A striking feature of the lives of street youth is the tremendous shadow of loss that looms over their lives. Many of them have survived multiple losses early in life, including parental divorce, death, and separation from family to live in group/foster homes. Along with the devastation of physical and sexual abuse, which is all too common in their lives, these losses often lead to chronic depression.
A nineteen-year-old-gay youth described a series of losses and abuses that led him to the brink of suicide. Born in Harlem,. he was "shifted around between family members" and spent some years with a physically abusive grandmother. At the age of eight, his father moved out and his mother's boyfriend began sexually abusing him. Three years later, when his mother was incarcerated for the second time, the Bureau of Child Welfare put him in a group home. A few months later his mother came to visits, and he ran away with her, "moving from place to place constantly" while she sold drugs to earn money. Eventually, the Bureau of Child Welfare intervened again, and he went to a group home outside the city. When he was fourteen, his mother died, possibly of suicide. As her recalled:
I went to her funeral, and that was the roughest thing to have to deal with, too. I mean, oh man, it was just so hard to deal with. I mean, when I first found out she died, I thought I would never survive. I really thought I would never make it through. But I'm still here!
After his mother's death, he went to live with an abusive aunt. After one particularly severe beating, he ran away. For four days he lived on the streets, hungry and sleeping on a subway train. Finally, he sought help from a mission house and ended up in another group home. He ran away numerous times and gradually became more accustomed to street life. At fifteen, "life just got so much for [him]" that he " decided to turn to suicide." As he remembers it:
I mean, my mother died, and my aunt told me she hated my guts, and I didn't belong with the family, and at that time, by family was the only thing I had. And it just hurt me so much I couldn't deal with it, so I tried to jump off a roof. But I couldn't. I don't know why, I stood on the ledge for hours! But I just couldn't move. It's like, the wind wouldn't blow hard enough. That's all the wind had to do was blow, all you needed was a strong wind. But the wind wouldnÕt blow hard enough, IÕm telling you.
At eighteen, he started dating a man three years older and for the first time acknowledged (to himself and others) that he was gay. Despite frequent bouts of homelessness and cruel encounter with homophobia, he graduated from high school. "DonÕt know how!" he exclaimed.
And, at this time, I used to just walk around. And, till I met this guy, I never really slept, I slept on trains. I really started to fall in love with him, too. I slept with him in Penn Station. It was really dirty there, but, you gotta sleep somewhere. And then he started to beat up on me. He was really abusive. He clained he loved me, and yet he abused me. I never quite understood that.
To become self-sufficient so he could leave his abusive lover, he began to hustle sex in bars. Prostitiution quickly became a Ōlast resortĶ and he would resort to it "when things got bad again." He began to suffer from the degradation and futility of his circumstances and attempted to slit his wrists. He was aided by outreach programs and gradually "thingsstarted to go up.....ever so slowly."
Other young people talked of suicidal depression following the death of a parent or caretaker. For example, an eighteen-year-old Hispanic youth said of his mother's death a few years earlier, "I took it hard. And once, I wanted to kill myself, cause she died, and I wanted to be with her." For the nineteen-year old black youth who as a toddler lost his parents and who as a teenager lost the grandparents who raised him, the prospect of his own death offered the possibility of relief from feelings of loss:
I really wanted, to get rid of, get over life, you know get my life over with. Go through life, zip through my twenties, zip through my thirties and forties, and pass away, and join my grandma and grandpa. Cause I thought that ife here was poison, that they take the good people off the earth and leave all the bad people here.
The magnitude of loss in these young peopleÕs lives creates a stark backdrop against which they face the harshness and violence of life on the streets. Indeed, the realities of street life perpetuate experiences of loss and abuse and contribute to the sense of despair so common among street youth.
Daily Life on the Streets
Life on the streets is fraught with a host of difficulties and dangers, demanding both vigilance and ingenuity. Survival - whether meeting everyday needs or facing threats to oneÕs life - is a constant source of stress among street youth. Even for those who receive help from street outreach programs, there is only a limited respite from thestreets. Drop-in centers are not open twenty-four hours a day, and most programs are forced to ration services. For many street youth, the greatest struggle is simply staying alive. As one drug dealer who fears for his life explained:
Because you know, especially if you're in the business that I'm in, you know, it's like, you sell drugs and you know, people could come up and shoot you in the back or, you know, try to get you arrested or something like that. Cause everyday you got to constantly live with that fear.
