June 1984
Text by Cheryl McCall
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Every city in America has them. There are a thousand in Seattle alone‑homeless teenagers who use only their first names to hide their identities.

Each year more than one million American youngsters between eleven and seventeen run away. More than half are girls, and most are never reported missing by their apparently indifferent families. These kids aren't looking for '60's‑style hippie adventure. Many leave home because living there has become impossible for them. Most are fleeing turbulent households racked by conflict, violence, neglect, and ‑in a disturbingly high percentage of cases‑ sexual abuse.

Each year some five thousand unidentified teenagers end up in unmarked graves, according to federal records, and another fifty thousand simply disappear. No one knows what happens to them. Too young to get jobs or to receive welfare, a significant majority resort to theft, peddling drugs, and prostitution to support themselves.

Laurie, 14, may end up as one of the lucky ones. She quit the Seattle street life soon after this photo was taken and went to live with a Christian group in Kent, Washington.

But aren't there halfway houses and crisis centers for kids like that? Yes, but not enough. In Seattle, where six thousand runaways are reported each year, there are only a single eight‑bed facility, called The Shelter, and a few impoverished church‑run programs like the St. Dismas Center to provide help. Fending for themselves, most street kids spend the nights in abandoned buildings, unlocked cars, steam‑bath cubicles, under bridges, and even in cemeteries. Some pool their cash to rent cheap motel rooms, with as many as fifteen sleeping on the floor.

When this homeless boy collapsed in agony, fire department medics diagnosed his problem as drug related and rushed him to a hospital.

Mike, 17, and Rat, 16, rummage for food in the trash bin behind a restaurant‑they call it "dumpster diving.”
Mike and Rat, who lived on the same street for four years in Orangevale, California, ran away in January of 1983. Now, in Seattle, they sleep in a spooky, abandoned hotel that has no water or electricity, where they cleared one block‑long hallway so they could roller‑skate.

The only entry to the abandoned hotel where Mike and Rat sleep.

Often, for dinner, they'll phone Shakey's and order several pizzas "with something like pineapple on them that nobody else would want." When the unclaimed food is thrown out, they grab it from the garbage bin. Mike doesn't approve of Rat's occasional shoplifting of clothes, saying, "We have enough laundry to do already."

Both boys, whose parents are divorced, were excellent students. They lived with their fathers until they got into trouble with the law. Rat was caught selling marijuana in school and says his father, an aerospace technician, had warned him never to come home if that happened. "I took him seriously," says Rat. He has been in touch with his mother twice but says he stopped calling her because "she was crying and everything."

To pay for their bus trip to Seattle, both Mike and Rat stole money from their fathers and claim they now fear them more than the authorities. "My dad literally wants to kill me," Rat believes. But a more immediate threat lies in the streets. After Rat was attacked by a crazed heroin addict, he sold his Pentax camera and Mike his two beloved Stratocaster guitars to buy a Colt .45.

Despite this chaotic, dangerous way of life, Rat says he enjoys his freedom. Mike, however, is frankly miserable. But he knows that when he turns eighteen, his juvenile record will be wiped clean. "I can't wait until my birthday so I can go home again," he says.

James, 18, sleeps under a waterfront viaduct.

Patti, 16, was arrested minutes after this brawl, cited for simple assault, and released. Like many runaways, she learned violence at home and doesn't hesitate to use it‑even though she's now four months pregnant‑to settle all disputes. When she and her boyfriend, Munchkin, are broke, Patti robs weaker girls. No one interferes. "Down here if you can't hold on to what you've got, then you don't deserve to have it," says a local drug dealer. "That's the rule." But as her pregnancy advances, Patti is becoming vulnerable. She's more hungry than she used to be and tired most of the time. She often suffers from severe stomach cramps and has swollen feet. Her only pair of jeans is too tight, and her shoes cause blisters. Sometimes, overwhelmed by it all, Patti sobs like the child she is and sucks her thumb.

The National Runaway Switchboard lists seven thousand agencies around the country that counsel or help youngsters, and about three hundred shelters provide emergency housing for runaways. Congress allocated $21 million in 1983 to fund hotlines and teenage shelters but, by its own estimate, those facilities serve only 45,000 kids a year, a mere fraction of the needy.

More help is needed, especially in Los Angeles, where there are no shelters at all.

Father Bruce Ritter's Covenant House crisis centers in New York, Toronto, and Houston aid thousands of kids each year and have become the yardstick by which other programs are measured. His aim is simple: to provide as many beds as possible each night to give kids an alternative to selling themselves. "In all my life, I've never met one boy or girl prostitute who didn't start out as a runaway," he says.

And how can we prevent runaways? The key, Ritter says, is at home. "Kids ordinarily don't run away from warm, loving families. And those who do almost invariably return home."

Text by Cheryl McCall, Life Magazine, Time Inc. Reprinted with permission.