Walking past Horton Plaza on an average weekday afternoon, under the usual sunshine and cloudless sky, all types are on view: the businessmen in late-lunch pairs, the short-skirted errand-running secretaries, the schoolgirls chasing each other to the bus stop, the Navy recruits in skin-tight western shirts ogling girls in skin-tight sweaters, the regularly-scheduled revivalist preaching the Word from a park bench, the cool dudes on six-inch heels, the pointy-toed cowboys, the middle-aged plastic shopping-baggers, the smoke-puffing, droopy-eyed massage parlorettes, the cane-supported senior citizens, the baggy-clothed winos.
After a while, all the differences look the same. No one stands out. The two girls walking in front of me are maybe 15 years old, one dressed in a long flowery prom-type dress and silver sandals, the other in dirty jeans, fuzzy slippers, and a two-hours-in-front-of-the-mirror, mile-of-curls hairstyle. Their voices are bubble-gum mumbly, their conversation unremarkable. “We can go here, we can go there; he says this, he says that.” I can’t wait to cross the street away from the plaza. Still in front of me, one girl says,'“I sure wish I could take a bath.”
“Yeah,” answers the other, “I haven’t had a bath since I got here.” It is many blocks later when, plaza perplexities cleared from my mind, I put it together. Runaways. Happy-go-lucky wanderers, California-dreamers—just different enough to fit in when the sun is up and downtown is in high gear; just similar enough to me, to the rest of those plaza humans, beneath the excitement, the trilly laughter, the free-as-birds carelessness, to want a nice warm bath.
Running away has long been romanticized in this country. Huck Finn, Dorothy (The Wizard of Oz); and Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) were runaways, their stories beginning with an escape from something, and then evolving into adventures proclaiming their independence from what came before. Mobility and adventure are deeply ingrained in America’s mythology and have become part of the American spirit.
And each year, anywhere from 600,000 to 2,000,000 kids run away in search of finer things. The catalysts of their leaving are various, but most often are family problems: parents who beat them, parents who ignore them or don’t understand them, parents who give them too little or sometimes, ironically, too much. The family is usually the center of the child’s world; when something is wrong there, the rest of his world is affected. And so, their clothes stuffed into a knapsack, they take off in search of the new life promised them by storytellers and moviemakers. But like many promises, the requirements for fulfillment were never explained. Today’s runaways quickly learn that reaching their goals, be it a far-off place or the freedom to stay out after curfew, is dependent on their abilities to survive long enough to get there.
Shailaine (not her real name, but one she always wanted) has run away from her home in Chula Vista several times in the past two years, each time returning after a few days. A few weeks ago she left, she says, “for good.” She is afraid of staying at home. Her father beats her and lately, she says very quietly, “he has been making . . . sexual advances.” She doesn’t want to talk about that. “It’s embarrassing, I think maybe it’s my fault.”
But she freely describes her experiences on the road to her brother’s house in Colorado, seeming almost relieved to be listened to. She looks older than her 15 years, with stylishly arranged long black hair and a womanly figure. Most interesting is her chameleon face, which alternates between dark seriousness and light humor, appropriately accompanying the downs and ups of her journey.
“My girlfriend and I ditched school,” she begins, “and went to my house to pack. While we were in the bedroom my mother ran in the front door and screamed to my father—he was watching T.V. — ‘Your stupid son-of-a-bitch daughter is running away again!’ My school had called her. My girlfriend hid in the closet and my mother came into the room. She yelled, ‘Go ahead, run away, I don’t care, I’ll help you pack.’ She opened the closet door and found my girlfriend. My girlfriend waved and said hi.
“My mother got really mad then and started going through my purse. She found some marijuana. I said, “Well, yeah, I brought it home for you—thought you’d like to try some.’ I always try to be funny when I get into a tight spot.” She melted into a smile and then resumed a grave countenance.
“My mother and father decided to block the door so we couldn’t get out. After a while my father got tired and went back to watch T.V. My girlfriend and I planned in Spanish—my mother doesn’t understand Spanish—to meet at 11 o’clock at another girlfriend’s house. I asked my mother what she’d do if I charged her. She laughed and said I couldn’t get through, ’cause she’s stronger than me. I yelled, ‘Charge!’ and she tightened up, but I didn’t move. I was just testing her. I did it again. Then I charged without yelling and made it through.
“I ran out the back door and had to climb over the neighbors’ barbed wire fence—they have it to keep dogs out. I cut up my legs and tore the halter dress I was wearing. I ran down the block to a sewage pipe where nobody could see me. I sat on that for about an hour. It started raining, and I was crying and shaking—and bleeding all over the place.
