Whether they were slouched at weathered wooden desks wearing faded jeans and plaid shirts, or sitting smartly upright in well-tailored private school uniforms, every kid lifted an arm in the air. I'd scan their faces through a sea of gently swaying hands, earnest, tired, chubby, excited, "cool," nervous, young faces, and I would shudder knowing two short weeks on the street could turn any one of them into a strung-out hustler.
I knew why their hands were in the air. These schoolkids, like myself at their age, pictured life on the street as a modern Huck Finn adventure: wild, intense and cool.
But the thing that struck me on my first night as a street outreach work, as I crawled through an abandoned building in Hollywood with a bag of sandwiches in my hand, is that street kids aren't cool at all. They're filthy, they stink of body odor, they're physically ill, covered with lice, blitzed on drugs most of the time, and at heart, the saddest people I've ever met.
Most started out as naive as the schoolkids raising their hands to tell me they'd thought about running away.
The only way to make sure a young person doesn't get whittled down to nothing by the pressures of the street is to make sure he or she never ends up there.
A few hours before dawn one morning, my outreach partner and I got a call from a frightened young runaway named Doug. He was at the L.A. bus station, freshly arrived from Georgia. We broke laws racing downtown to pick him up. He was 15 and had run from home after shouting the classic line to his mother's new husband: "You're not my father! You can't tell me what to do!"
When kids like Doug run away, they are usually so focused on the daring act of leaving home that they've given little thought to where they're going, what they'll need to get by or what they're going to do when they get hungry "out there." The trip from Atlanta took three long days and nights, and by the time his bus squealed to a stop in Los Angeles, Doug knew he'd made a mistake. The security guard at the bus terminal gave him our crisis hotline number.
My van outreach partner and I purposely took a circuitous route back to the shelter, touring Doug through the post-apocalyptic nightmare of L.A.'s skid row, with its hundreds of spectre-like homeless men and women silhouetted by street fires. Doug's eyes widened at the row upon row of cracked, ashy feet jutting from open-ended cardboard refrigerator boxes lining the sidewalks like a thousand crushed witches in Oz. For Doug, experiencing this reality, even from the safety of our van, was a much stronger deterrent to running away again than all the combined sermons of our outreach counselors.
In the same way, this book does not preach. It does not threaten. It simply shows readers a runaway's reality from the safety of their chair at home or school. It's a harshly drawn reality, sketched from the real-life experiences of hundreds of runaways I worked with on the streets.
As I prepared THE RUNAWAY GAME, the difficult question was always, "How far should it go?" Children on the street participate in humiliating and traumatic activities to survive, things one is reluctant to encourage young people to read. On the other hand, if I omitted all references to these things, the streets might not seem so bad. Kids might run away and tragically discover for themselves the hideous ugliness I left out.
It was a quandary, and I hope I've been able to communicate the graphic reality of street life in a dose akin to an inoculation: not enough to harm, but enough to prevent the young person from ever experiencing the disease itself.
My first draft of this book tried to blur the distinctions between street life for boys and girls to cater to either reader, but it didn't work. Street life for a young female runaway is very different than for males. A combination of perceived vulnerability and real vulnerability causes her to be victimized in different ways, regardless of the street culture she falls in with. Because my co-workers and I saw twice as many boys as girls on the streets, I had twice as many real life experiences to draw from, and I wrote the book from a boy's point of view.
One truth does apply to young people of both sexes, though. Whatever a kid's runaway secret is, he or she probably doesn't want things to stay the way they are. But if this book tells you anything, it's that the answers to these problems are not found on the street. So what are the other options?
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