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."

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.

"I didn't want to go back home," Michael says. "I was just fed up with the whole thing. So my dad tells the police that I have psychiatric problems, and they send me to the Highland Center. That's a locked-down mental facility where there are people who've tried to commit suicide and stuff. Some were homicidal. I've never been that way. They didn't keep me there. I was only there a few days, because I didn't have the mental problems my father claimed I had."

In those two days, Michael learned more about life than he'd ever wanted to. He also lost his job.

Later, when he was caught with three grams of pot in his pocket, he stood before a juvenile judge with 15 offenses, including the minor-possession charge and the string of runaways he'd racked up in the past two years. The judge declared Michael incorrigible and sentenced him to the St. Louis County juvenile-detention facility, where he spent most of his time trying to avoid the other kids. Ten weeks later, Michael was shipped to Lakeside Center, a long-term residential-treatment facility for juveniles in West County. The judge had originally suggested he stay there for nine months. But Michael was tired of being a "bad kid" and signed up to work in the maintenance department and to take his high-school equivalency test. Five months later, he was still working, had his GED and was considered a model of good behavior at Lakeside. He was sent home four months early.

By now, Michael had turned 17. He got another job busing tables, but the fights with his dad intensified. His dad kicked him out again, only this time he had nowhere to go except a friend's car. Up until then, he hadn't been able to think about the future -- he had enough to worry about just getting by day to day -- but sleeping in a car, that made him think. "If you don't have a stable place to stay, you can't really work a job," he says. "You need a few weeks to get started, to get a paycheck coming in. If you don't have any money and you're out on the street, well, you can't do your laundry -- you can't even take a shower."

Because he wasn't 18 yet, he couldn't go to a homeless shelter for adults, and the few shelters that took in teens were usually full. He wasn't old enough to get any kind of welfare, and even though he could probably make enough money busing tables to rent a room, he wasn't old enough to sign a lease. He couldn't take out a car loan or a school loan, either.

This was not the life he wanted to live:

"I wanted a family. I wanted to go home. I just wanted to be normal."

Michael is part of a growing population of what professionals call "couch kids," the "precariously housed" or "unaccompanied youth." They are kids who have been kicked out by their parents or who have run away from home or aged out of the state's system of foster care and group homes.

And they are kids from whom help stands at a cool distance. They exist in a social vacuum, because they're too old for foster care and too young to live on their own. If they're 17, like Michael, their chances of getting help from the state are slim. Few foster parents or group homes want a troubled 17-year-old kid who will age out of the system in less than a year. And 17-year-olds are too young to enter adult homeless shelters, which won't accept people younger than 18. They're also too young to receive welfare, and until they're of age, they can't rent a car, lease an apartment or take out student loans. In terms of where they are -- alone, gullible, hormonally mixed-up -- they're basically handcuffed to their age.

Things aren't much better for 18-, 19- or 20-year-old kids. Even though they can enter adult shelters, most of them don't. "You have to be a pretty grown-up 18 to go to one of those places," says Marian Wolaver, executive director of Covenant House Missouri in St. Louis, which provides shelter-referral services and other resources to homeless teens. "Adult shelters can be pretty scary places."

This means that most homeless teens survive by shuffling their options from day to day: this couch tonight, that one tomorrow, another one the next. Beyond those loom cars, abandoned buildings and parks.

For boys, help is particularly scarce. City and county officials know of only one emergency shelter in the St. Louis area that will take in an older adolescent male unless he's part of a homeless family -- Youth in Need in St. Charles -- and that organization's 12 beds are usually full anyway. All of the other shelters in the area target specific age groups with specific problems, and none of them includes a homeless 17-year-old year old boy on his own. There's Youth Emergency Services in University City, for example, which takes kids up to the age of 17. In the city of St. Louis, there's Hull's Child Haven for boys 6-16 and the Christian Service Center for families only. A list of emergency shelters in St. Louis, compiled by the city's Department of Human Services, reads, in part, as follows: St. Martha's Hall (male children up to age 13); St. Philippine (male children up to age 11); Weinmann Shelter (male children up to age 13); Grace Hill Family Center (male children up to 12 years old).

"We simply don't have anything for adolescent males," says Sylvia Jackson, program manager for the city's Department of Human Services. "We have programs for pregnant females and programs for homeless families, but if you're not with your family, there's a problem in the city."

