Daylight weakens over the foliage and shadows stretch across thick autumn colors, camouflaging an irresolute, 22-year-old man. Weights tumble across Anthony Lawson’s mind while he measures his motives for coming to this strange sanctuary. Taufer Park is home to the “Mary Tree,” said to hold the image of the Virgin.
It’s the devotion evident around the tree that catches Lawson’s eyes. Burning even as the sky burns out, votive candles illuminate and accentuate the prayers, pleas and pictures of well-wishing souls.
Straying from his aimless cohorts, who were loitering outside Crossroads Mall, Lawson wandered here. He ventures closer to the radiant oasis, then hears someone approaching. Retreating to the periphery, a glowing form appears. An elderly Hispanic woman, dressed in a white flower painted dress and flowing white scarf, puts something among the cascade of candles and kneels before the tree.
Lawson watches, curious. He wonders what’s on her mind, but also hopes she will soon leave. It’s already after 8 p.m. Darkness creeps across the park, and the stillness of this bright old woman merges into the luminance of the candles before her.
Sitting outside the reach of light, he wonders why he is there. He wanted to leave, but he said he would bring something with him.
While other homeless youths made their way into the city night, Lawson felt lucky. He had found refuge in a small two-bedroom apartment, which he shared with 14 other people and several pets. It had no water, no electricity, no amenity of any kind, except walls and a roof, and that was enough against the elements and predators.
He had told his friends he would bring home candles, so that at least, they could enjoy a little light. But “spanging” had produced no funds for candles. So he came here, remembering that there were always prayer candles in abundance, in the open air, easy for the taking.
As the night wore on, and the woman stayed transfixed on some intimate outpouring, Lawson reconsidered his mission. He found hollow comfort in the idea of taking something placed in reverence.
The old woman reminded him of childhood fantasies of becoming a Christian minister with a wife and kids and a house with a white picket fence. It seemed absurd, considering he was gay and had drifted a long way from his Indiana roots.
Eventually, the woman’s conviction drained his wavering resolve. He left empty-handed.
He returned another night, finding the same woman in the same position, stoic as she communed with the tree. He returned many times, marveling at the scene, a bit of sameness in his otherwise transient life. He wrote a poem about her, this devout woman, and posted it among the prayers and petitions, not knowing if she would ever read it.
Lawson spoke of everything with pleasant diction. He sounded like he was referring to a favorite film when he talked about the candle story. Or when he says his father punched him in the stomach before sending him to live with his mother. Or when he lost 120 pounds in four months, because he says his stepfather ridiculed him for being overweight.
“I like life. I don’t let life get me down,” he explained with Buddhalike forbearance. “You have to fake it, ‘till you make it,” he says with a weary grin.
“My sister tried to help me, but I just left home, and moved in with my boyfriend,” he said. “I dropped out of school two weeks before graduation.” Five months later, he began the nomadic four-year journey from Indiana to Salt Lake City.
“I’m not a violent person. I don’t like violence,” he said, needing to explain why he left his turbulent family life.
Unaccompanied youths account for 3 percent of the entire homeless population in the United States, amounting to more than 300,000 a year, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless Website. More than 60 percent left home because of physical or sexual abuse, it reports.
As far as reconciling with his parents or sister, Lawson waved his hand, either dismissing the idea or wishing he could clear the air. “I burned those bridges with my family,” he said with an unconvincing smile. “I made a lot of bad decisions. I had zero structure at home, so I didn’t listen to them,” he said.
Despite his false starts, his future is looking up. However, his window of opportunity may be difficult to open.
Lawson is too old for the Homeless Youth Transition Home, which provides living quarters for up to nine people between 16 and 19 years of age, but he does have shelter in the 14-person apartment. Sadly, it seems the leader of the tribe has marked Lawson for the boot.
While he currently uses the Homeless Youth Resource Drop-In Center for some meals, a shower, high school graduation study and a safe haven for socializing, he can’t use its services indefinitely. The Center accommodates 15-to-22 year olds, and he soon will be 23. As the only drop-in place for homeless youth in Utah, it depends on small government grants and scant contributions to stay open. Youths can’t live there, but it’s still a valuable place.
