured an apartment through New Roads and is set to enlist in the Marines, mostly to achieve the self-proclaimed goal of “three hots and a cot,” meaning three meals a day and a place to sleep at night.
His path toward success appears to be clearing up, but he’s not certain he’ll stay off the streets for good. “Do you see how many homeless are Vets?” he asks, envisioning James and his rusty blue wheelchair, “Quite a few.”
Panda’s the only one of the street kids he’s known to have enough motivation to get off the streets. If he’s successful later in life, he claims he won’t have much sympathy for homeless youth. He considers the lifestyle “their choice.”
It could be that life on the streets has worn down his empathy after seeing what he calls “zero ambition” and bad choices perpetuate around him. But once he finally surfs for the first time in warm California water, he says he’ll feel that if he could make it out of this life, others can too.
Just as he’s about to walk up the stairs to the first roof he’s ever lived under on his own, a group of street kids yell out his nickname from across the busy street. He smiles hesitantly, “Once you’re on the streets somewhere, you’re always on the streets. Even if you get off, part of you is always there.”