Even for youth not involved in dealing drugs, the streets are a threatening environment. As a nineteen-year-old said, it may not be apparent to the daytime passerby, but "it's dangerous out there on Forty-second [Street}]." His strategy for dealing with the streets at night is to stay awake and alert, walking around as much as possible. "Sometimes," he said, "I would go and hop a [subway] and purposely get arrested, just so I can sit in jail and have a place to stay."
Though the hazards of street life affect young people of both sexes, girls who survive on the streets face particular perils. One young black woman who entered the streets after repeated sexual victimization in a group home described the difficulties facing women on the streets:
I'm telling you it's hard. There's a lot out there that will hurt you. I'm twenty-two and I been there. I done seen. There's nothing out there. Especially not for a female. A male could make it out there. But a female, she can't because people are always saying, 'I'll help you,'......and 'do this' and 'do this' and 'do that.' Some people just do it because they want something in return. I learned that too.
The reason why I say males could make it out there better than females is because a man knows how to take care of his self. But say that [a girl's] mother threw them out at eleven years old....they won't know where to go and what to do. And then they still in that stage where they are friendly with everybody.
All a man got to do is walk up to a female and say, "are you okay?" And all she got to do is cry and be kind of innocent and then he'll say,, "Okay I'll help you." And then most females just go with that man. And then Lord knows what can happen to her. He could be a killer. He might be a nice person. Then again, he might not. You don't never know.
But a man is better [off] because most of the time people don't bother them. they will be friends and they will be out there, they'll be out there with each other. Helping each other.
Obtaining the daily necessities of life-shelter from the elements, food, showers, clothing, a place to sleep-is conditioned by the streets. So, too, is the decision to steal, sell drugs, and/or engage in prostitution. As one youth explained:
It's a survival thing. You panic, and you're thinking, 'What do I got to do to survival thing. You panic, and you're thinking, "What do I got to do to survive?" And you got your options right in front of you. I mean, I could steal, I could have sex, I could do this, I could do that . And then you think about it. And then, whichever one you feel most comfortable with, that's the one you go with.
Even when theses activities are used to support a drug habit, they cannot be divorced from issues of survival. For many, drug use is intricately woven into the whole survival scheme, as a means of controlling hunger, of staying awake and alert, and of enduring that which seems unendurable, As one youth put it, "I can't conceive of doing robbing without, you know, being under the influence of alcohol, or something like that, you know? I mean, [it gives] some kind of alteration." And for some, the temporary act of "getting high" serves as refuge from despair and hopelessness. As one youth explained:
And at this time it's all I have. So, I drink and make a little herb and feel a little better and then I don't feel as depressed. Therefore I won't go out and do something drastic and I'll regret it.
Most street youth, due to lack of sleep, face the challenges of the streets in a state of chronic exhaustion. For many, finding a safe place to sleep is the most difficult task on the streets. "Not sleeping, not getting the right sleep, not sleeping where you want to sleep, how you want to sleep" is, in one youth's words, a constant problem. Activities in the street economy take place during both the day and the night . Youth sometimes view sleep as a loss of much needed revenue: "Cause see, like when I sleep, " one youth explained, "I miss a lot of business that way."
Outreach programs provide temporary respite from the streets in the form of a place to "crash," and many street youth nap in the safety of a drop-in center. Apart from this opportunity, youth conform to the elements. An eighteen-year-old male prostitute, living on the streets, explained:
In the summertime it's cool. In the summer time you get a sheet, right, a jacket. Fall asleep in the park, you know? Or in a truck. Sometimes I have fell asleep on the same block where I whore, sitting on the steps. On a cold night, however, you've got to go out there and do the best you can. Got to make sacrifices. When it gets too cold, I just hop into a subway. That's all. Or I get drunk.
"Friends" and "Associates"
Social networks among street youth are often defined by interconnected factors such as gender, sexual identity, and access to drugs. These relationships are often tenuous, expedient, and very transient. Although street youth share the street scene with youth in similar straits, may explain that their relationships with other youth on the streets contribute to their overall sense of alienation an stress. One youth described his lack of supports in this way:
When you're out here on the streets, and you're by yourself, you know, you got nobody in your corner, nobody sticking behind you, no type of support, you know what I'm saying? You know, it hurts. You feel by yourself.