“I finally calmed down enough to sneak over to our friend’s house. I saw my parents looking for me, so I had to duck down under the sides of cars so they wouldn’t see me. When I got to my friend’s house, she was drunk. She was sitting alone at her table with an empty tequila bottle.” Shailaine stopped and sighed, “She’s really down on life.” Shailaine’s friend arrived at 11 p.m. with clothes for both of them and a boyfriend to drive them to the bus station downtown. “It's too dangerous to hitch that late,” Shailaine explained. They took a bus to L.A., where they tried to pawn a bracelet; but no pawnbrokers would take it, because Shailaine and her friend are under 18. During most of their trip they got meals from drivers who picked them up. Sometimes they stole food from store shelves. “They aren’t losing anything . . . they make enough money,” Shailaine said. And then, “Well, I know it’s wrong . . . but we were desperate.”
They hitched north. One young guy bought them dinner. They weren’t going to accept it at first because, as Shailaine explained, “some people expect something back.” But he proved trustworthy. “When we thanked him for it, he said, ‘My pleasure.’ He was really a nice guy.”
In Nevada, a truckdriver tried to rape Shailaine one night while her girlfriend was sleeping in back. “After this long ride,” he had told her, “the least you can do is put a guy up for the night.” Shailaine refused but stayed in the truck, because it was too late to hitch another ride. The driver pulled into a truck stop and told Shailaine to go buy some cokes. When she returned to the truck, he was trying to rape her girlfriend, having told her that Shailaine had split. Shailaine poured the coke down his back and pounded at him with her fists. She and her friend grabbed their belongings and left.
Their next driver, in a car, was very friendly until they crossed the border from Nevada into Utah, when he announced he was a cop. They thought he was going to take them in, but he let them go. Soon after, a cop car pulled up where he’d let them off. “That creep turned us in,” said Shailaine. They spent the rest of the night in a Utah jail. The next morning Shailaine’s friend called an aunt, who agreed to send her some money to come and stay with her. Shailaine was upset that her friend would leave her, but her friend told her, “If I go back home, they’ll put me in the Baptist School.” The friend departed. The police called Shailaine’s parents, who told them to let her hitch, let her go wherever she wanted to go. She hitched to her brother’s house, where she stayed for a few weeks, finding herself wanted most there as a free babysitter. She decided to go home.
“But to a foster home,” she said. “My parents don’t want me. My two sisters ran away from home, and my brother, after he threw my father through the front window, left to join the Navy. When he went, my father said, ‘Three down, two to go.’ Me and my little brother are the only ones left.”
Shailaine is now living at The Bridge, a temporary home for runaways who don’t want to, or cannot, go home. An unobtrusive old house on 8th Street near University Avenue, it is filled with comfortable secondhand furniture, rock music blaring from a plastic stereo, a number of tired-looking but still-energetic staff members talking on phones, putting away groceries, playing ping-pong and talking with the residents, and the residents themselves, looking both young and old as they alternately suck on lollipops and cigarettes, chase each other through the house screaming putdowns, and walk with straight-shouldered adult sophistication, requesting a talk with a staff member.
The Bridge is one of five runaway houses in San Diego County, including ECHO House (which also houses adults), Southeast Involvement Project, Project Oz, and Project Oz North. It is purposely located in a neighborhood through which many runaways pass (adjacent to Highway 163, not too far from Balboa Park, near bus lines running downtown), qualifying it to receive a large part of its funds from the Department of Health. Education, and Welfare. In 1974, HEW was designated as the administrator of programs under the Runaway Protection Act, a federal law designed to deal more effectively with the increasing number of runaways in the country. Up to then, most runaways were picked up by the police and held in juvenile detention halls for several days, seen in a juvenile court as “status offenders” (running away, being out after curfew, drinking and smoking are crimes only because of the offender’s juvenile status; they are crimes an adult cannot commit), and returned home. The Runaway Protection Act, through its runaway houses, provides intermediate social services between the police and the family. The Juvenile Division of the San Diego Police Department has cooperated with the new agencies by shortening the detention hall length of stay to less than 24 hours, scheduling court hearings as soon as possible, and often referring runaways to these agencies rather than simply returning them home.
The stated purpose of The Bridge, in accordance with its funding, is to “reunite families.” Most often this is the case, the majority of runaways wanting to be with their families, but under improved conditions. To this end. The Bridge provides free food and shelter, with parental permission, for up to five days, as well as family counseling, with the main focus on family communication. “Some parents never listen to their kids,” explained Helene Benjamin, a staff supervisor. “And sometimes, even when they do listen, they don’t understand. Our job is to help them sort out and clarify their messages.”
