Teenage Wasteland

They have run away from home or been kicked out, and there are about 5,500 of them in the St. Louis area. They're homeless teens -- too old for foster care, too young to live on their own.

 He could fit lots of stuff in a backpack -- more, anyway, than he'd ever thought about when he just used it for school. But that was another world, another life, and he couldn't waste time thinking about all that when he had dirty clothes to deal with.

Where could he stash them, anyway? Out of sight. Under the seat. That way, no one would know he was sleeping in a damned car.

Michael, who lived with his dad in St. Charles, was lucky, though. He'd only had to use his friend's car for two nights, which wasn't so bad, especially because he knew a kid who lived in his car for three years. That was tough to even think about. He was lucky. He wasn't sleeping outside, for one thing, and he had plenty of friends who helped him out when they could. He just had to figure out what to do next. He'd been sleeping on other people's couches and floors now for longer than he cared to remember, and feeling sorry for himself wasn't a productive use of his time or his energy -- at least that's what the counselors, the juvenile officers and his friends' parents told him over and over again. He could sort of imagine his dad saying something like that, too, even though the last words out of his mouth had been "Don't come back."

Limbert Fabian

Michael remembered once when he had called his dad after being away for a long time.

"Why haven't you called?" his father asked.

"You told me not to."

His father laughed. "I didn't really mean it."

He'd meant it at the time. His dad meant it every time he took the house keys away, then threw him and his stuff out the door. What Michael couldn't figure out was why his dad always called the police after he left and reported his son as a runaway. Why kick your 16-year-old son out and then call the police? Maybe his dad felt bad for losing his temper and wanted the police to bring him home. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it didn't matter anymore. But it was such a pain, and it made him feel like a criminal. Because running away was a status offense for teenagers, he couldn't go to school when it happened; the police would be called to come and arrest him. He was always running from the police, and the police always found him. Then they hauled him to the station. Then they called his dad. Then he went home. Then he got kicked out again. It was the same thing, over and over and over again.

"The first time it happened, I was 14," Michael says. "He kicked me out of the house. He threw my bags out and took away my keys. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know where to go. So I dropped my stuff off at a friend's house and then walked to the police station to tell them what happened. They just said, 'So what?'

"Three weeks later, I was walking down the street, and the same cop pulls over and tells me to get in the car," Michael continues. "My dad had called them and told them I ran away. I said to the cop, 'Don't you remember me? I came in and told you he kicked me out.' But the cop just looked at me and took me to the station, where they called my dad. I never went to the police after that."

Michael knew his father was under a lot of stress, what with working two jobs and taking care of Michael and his two younger sisters all by himself. At least, looking back now, Michael had it figured out. The fact that his mother wasn't in the picture anymore, well, that was something else Michael didn't want to think about -- or talk about. Her absence didn't help things at home, though.

He and his sisters had lived with their mom until Michael was 12, when they moved in with his dad. By the time Michael was 15, his dad had kicked him out seven times. He stayed with friends, for the most part. He slept on their couches, ate their food and tried like hell not to compare his family life with theirs. "Before I started getting kicked out, I went to school every day," Michael says. "I never skipped once, my grade-point average was 3.7 and I was an honor-roll student. But when I was away, I couldn't go to school, because I would have gotten arrested. I was considered a runaway. So I eventually just stopped going when I was a sophomore. I dropped out."

But he was still too young to work, so when he wasn't living at home, he sold a little pot to friends for money. It was a back-and-forth existence: a week at home, a couple of weeks on a friend's couch, then back home again.

When he finally turned 16, Michael got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant. When the restaurant went out of business, he flipped burgers at a fast-food joint. But once, when his dad kicked him out again, he couldn't find a friend to stay with. He had heard about a homeless shelter for kids his age, operated by Youth in Need in St. Charles, so, because he had nowhere else to go, he stayed there for two weeks. On Christmas Eve he went home, but 10 days later he was back out on the streets. He stayed with friends, but when the police found him and tried to take him home, he begged to go back to the shelter.

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