And because it's a population that doesn't have access to public services, it's hard to count the numbers. It's hard to even guess, so instead, the trend is measured largely by demand. Wolaver, for instance, has seen a "shocking" increase since Covenant House Missouri started its outreach in 1998. "There are a lot more kids living on the streets than we thought," Wolaver says. "What we've found is that most of the kids never know day to day where they're going to be. They are staying with a friend, staying outside, staying with another friend, not able to go back home for whatever reason. They're homeless in the sense that they don't have a permanent home.

"You can't count the numbers," Wolaver continues, "because they might cycle to the streets, but then they find a friend or a pimp or someone. If I knew that I'd have a bed or a floor or someplace at least warm, I'd go there instead of sleeping under a bridge. That's how they think. It's survival at its greatest."

In St. Louis County, for example, no one knows how many kids are couch-surfing from night to night. Tom Fee, youth-services manager for the county's Department of Human Services' Office of Family and Community Services, says that there's a "pretty significant" population of homeless kids, but unless they turn up at a hospital or get arrested, they don't come into contact with any counting system. "I'm not sure that I've ever seen a problem quite like this in terms of quantifying it," Fee says. "Let's put it this way: We don't have a shortage of customers."

At Youth Emergency Services, the University City shelter that takes in 12-17-year-olds for up to four weeks, there has been a 14 percent increase in the number of homeless teens seeking help over the last year. Stacy Haynes, former executive director of the center, says that in terms of statistics, "there aren't any," and all she knows is that last year the shelter housed 285 kids but could have used a lot more space. "These are kids that have nowhere to go, and there's a lot out there like that," Haynes says. "St. Louis has a large population. I don't know if people are aware of how many homeless kids there are."

A calculated guess by the Missouri Division of Youth Services is that as many as 5,500 teenagers in the St. Louis area are homeless. According to the Institute for Health Policy Studies in San Francisco, there may be as many as 300,000 teens nationwide trying to figure out where to go next.

It's a late-winter afternoon, and strong winds haul in the coldest air of the season so far. As he drives the Ford Explorer past boarded-up currency exchanges, secondhand stores and Mexican specialty shops on Cherokee Street, Kevin Werner looks up at the darkening sky and predicts the shelters will all be full tonight. As the outreach coordinator for Covenant House in St. Louis, the 29-year-old redhead thinks a lot about the weather: The colder it is, the more nervous he gets. For one thing, he has to drive around every day looking for 17-21-year-olds who need a place to sleep. For another, he worries that when he finds them, there won't be a place for them to stay.

Next to Werner in the passenger seat, 28-year-old James Henderson searches for a ringing cell phone lost somewhere in the cavernous Explorer.

"There just isn't a lot out there for them at that age," Werner says as he slows the SUV and eyes a group of men huddled on a corner. "If a 12-year-old needs a place to stay at night, it's fairly easy to place them. They pose no threat. They're young. But if they're 17, well, 17-year-olds are tough, because they're almost an adult, and there's less sympathy for them."

Henderson finds the ringing cell phone under a pile of papers with hotline and shelter-referral numbers. Like the blankets, clothes and food the pair carry around in the Explorer, the phone numbers are used frequently during every drive-around.

"Hullo?"

Werner drives on past the group of men. "The 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are tough, too, but for different reasons. While they can technically be placed in adult shelters, they have to be pretty grown-up to handle what goes on in those places. Some of the shelters have a pretty scary reputation."

"What's her name?" Henderson says into the phone. It's the main office, calling to tell the men that a girl in South City needs to find a shelter for the night. She's living with her boyfriend and, for unexplained reasons, must leave as soon as possible. Henderson writes down her number and then dials it. If this was any of the other 13 cities where Covenant House operates emergency shelters for older teens, Werner and Henderson could guarantee the girl a safe place to sleep. But in St. Louis, the organization is still struggling to find a neighborhood willing to support such a project, so as two of nine outreach workers, Werner and Henderson try to find kids out on the streets and then direct them to places they can stay.

Not that there are many options. There's the Youth in Need emergency shelter in St. Charles, which takes in anyone 10-18 years old, and there's Youth Emergency Services in University City for kids 12-17. But their beds are limited, there's almost always a waiting list, and most of the other shelters only take in pregnant teens or young mothers.

"I'm going to give you a phone number, and I want you to call it," Henderson says into the phone. "It's a housing-resource center. If they can find you a shelter for the night, we can come pick you up and take you there. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. We can be there in a little bit. Yeah. Uh-huh. We'll try to get you something."