In some cases, reuniting the family is impossible (the parents don’t want the kids) or not in the child’s best interest (especially in cases of emotional or physical abuse). These kids, plus those who need more time away from home or, like Shailaine, seek placements in foster homes, are placed, if space is available, in the long-term program. Some are eventually referred to the Group Home, a sister organization which houses them for about a year. Residents in The Bridge’s longterm program can stay up to two months for $150 per month, paid by the parents or, if they cannot afford it, the county probation department. Staying at The Bridge is strictly voluntary. Sometimes residents end up running away again. “They enjoy the first few days,” said Benjamin. "They obey all the rules and say how much they like it. But after a few days, the honeymoon’s over. They have to start dealing with their problems.”
Another sister organization of The Bridge is Neighborhood Outreach Program. Like The Bridge, it is located in an area many runaways pass through at one time or another, Golden Hill. NOP is a drop-in center where runaways can get information on services available to them on the streets, such as meals, places to stay, and jobs. It also provides counseling to runaways who are beginning to consider returning home. NOP does not pressure runaways into either staying on the streets or returning home. Instead, it educates runaways as to the various alternatives available. As an explanation of their philosophy that runaways have the right and the ability to make their own decisions, Jim Bleisner, assistant program coordinator at NOP said, “If a kid has run away from home, he already has enough gumption to have made a few decisions.” In coming weeks, NOP will be starting a program employing neighborhood youths to make contact with runaways who do not know about NOP’s services.
According to Bleisner, boys more often than girls decide to live on the streets. Girls are more physically and emotionally vulnerable than boys when it comes to the street life. Girls, for instance, are often approached by people who propose food and clothing in exchange for sexual favors. “The greatest dangers to runaways on the street are people into other games, like getting kids involved in crime,” said Bleisner. “Making it on the street is 25% skill and 75% luck.”
A study conducted jointly by San Diego’s five runaway houses revealed that 692 runaways had been seen in residence in a nine-month period between October, 1974, and June, 1975. The average age was 14.8; the range was from 11 to 17. The most commonly stated reason for leaving was lack of family communication; second most common was strict discipline, including everything from beatings to restricting one’s friendships. A small number of runaways simply stated they were “seeking independence,” and 15% were actually “push-outs,” forced out of their homes by their parents.
Runaways come from all social classes, although runaway houses do not see many kids from upper-class backgrounds, because, theorized a spokesman from The Bridge, “having one’s kids run away has more of a social stigma attached to it in the upper classes, and these people can afford to hire private services to find and deal with their runaways.” Runaways come from all ethnic groups, and both military and non-military families (it is not necessarily true that military families use harsher discipline or have more problems than non-military families). One shared characteristic of 50% of runaways was having a broken family. “But,” explained Bob Conway, assistant program coordinator at The Bridge, “it isn’t usually the divorce itself that causes kids to run away. It’s the circumstances surrounding it-the family’s emotional and, sometimes, financial instability, getting along without a father, or maybe getting along with a new father.” Along with family problems, the report continues, running away can stem from what it calls “alienating social structures”—boring schools, inflation, laws that make kids their parents’ property, religions that emphasize “respecting one’s parents” no matter what, and media which present idealized examples of family life. Under such circumstances, no parents are easily able to meet a child’s needs. “Instead of placing blame on the parents,” said Conway, “we try to give them credit for what they’ve accomplished.”
Lizette, a Bridge resident, cleaned her room before she sat down to talk. Thirteen years old, she is small, with short blond hair and an expression of deep concern. Her family lives in Poway, but has moved several times in the past few years, following her stepfather, who is in the Navy. She maintains that she will never return home, although later she described the new place her family will be moving to in a couple of months.
Lizette is sure her parents don’t care about her. “They spoil my little sister,” she said, “and never give me anything. Once, when I was playing my stereo too loud, my mother came into my room and broke my record—my favorite record.” Her father beats her, but her mother, in family therapy sessions, maintains Lizette is lying about this.
She has run away twice, only as far as San Diego. The second time she was gone for nine days, staying with some friends. Her parents, she is sure, didn’t call the police until the ninth day, proof that “they don’t care.”
Lizette is trying hard to be grown-up. She borrowed another resident’s lighter for her cigarette. “I wanted to show my parents that I smoke. They didn’t know it. So, I decided to go to our family therapy session with a lit cigarette and a half-empty pack. I was shaking all over when I walked in. When my father saw me he said, ‘So now you smoke in front of us!’ and made me put it out.”
She put her cigarette out and folded her hands neatly in her lap. “I just want to be treated like a person. I’m not a bad person— everyone on the block likes me. I’m the only one who says hello to new people who move in.” Her face broke into a wide smile, revealing an empty space between her front teeth. “I’m not‘a bad person, ” she repeated. “The only things I do are smoke cigarettes and kiss boys. I figure, I’m only thirteen and that’s enough for now.”