By technical definition, anyone under 18 is not homeless. Instead, they are referred to the state, which assumes custody. But many teenagers don’t trust the state so avoid getting services altogether.
“Unfortunately, these are the ones who are most likely to be exploited on the street,” said Nicole Campolucci, program manager for the Center. “Unlike homeless adults, the biggest concern for these kids is security.”
Offering Lawson hope is an opportunity he arranged with Job Corps. There, he will have a bed, meals, earn his diploma and learn a vocational skill, such as landscaping or plumbing.
The problems are food and, possibly, shelter. Between his upcoming birthday and his Job Corps vocational training, he may have some lag time on the street without a steady meal. Once more, Lawson focuses on the positive.
The prospect of learning a marketable skill which could lead to a real job and eventual self-sufficiency—not to minimize the pride of erasing his failure to graduate high school—makes the details of basic survival seem trivial. Lawson is trying to live Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in reverse.
There are other places to find a meal, there are other places to sleep, he said. When pressed for examples, he smiled and said he still has a few pounds to lose.
If he’s evicted, the adult shelter is an unwelcome option. Often, “adults have abused these homeless young people their entire lives,” said Campolucci. So the thought of sleeping beside unknown grown-ups feels less tenable than crashing on the streets, she said.
Lawson refused to consider staying at the adult shelter. “I know some places,” he said with undue optimism. “I know some safe places in the bushes.”
“If I were 18, I would find the prospect of bunking with 300 older men intimidating,” said Matt Minkevitch, executive director for the adult homeless shelter, The Road Home. He estimates that only 10 percent of homeless youth use the shelter. “It’s even more intimidating for young women,” he said.
As the harsh northern wind breezes into the valley and slowly anesthetizes both flora and fauna, even Lawsons can’t mistake the coming chill of fall shades for the bright hues of spring. Unless gay people, as some claim, really do turn nature upside down.
Campolucci beams constantly. She’s like a lighthouse beacon over a fluid situation. She beams from determination, not soft pleasantries. Direct and compassionate, this 28-year-old mamma bear and New Jersey native has all the stray cubs she can handle.
Someone needs her every five minutes. “Do you know where my backpack is?” a bright young girl asks, poking her head into Campolucci’s closet-size office.
Campolucci is constantly engaged with what everyone else is doing. “She’s very relaxed and cool,” said a regular at the Center. “She listens and understands.”
Her direct management style nets a simple trust from other young people too. A teen leans over to confide about someone who might be using a fake ID, and Campolucci is off to sort the matter out.
“Trust is a big obstacle. Some of these kids have been so beaten-up, used and abused, that they think it’s normal,” she says. “But trust is also their first step from homelessness to independence.”
Her inflection suggests that, behind her own hard-earned trust, there are plenty of tales of youths forging a journey from mistrust and homelessness to trust and independence: 413 tales at the Center in the last year alone, to be exact.
“We don’t measure success by usual standards,” Campolucci says. “We define it with small, definitive steps.”
Sometimes, it’s when one stops injecting heroin for a milder drug like marijuana, she said.
“Four days ago, I flushed down 200 pills of Catamine,” Lawson said, offering evidence of Campolucci’s powers of persuasion.
Homeless youths are invisible to many people. They can look like regular kids, Campolucci explained. And it’s not just about them getting a job. “Some of them are not in a place where they can mentally or emotionally hold down a job,” she said.
“It’s only now that I feel ready to learn some job skills through Job Corps and ready to stop focusing on my depression and drugs,” said Lawson.
With its exposed brick exterior on a crumbling stretch of State Street, the Center has the feel of an inner-city school. The staff provides meals, a mail service, showers, computers, and a recreation room with television. Young people can receive counseling, medical care, and detox services through its umbrella organization, Volunteers of America, and a coalition of government and humanitarian entities.
