“Ranked in order, I honestly believe the most common causes of homelessness for this age group [18–24] are family, followed by mental health issues, and, third, drug or alcohol abuse,” explains Alexandra Cochran, 28, a three-year veteran volunteer at Urban Street Angels. “Of course, sometimes more than one of those three issues are true.”
I sit with Cochran (who came to San Diego from Pittsburgh by way of Brooklyn) at a long card table near the door of the spacious community room at Missiongathering Church in San Diego’s North Park neighborhood. It’s a Tuesday evening. The night’s guests, about 25 teens and early 20-somethings, mill across the large room’s carpeted floor. They find crisp linens and cots along its walls. Each also finds a little personal real estate beneath the nondescript room’s ceiling ready to be claimed as her or his own. Some partake of late-night snacks laid out by volunteers near the church’s kitchen at a far end of the room. Others take advantage of showers, no-charge haircuts, or a consultation by visiting Family Health Centers of San Diego.
“Where drugs are the main cause of homelessness among this population, more often than not, it’s the drug addictions of their parents and the families that they were born into and which they left in their early teens straight into homelessness that’s to blame,” says Cochran. “You can kind of see for yourself right now... It might surprise you, but I don’t think any of these kids are high or drunk.”
I do look. And later I talk to a few kids. No one seems high, certainly not on anything more than maybe marijuana in one case.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seems to agree with Cochran’s assessment. “Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home....” The agency also says that in 2014 there were more than 45,000 homeless minors surviving alone on America’s streets. In 2016, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless conducted the most comprehensive census in history of San Diego’s population of homeless youth. It revealed that at least 145 “unaccompanied minors” live on our streets. At the same time, another 685 between the ages of 18 and 24 are also homeless in San Diego. That age group represents a “sweet spot” of youth who are most likely to be ready to be helped out of homelessness, according to officials at Urban Street Angels.
Humiliating beach showers
I ended my own experience of recurring homelessness, caused by my dad’s alcoholism, by leaving home and quitting school at age 14. I passed myself off as an 18-year-old and landed a decent-paying office job. I could type very quickly, and I could navigate the desktop computers of the mid-1980s. I also worked a fast-food job at night. I’m proud of myself for escaping homelessness, but I still feel guilty about having left my little brother to endure a couple more years alone with our dad.
I’m not eager to recall the first-hand bafflement that comes to a 12-year-old mind sitting curbside as happy faces tucked snugly inside automobile safety glass rush by. My young soul craved answers: “What’s so different about me? Why do they get to be safe and sound in their mom’s car? Why do they get to be so legitimate looking? Why am I stuck out here in the heat (or the cold)? Why are their stomachs quiet while mine’s making all this noise? Why do those kids inside that Mercedes get to laugh, while my little towhead brother keeps hacking up green snot. Why doesn’t Daddy take him to the hospital? Why can’t we have a house or at least an apartment? Huh, God? You’re not even there, are you?”
It’s been about 35 years since I was a homeless 12 and 13-year-old with my father and little brother, Michael. It was a three-month period in the 1980s and then again for another three months just before I turned 14. I’m ashamed to say that the proposition of talking to these homeless youth so up-close-and-personal really rattles my now decades-old comfort zone.
I’ll be 50 next year. That period of homelessness was a mere six months of my entire half-century on this planet. And only now do I realize how both scarred and scared I have been because I was homeless for six months during my childhood.
The first stint of homelessness with my dad was in San Diego. For some reason, even though he was single and homeless, Daddy had two cars. He slept in the Ford LTD. My brother and I slept in his old Cadillac Fleetwood. Then we migrated north to Orange County. He sold the cars, bought a van. We took showers at the beach in Huntington. I found it absolutely humiliating. It was the materialistic 1980s. It was obvious we were homeless when Daddy hauled out the cheap shampoo and conditioner and made me and Michael use it at showers intended for rinsing sand off your feet or wetsuit after a day at the beach. We lived in a van in Costa Mesa, and finally in a homeless shelter in the City of Orange.
“It’s the bugs...”
...Levi Dippolito tells me. I’ve interrupted his search for a spot at Urban Street Angels, where he’ll camp out this Tuesday night. “That’s the worst part of sleeping outside. You always have to find a place where there aren’t too many bugs. You can’t help but worry about what’s crawling on your body at night.”
Dippolito is slight of build and handsome. He looks much younger than his 20 years and emanates a youthful vulnerability. He was born and raised in San Diego. “I started out borderline homeless, because I was with my mom. She was homeless, but she was also with a friend who — well, they were always in borderline homelessness, too.”
Surviving as a homeless youth in San Diego, Dippolito says, is all about resources — knowing what you need as well as when and where to find it. Tuesday nights with Urban Street Angels is a perfect example, he says. “As long as you have the resources you need, it can be not so scary. San Diego Youth Services is one. Kickstart is another. I just learned about Urban Street Angels. This is my first time here.”