As the pair waits for the girl to call back, Werner pulls the Explorer to the curb, and the men get out. They walk streets like Cherokee, handing out snacks, cards listing hotline numbers and flashlight keychains imprinted with the phone number of Covenant House. In some neighborhoods, they're so well known that kids chase the Explorer like an ice-cream truck. Werner has worked with teenagers for most of his adult life. He started out as a junior-high history teacher in northeastern Illinois, then moved to St. Louis, where he taught living skills at St. Patrick's Center in St. Louis and later at Camp Wyman, a summer program for disadvantaged youth. Until he started driving the streets for Covenant House, though, he didn't understand how hard it was to find help for older teens.

Henderson is married, with three young children of his own, and has worked as a live-in child-care worker for the Missouri Baptist Children's Home on St. Charles Rock Road and as a program director for the Water Tower Community Center on North Grand Boulevard. Like Werner, Henderson is frustrated at the lack of social services. "You really want to guarantee them that you can find them a place to stay, but you can't," he says.

They walk up to two young girls bundled up against the cold and introduce themselves. As Henderson explains his mission, one of the girls eyes him suspiciously while the other stares at the ground. Henderson hands them two keychains as the cell phone in Werner's hand rings. He walks a short distance away, leaving Henderson with the two girls.

"I need a place to stay, me and my daughter," the girl staring at the ground finally says to Henderson.

"How old is your daughter?" he asks, looking up at the darkening sky.

"Two."

Meanwhile, Werner paces the sidewalk with the cell phone to his ear. The main office is trying to find shelter for another person before dark. "What about the Salvation Army in St. Charles? Did you call them?"

Henderson gives the girl on the sidewalk the phone number of a shelter for teenage mothers.

"Who else did you try?" Werner says as he, too, looks up to the sky.

The girl on the sidewalk looks at the number Henderson gave her and hands it back. "I don't like shelters," she says as she and the other girl start to walk away.

"You gotta think about your baby," Henderson calls after them.

The girl just shrugs.

"Man," Werner says, clicking the phone shut and heading back for the Explorer. "The city shelters are all full tonight."

As the men get back into the van, the phone rings again. It's the girl from South City, calling back to tell them what they already know: There's no place that can take her in. "I'm going to call a friend of mine," Werner tells her. "She might be able to help us out. Do you have any kids? No? If worse comes to worst, do you have a family member or a friend that you can stay with tonight? You don't. OK. I'll call my friend, and I'll call you right back." Werner pulls the Explorer away from the curb as he dials a number from memory. "Whatever her situation is, she's got to get out," Werner says as he waits for his friend to pick up on the other end of the line. "It's past 4 o'clock now, so if we can just get her into someplace for the night, that gives us time to find her something else. Hullo?" As he explains the girl's situation into the phone, Werner pulls the Explorer over to the curb again.

Henderson jumps out and approaches two teenage boys walking down the sidewalk. They are hunched over against the cold but still manage to look coolly unconcerned.

"It's just one girl," Werner says into the phone.

Behind Henderson and the two boys, four teenage girls wrapped in baggy nylon coats dance to music pulsing from a parked car.

"Not even for one night?" Werner asks.

One of the girls sticks her tongue out at another girl and then dances in a small circle all her own. As the two boys saunter away from Henderson, one shoves his new flashlight keychain into his pocket and the other eyes the phone number curiously.

"Thanks anyway," Werner says, immediately dialing another number.

Henderson walks over to the four girls, and they dance around him as he hands them flashlight keychains.

"I'm calling to see how much of a favor I can ask of you," Werner says into the cell phone. "It's just one person, just for one night. Right. Just one night -- I promise. Great, thanks, you're the best." He clicks the phone shut in triumph. He explains that the girl will have to stay at a shelter for older women with mental disabilities, but at least she'll have a safe place to sleep.

He stares out the window at his partner. "If you're a teenager, it's hard to ask for help," Werner says. "So it gets frustrating at times, because when theyare ready to ask for help, you feel like you're slamming the door in their faces, because we can't find a shelter for them."

Henderson walks back to the Explorer and jumps in. Werner dials the girl's number as he pulls back onto the street.

