July 1983
Text: Cheryl McCall

Friends Rat, 16 (far left), and Mike, 17, have this Colt .45 only for defense, they insist, against men who try to pick them up or rob them. "I get hassled a lot" says Rat. "Mike's my protection." They picked Seattle because Mike had once lived there.

Laurie, 14, says she was promised $80 by a middle-aged doctor who sexually abused her but reneged on the payment. She recently left Seattle to live with a Christian group in Kent, Wash.

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. And more alarming than that gun in Mike's hand is what these street kids represent today: a new generation of runaway and abandoned children struggling to survive on their own. Each year more than one million American youngsters between 11 and 17 run away. More than half are girls, and the majority are never reported missing by their apparently indifferent families. These kids aren't looking for '60s-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. "Some of these kids are running for damn good reasons. The most logical option they have is to get out of there," says Gordon Raley, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, which gathers data on runaways. But a growing number are casualties of the prolonged recession. "The economy has had a tremendous impact," Raley continues. "There are a hell of a lot of kids literally kicked out and thrown away." Each year some 5,000 unidentified teenagers end up in unmarked graves, according to federal records, and another 50,000 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. Father Bruce Ritter, a Catholic priest, whose Covenant House crisis centers in New York, Toronto and Houston aid thousands of kids each year, believes that 80 percent of runaways use sex to survive. "Without dealing in myth or exaggeration, there are 500,000 kids younger than seventeen involved in prostitution," says Ritter. "Nobody will dispute that. They have nothing to sell but themselves." Government programs and privately funded centers like Ratter's shelter roughly 10 percent of the chronically homeless at any given time. In Seattle, where 6,000 runaways are reported each year, there are only a single eight-bed facility, 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 15 sleeping on the floor. To illuminate this growing national problem and encourage more effective solutions to it, LIFE here examines these children's dangerous and pitiful lot.

"Being on the streets is tough, but it's kind of a challenge," says Christy, 16, who left her suburban Seattle home five years ago when her mother moved in with a drug dealer. "Everybody here just goes day to day. A lot of us wonder where the next meal is going to come from, where we're going to sleep." To answer those needs, many of Seattle's street kids risk arrest--and worse--by becoming prostitutes, what they call "turning dates." Boys and girls, who stash their clothes in bus station lockers during the day, drift near the waterfront's Pike Street Market and wait for offers. "I've been raped eight times by dates. One held a gun on me and almost broke my arm," says Sam, 17, a professor's daughter from Idaho who ran away. "After a while, you can't handle it. I started crying all the time, having these really weird fits. I thought I was crazy. So I stopped, but then I had to start again." While boys operate independently, female prostitution is controlled by pimps, who use drugs, sex or threats to keep the girls in virtual bondage. "A girl doesn't think she can sneeze without her pimp," says Linda Reppond, executive director of the privately run Shelter. "He makes his girls dependent on drugs in order to control them. Boys do drugs to survive the humiliation of turning tricks, just to live with themselves." Tragically, trafficking in drugs is considered a step up-street kids find it less degrading than prostitution. Those are the only choices, they insist. None of these kids can go to schoo-l-even if they wanted to. They have no permanent address, and schools will not admit them. (One undersized 16-year-old, Itty Bitty, hasn't been to school since fourth grade.) Regulations ban those under 18 from adult shelters, but most of the street kids are too proud to sleep in a room full of alcoholics and bums anyway. Shadow tried it when he turned 18 this spring. "I'd rather sit in an all-night coffee shop," he says. "The government thinks if it makes it hard enough on the streets, we'll go home. But there's no place to go."


This young dealer is injecting a 14-year-old customer with MDA (methylene dioxy amphetamine) in a crash pad for runaways. At $5 a capsule, MDA is the drug of choice among Seattle street kids--though marijuana is common, and LSD is making a comeback. MDA users need at least five capsules to attain the desired "body rush," a violent shuddering later followed by sudden vomiting, clenching jaws and twitching eyes. The $1 "rigs" are disposable insulin syringes, but addicts dangerously reuse them as many as 50 times, honing dull needles on matchbook strips and lubricating the plungers with Vaseline.

When a homeless boy collapsed in agonizing spasms, fire department medics speculated his problem was drug related and rushed him to a hospital.

Within an hour of leaving this motel room, the two 14-year-old girls on the right were arrested for prostitution. They call the boy on the bed their "popcorn pimp" because he is only 18.

James, 18, sleeps under a waterfront viaduct.


