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Julia O'Malley: For homeless teens, it's about more than right and wrong

Julia O'Malley
Judy Ayers, 19, left, and Calesia Monroe, 16, are outreach workers at Alaska Youth Advocates on the second floor of the Downtown Transit Center where they work with homeless teenagers. Bill Roth

Calesia Monroe, 16, is that girl on the bus, the one with the worn-out notebook, scribbling down poems and saying them out loud, spitting her verses to an audience of blank-faced bus riders. It doesn't matter what they think, she told me when I rode the Number 9 with her Wednesday. On the bus, nobody cares if you're talking to yourself.

When you're a teenager and you've been in and out of shelters, in and out of state custody, when you've slept in a car in the Safeway parking lot crammed in with your mom because you got kicked out of a shelter, when you've run away and lived on your own, you learn to respect the bus, she said.

The bus equals independence and precious time alone for a kid on the street. But like a parent with problems, depending on it can be dangerous. It can be your savior or it can ruin your day. Everything hangs on whether it shows up for you the way you expect it to.

Homeless teenagers have been in the news a lot lately. Not as individuals, but more as a faceless group responsible for crime and vandalism downtown. Police are frustrated at seeing the same people causing problems over and over. I wrote last summer about two downtown bike police who questioned whether non-profits that serve teenagers aren't making the problem worse. Last week, Anchorage police floated the idea that the city flatten Town Square Park to deal with the crime caused, in part, by teens. The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts proposed driving street kids out by blasting classical music.

Moving downtown's street kids somewhere else might solve what is bringing police to Town Square Park, but there's a larger issue. Our community, which has some of the highest alcohol abuse and domestic violence rates in the country, also has a related problem with homeless teenagers. Solving that problem, rather than moving it from one part of town to another, should be our goal.

If you want a close-up of what it's like for homeless teens, travel with Calesia, Judy Ayers, 19, and Becca Shier, 23. The three of them work for Alaska Youth Advocates, a teen-health nonprofit organization, doing outreach to homeless teens. They are based out of an office in the Downtown Transit Center. AYA uses paid peer outreach workers, some of them former clients who are still in their teens and have experience on the streets themselves, under the theory that teens have the easiest time trusting other teens. When I rode with them on Wednesday, their mission was to make contacts and let the teenagers we saw know about their clinic headquarters downtown, which offers everything from STD testing to help finding jobs and housing.

Calesia wore oversized glasses and her hair in braids. Judy's head was tied with a bandana with a black beanie pulled over it. They carried outreach backpacks full of socks and deodorant sticks, crackers, water, and condoms. Becca, the outreach coordinator, came along as a shadow.

As the bus pulled onto Sixth Avenue, the three of them struck up a conversation with a very young couple sitting at the front of the bus. The boy was holding a toddler, maybe 14 months old. Judy opened the backpack. He fished out a package of crackers. I stared at the little girl nestled into the boy's chest. What would her life be like?

"Some people might not agree with us handing out food on outreach because, you know, they think we're enabling the youth or something like that," Becca said.

When I rode with the bike police, we'd seen a group of kids, looking high, eating peanuts in Town Square Park and littering the shells. Enabling is exactly how the cop I was with described it. Most of the kids, she said, had a place to go, they were just downtown, causing trouble, for social reasons. Having food made that easier.

I mentioned that to Becca; she shrugged it off. Judy told me that some kids are always going to cause trouble. Free food wasn't why they were coming downtown. Many of them are adrift and looking for support, for a sense of family they don't find at home, even if they do have a home to go to, she said

Last year, outreach workers made more than 5,000 contacts, according to AYA statistics. They are focused on risk-reduction, Becca said. That means giving a teenage girl who is involved in prostitution condoms and a number to call if she wants help out of the lifestyle. It means giving a teen who is using heroin a referral for clean needles. Prostitution and drug use are common issues. They hear stories all the time of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and parents with drug problems.

All three of the women have walked in their clients' shoes. Becca was in and out of two dozen foster homes. She and her brother survived in a house without utilities because no one was paying them. She sometimes slept, secretly, inside a Wal-Mart, she said. The reasons teenagers run away are complex, Becca said, more than just rebellion. The push-pull between teens and parents is never simple. Add poverty, a parent's mental health problems or substance abuse, sexual abuse or domestic violence and the complexities multiply.

Calesia ran away at 14, in part to send a message to her mother.

"I was just running because I wanted her to understand, get it together, because we're homeless, we don't have anywhere to stay," she said.

She ended up getting taken back to her mom in a police car. Law enforcement understands things in black and white, Becca said. And with homeless teens, sometimes that means missing what's really going on.

"I know that the cops are just doing their jobs but I think sometimes people in certain positions kind of don't look at the all-around picture," she said.

A kid shoplifting food is probably hungry. A kid trespassing by sleeping in a store is probably homeless. There's more to that than right or wrong.

We rode south, made a pass through the Dimond Center, and then got back on the bus heading downtown. A mother hustled two little girls onboard behind us. The oldest must have been 3, the littlest one wasn't yet 2. She kept standing up in her seat. The mother, looking overwhelmed, yelled at her and slapped her little legs until she sat down.

Calesia sat with Judy and Becca across from the mother and her little girls. She fell into one of her spoken-word poems, with its themes of independence and disappointment, longing and abandonment. The little girls studied her the way children stare at strangers on a bus, not old enough yet to understand her words.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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