"It's a safe place for you to stay tonight -- don't worry," he reassures her. "You can shower there and everything. We'll be there in half-an-hour. Tomorrow we'll find you something better. "

Finding "something better" for a homeless teen usually means finding anything that will get them off the streets. But as Fee, youth-services manager with St. Louis County, says, emergency shelters only offer a solution of the most temporary kind. "It's not just whether they have a place to stay or not," Fee says. "The larger question is, do they have the skills to be employed, the skills to make decisions, the skills to survive? Kids struggling through adolescence don't work real well. Adolescence is a tough time, and it takes tolerance on a lot of people's part, and the general population of employers, landlords and adult-training programs aren't real tolerant of teenagers."

Case in point: adult education. Though the average age of a high-school dropout in Missouri is 16, the average age of a person enrolled in adult-education classes is 26. The reason, Fee guesses, is that most teenagers aren't disciplined enough yet to push through a self-paced program.

But on top of that is the sheer stress of trying to survive before biological, psychological and sociological adulthood sets in. "There is very little out there for them. There's definitely a hole there in terms of resources, especially for boys," says Janice Thorup, coordinator of the community center for Covenant House. "Our biggest problem is kids who are precariously housed. They're usually living in crowded conditions under a lot of stress. They're bouncing from one place to the other, with a lot of negativity associated with each departure. The stresses they face are just enormous.

"There are 10 classic symptoms of depression, and they usually show up in the kids we see," Thorup says. "There is a very high incidence of untreated depression, and it's so hard to get out of that place once you're in it."

According to an ongoing study, the Midwest Homeless and Runaway Adolescent Project, funded by the National Institute on Mental Health, at least 30 percent of the homeless teens interviewed, some of them in Missouri, experienced acute depression -- almost twice the rate found in average high-school students. In addition, one of every four homeless teens interviewed had attempted suicide. The reasons were varied, but they almost always started long before the teen left home. For example, the study says 21 percent of the kids reported having been forced into sexual activity by an adult caregiver before they left home, 36 percent said they had been beaten and 21 percent said they had been threatened with a knife or gun by an adult caregiver.

Once they were on the streets, things got worse. Because legitimate ways of making money are few, 20 percent said they sold drugs and 23 percent said they stole from other people. Between 26 and 31 percent said they had gone more than one day without eating.

Reality on the streets was harsh in different ways for boys and girls. At least 11 percent of the boys had been assaulted and wounded with a weapon more than once, and another 11 percent had been robbed. On the other hand, 11 percent of the girls had been raped and 12 percent had been beaten up more than once.

All in all, the report found, almost 46 percent of the kids "met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder."

Champagne leans back in her chair and smiles, because today she isn't wearing clothes that look like hand-me-downs sent back up from a younger sibling. She hasn't had her hair done in more than a year now, but her thrift-shop clothes fit, and they're the first new things she's had in a long, long time. The 18-year-old says she realizes she's where she is because of her own mistakes. She had her first daughter when she was 14 and her second when she was 16, then dropped out of high school soon after because she couldn't find anyone to watch them. At the time she lived at home with her mother, but, for reasons she doesn't want to talk about, she had to leave. She moved in with her children's father for a while, but that didn't work either, so she and the kids packed again and ended up at her aunt's house. Desperate, Champagne learned to surf couches.

Because she was a dropout and under the age of 18, she couldn't get welfare or "good work" at a hospital as a housekeeper or janitor. When she applied at Taco Bell, Hardee's, Rally's, Popeye's, Amoco, Subway, JC Penney and Sears, she waited in vain for replies. No one called her back.

"I'm not stupid. I could have graduated last year, but I couldn't afford a babysitter," Champagne says. Her voice is soft. She smiles shyly. Like most kids her age, she doesn't seem to know what to do with her hands. "I had kids so young that I had to grow up real quick. There were a lot of obstacles in my way, and every time I hit one," she says, shaking her head, "it just smacked me right in the face."

At the moment, Champagne is taking a break from her studies at Youth in Need's job program in North St. Louis. Geared for 16-21-year-olds, the program provides GED classes and job mentoring and helps the kids get clothes, food, medical assistance and therapy. Karen Thomson, director of community education for Youth in Need, and Felicia Crenshaw, a case manager with the group, say that many of the kids who come into the program are couch-surfers. The goal is to teach them how to survive on their own.

"The numbers of kids couch-surfing out there is massive," Thomson says, "and the needs are tremendous. We have a lot of kids who come to us with nowhere to stay. We have a lot of kids who are reaching out to us, because they've never had any kind of support at home. And this is an age group with some hope."