Rat and Mike call rummaging for food in trash bins behind restaurants dumpster diving.

When Mike and Rat, who had lived on the same street for four years, ran away from Orangevale, Calif., last January, they met a Seattle merchant seaman who showed them the ways of the hobo: panhandling, rolling cigarettes, brushing their teeth in public rest rooms and eating $1 meals in skid row missions. Unlike many other male runaways, they have never resorted to prostitution. 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. Because the building is boarded up, they climb in at a second-story window. If police cars are parked behind the hotel at night, the boys go to a pay phone and report a nearby fight. When the duped cops take off, Mike and Rat sneak inside. 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." Mike was charged with several counts of driving without a license alter wrecking three cars. He says his father, a career Marine, threatened to send him to the state Boys' Ranch. 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. A more immediate threat, however, 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 their 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 18, his juvenile record will be wiped clean. "I can't wait until my birthday so I can go home again," he says.

Rat gives the finger to a man who ignored his begging.

This window is the only entry into the hotel.

Mike, passing for 18 with a fake I.D., earns $30 a week by selling plasma.






Dark-haired Patti waited until her victim's pimp was out of sight and then jumped this girl because she never returned a borrowed jacket.

Shaken but unhurt, the girl finds her pimp. He calls the cops.

Patti's tender side is reserved for her boyfriend, Munchkin.

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. She is one of nine children, six of whom prefer the terror of the street to life in their Seattle home. "I split three-and-a-half years ago. My mom used to abuse me, and she drank a lot," says Patti. "My stepfather drinks and he made life pretty miserable. I used to get hit with things." She says she's been dragged into cars and raped seven times, once at gunpoint, but she's not tempted to return to her family "There's no chance of it working out if I'd go back," she says flatly. Patti and her boyfriend, Munchkin, 17, used to share motel rooms with a group of kids. Then Munchkin struck a deal with a motel manager in which Patti exchanges sex with him for a room of their own each night. But they haven't yet found a solution to the $16 jaywalking and $125 littering tickets they--and all the kids--get almost daily. These are a form of police harassment, and one unpaid littering fine (the only means they have of paying is by prostitution or theft) means five nights in jail. Like teenage lovers anywhere, they can't bear to be apart. When they're broke, Patti robs weaker girls or bullies them into turning tricks and giving her the money. 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.


Erin and her stepfather argue when she's home. "He doesn't want me around," she says. "He wants my mom all to himself."

Erin, 14, has been arrested twice for prostitution. Her probation order states that she must live with her family, not on the streets. Home is a one-room apartment over a tavern in downtown Seattle, and her bed is the couch. Her mother and stepfather, both unemployed, spend most of their time in the bar downstairs. During the year she was on the streets, Erin was raped, was lured into posing for pornographic photographs and supported a pimp by turning tricks. She now has gonorrhea. Her story would be irredeemably bleak if no one cared. But the one positive contact she made on the streets was Teresa Kiilsgaard, 28, an outreach worker from the St. Dismas Youth Center. Kiilsgaard gives Erin advice, takes her for medical treatment and even rescued her last winter from an armed kidnapper. "I found Erin in a restaurant," says Kiilsgaard. "The guy was trying to sell her to the customers and wouldn't even let her go to the bathroom. She couldn't get away." Fortunately, programs like the Dismas Center exist in other cities too. The National Runaway Switchboard lists 7,000 agencies around the country that counsel or help youngsters in various ways, and approximately 300 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 required, especially in Los Angeles, where there are no shelters at all. Father Ritter's Covenant House programs have become the yardstick by which others are measured. His aim is simple: to provide as many beds as possible each night to give kids an alternative to selling themselves. In New York, he takes in 12,000 a year; the Toronto center handles 3,000 more. The Houston shelter, which opened in June, expects 5,000 this year. Ritter plans another for Boston in early 1984 because the existing facilities there, Common Life and Place Runaway House, have only 31 beds in all. Covenant Houses are staffed around the clock, ready to provide food, clothing and medical care to any youth who asks. In New York, homeless teenage mothers with their babies are also helped. "It never occurred to me when I designed our program," says Ritter, who opened his first crisis center in 1972 in New York's Times Square, "but we have a nursery now." Covenant House receives no federal funds because current guidelines restrict the number of beds in shelters to 20 and require that the facility be located outside areas of prostitution. Ritter contends that it is in the seamy neighborhoods that crisis centers are most needed. "Honest to God, 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," he says. "And those who do almost invariably return home."