Past experience lead youth to a general wariness about friendship. By referring to most of their street-based companions as associates rather than friends, street youth emphasize the pragmatic and conditional nature of these relationships. One youth put it quite simply: "I don't have friends. I have associates. People who I socialize with. You know, because there's people who say they want to be your friend and they turn around and stab you in the back."
Another young man, asked to describe his friendships on the streets, defined the situation clearly:
It wasn't really friends. It was associates. They were with me whenever I had money or drugs on me. Besides that, they never wanted to know me if I didn't have the means to buy their friendships for about an hour or two hours a day. Yeah, 'cause they were just associates, not friends. Friends are people who care about you, who try to help you whichever way they can and not wait for anything in return. They just, like, want to spend time with you.
A nineteen-year-old Hispanic youth, homeless and hustling since the age of sixteen, explained the lack of "true" friendships on the streets as due to the fact that youth respond to the stresses of street life by "building up walls." They have become acclimated, in a way, to a life of pain and hardship and have learned to respond by lowering their expectations and keeping their feelings to themselves. He summed it up this way:
Out here, you don't really have friends. You know, everybody out here is materialistic. People come from broken homes, they been hurt a lot and everybody........just want[s] to keep peace to themselves, like not depend on nobody, you know? So they don't want to care about nobody. Everyone is so self-centered. Everybody got so many problems in their head they be like "damn, please." They just don't want to hear it. You tell them something and they be like, "yeah" and "okay". Out here, you just got to keep that stuff in you and with you. And if you're depressed and everything, you just got to keep it to yourself.
Some street youth describe a high degree of jealousy and rivalry on the streets, which, among male hustlers, includes competition for "good tricks." A good trick is one who pays well, provides desirable drugs, and behaves in a kind fashion. A transsexual youth explained the "politics" of prostitution among transsexual youth in Port Authority. She said that some tricks don't know that the transsexuals are male, and if there are bad feelings between a transsexual and a female prostitute, the woman may tell a potential customer the truth about her rival.
Lives Touched be AIDS
The daily challenge to meet the demands of survival in the street environment makes it difficult for youth to protect themselves
against HIV infection, particularly in the context of street prostitution. Although AIDS education is a primary focus of outreach efforts for street youth and youth are fairly knowledgeable about AIDS (Atillasoy and Clatts 1993; Clatts and Davis 1993), it is often a personal relationship with someone who has AIDS that forces them to confront it. Too often, street youth watch someone close to them live with, and die from. AIDS. A nineteen year-old black youth described his experience:
When I was in Philadelphia, I was aware of the AIDS virus, and I was aware of what it could do. But, it didn't really scare me, like it's scaring me now. Because I really never really, sat down and actually spoke with somebody who had it and was about to die. I arrived in New York, and I spoke with an individual who had the virus. He was going into the hospital treatment. I discussed this disease and the things it could do. He told me it was a joke.....and I believed him.
Another nineteen-year-old black youth recalled the pain of watching a friend die:
He was really close to me, and when he caught it, he died. Six months ago he passed away, of AIDS. The parents were telling everybody he had the flu, but he told me. When I went to visit him in the hospital he told me , like, he don't have the flu. He have AIDS. But he was telling me about it for me to be careful. And I'll tell you, thanks. You know? God. He died.
For someone who has felt impervious to the threat of AIDS, the news of a friend's illness can be deeply shocking. A nineteen-year-old bisexual youth described the sense of disbelief he and others felt when they learned, two years earlier, that a friend had AIDS:
We were thinking... you know, he don't look sick or nothing. He found out he had AIDS and he told all of us. And we were like, "What! You?! Come on man, you're joking." "Nah, man." And ever since that day, I started wearing condoms.
It is the combination of fear and sorrow, on losing a friend or relative to AIDS, that personalizes the issue and brings many street youth to think about their own vulnerability. when asked how he first became aware of his risk for AIDS, and of the need to protect himself, a nineteen-year-old black youth, engaged in survival sex, said quite succinctly, "Well, my friend died from AIDS. That terrified me, so I knew I have a chance of doing the same thing. So I was like, I have to protect myself or face the consequences."