"We get a lot of cool kids who come through here," Crenshaw adds, nodding toward a room full of older teenagers hunched over books, "some really cool kids."

"And a lot of lonely kids who no one else talks to," Thomson says.

Like Youth in Need, which also operates a shelter and independent-living program in St. Charles, Covenant House hosts a program that takes kids through four weeks of simply learning what a goal is. Janice Thorup, the program's coordinator, says that one of the biggest problems, in addition to material need, is boosting the self-esteem of kids who have virtually none. "They've been labeled failures for so long, they need to succeed at something so they know they are capable of it," Thorup says. "And despite all they've been through, they are very, very loving kids. To a person, I find them utterly charming."

The programs that do exist are successful in large part because the kids going into them do so on a voluntary basis. In most cases, the kids walk in off the streets themselves when they realize there is no place left to go.

"They're scrappy kids," says Wolaver of Covenant House. "They're survivors who have learned to look at themselves and say, 'What is it that I need to move forward?'

Although Champagne and her children never cycled to the streets, she came to Youth in Need only after she'd been "smacked" by reality one time too many. Since then, she's created her own résumé and is waiting to take her GED. Now that she's turned 18, she gets daycare for her two children and also receives $293 a month from public assistance, which means she can finally pay her aunt $200 a month for rent and avoid living in places she'd rather not for free. The remaining $93 pays for diapers for her 2-year-old, clothes for her 4-year-old and daily bus fare.

Champagne wants to go to college someday, says she wants to become a phlebotomist, which she can spell for the reporter off the top of her head. "They do bloodwork stuff," she says. "The training for a phlebotomist is six months, then if I go for another year I can become a radiologist's technician, and then I'd go for another two years for the nursing degree at Deaconess. That means I'd be an R.N."

Today, in her new outfit, she is going to a job fair. With confidence constructed on filled-in sinkholes, she exclaims that today she is going to get a job.

"I just have a feeling," she says, "you know?"

Living at home with his father was still hit-or-miss for Michael when he turned 17. He had a job busing tables but couldn't get back into school, couldn't get a title for a car and couldn't rent his own apartment. He depended on his friends and their families for everything.

If a bill now winding its way through the Missouri Legislature had been law at the time, Michael could have petitioned the court for legal emancipation. This would have allowed him access to certain services and given him the right to act as an adult, legally speaking, in most situations.

Dan Glazier, an attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, says that under the proposal, which is being sponsored by Rep. Patrick Dougherty (D-St. Louis), anyone who is at least 16 can apply for emancipation if he or she lives away from parents or guardians and is managing his or her own financial affairs. The court could then grant the teen temporary emancipation for six months if it was decided this was in the best interest of the teenager. If, after six months, the teen shows he or she has benefited from the judgment, the court could grant permanent emancipation. This would allow the teen to do the following: consent to medical, dental or psychiatric care; enter into binding contracts; sue or be sued; establish his or her own residence; buy and sell personal property; enroll in secondary school or college without parental consent; register a motor vehicle; and work more than 20 hours a week.

"In all of these areas, these kids need to have legal emancipation so they can break the cycle of homelessness," Glazier says.

But not all homeless teens are ready to be completely on their own. City officials in St. Louis recognize the need for more transitional-living facilities and have applied for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Supportive Housing Grant. "We are targeting housing for adolescents, which we feel is a priority concern for the city of St. Louis," says Jackson of the city's Department of Human Services. Jackson says that if HUD awards the grant to the city, the money -- as much as several million dollars -- would be used for transitional housing for older teens, including group homes.

Currently Michael lives in such a residential program at Youth in Need, in St. Charles. He can live there for the next 18 months as he pursues Microsoft certification at a technical college. Right now he works 40 hours a week, topping burgers at a local fast-food joint. "I came here last Christmas Eve," Michael says. "I wanted to get away from everything. I was partying all the time with my friends. It's hard not to when everyone around you does it -- I don't care how much self-control you've got. And they were all I had. They were like my family.

"But it was all a dead end, and I wanted to get my life on track," he adds. "I mean, I knew I had to do something, and I realized that for months, but it takes a lot to do some things. It's hard leaving your friends, even though you know you should."

And it was hard letting go of the desire to have a home and a family. "Despite everything," he says, "I still love my dad."

Michael made a New Year's resolution on the night he entered the residential program: "I figured if I could get away from everything before the millennium -- it was going to be the biggest party ever -- I figured if I could not party on that night, that would be a first step.

"And I did it."

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