Volunteers of America currently runs the Homeless Youth Transition Home for seven youths who’ve demonstrated their determination to work toward a stable life. But more is needed if the 35 daily visitors to the Center are ever going to transcend transience.
How Utah’s family environment affects its homeless youth population as compared to other states is unknown. However, one volunteer at the Center said “there is a difference in recognition.” Utah needs a shelter just for young adults, she said, but that would require recognizing the problem of homeless youth. She believes most people don’t know there is a problem.
Noting one recent triumph, Campolucci bragged, “We worked our butts off to help five of our kids pass the GED. They were very excited about accomplishing that.” GED certification is the pathway to even menial jobs.
“If we can help just one kid a month to stop using drugs, to trust our services, to improve their lives, then I think we are making a difference,” she said. “But we are helping many more than that.”
Working with kids has dominated Campolucci’s entire career. “I knew this is what I wanted to do since I was 12,” she said.
It’s mealtime around the Center. Some youths help with preparation, another works on the computer, another very clean-cut kid just sits quietly by the window, mouthing something to himself. Others joke around and launder their clothes. Volunteers answer queries about mail and phone messages. In the midst of all this, Campolucci is firmly at the helm.
“Do you want them to print that?” she asks Misfit, a 22-year-old woman who recounts a childhood incident with a sailor’s swagger. Misfit smiles back, because there was a time when she wouldn’t talk about her childhood. Recently, she moved into an apartment, learned some job skills and has a better life.
With dinner winding down, the living room fills with chatter before the Center closes for the evening. Despite the “Homeless” sign outside, this outreach program still feels like a home. The atmosphere dissipates as people depart to the streets, where, ‘til dawn, they’ll fend for themselves.
Many of these young people have no illusions about returning to the home-life they’ve lost. To them, the Center is probably more like a fort than a home. In a perpetual state of unsupervised recess, their lives may seem glamorous to youths with homes.
“Living on the street is not freedom or fun,” Misfit said. “You’ve got no money, no place to go, nothing to do. Why would a kid want that? It sucks.”
Misfit was just 13 when she ran down to a rail yard to escape one of her stepfather’s rages. She spent many hours among the railcars.
One day, while playing on her favorite railcar, it suddenly jerked into motion. Startled by the sounds of grinding metal and exhilarated by this fateful intervention in her stagnant unhappy life, she stayed on the train. As it rolled out of town, she had no idea it would take her from Missouri to Georgia—no idea if the road ahead would be worse than the one left behind.
“I didn’t want to leave my sister with that asshole,” she said, blaming herself a little. “But I had to.”
Somewhere between childhood and adolescence, she departed her old life and entered a strange, uncertain one. Fate wouldn’t leave her alone. As if waiting for a niece at a train station, Rose, the street lady, was Misfit’s first encounter when she disembarked in a Georgia town.
“What are you doing here?” Rose asked this petite young girl. Misfit, scared and bewildered, replied that she didn’t know.
“Rose was my street mom,” Misfit reminisced affectionately. Her biological mother gets mentioned only as a backdrop. “Rose taught me how to survive.”
This education centered around one goal: survival without prostitution. Misfit learned how to “dumpster dive” for food. There’s always discarded food behind a McDonalds.
“The food was stale, sometimes soggy, and very greasy,” she said. Even the chicken didn’t taste like chicken. It was like eating crunchy lard, she said.
She learned how to hide from cops, and how to deal with potential rapists. “When one dude tried to mess with me, I threw Everclear on him and lit a match,” she said. “It was a scare tactic.” Rose showed Misfit safe hideouts among decrepit buildings, she said.
“Rose taught me how to fight,” she said with a laugh. “She would beat me up a little and tell me to defend myself. I learned how to cut out the tips of my boots and glue razorblades there. One time, a guy tried to get a trick out of me, so I had to kick him with those boots and run. He got bloody,” she said, giggling a little.
Eventually, Misfit called her grandfather, the only family member she trusted. He convinced her to return home, but she would never stay for long. Presently, her mother is with another “asshole,” she said. Along with Misfit’s 10-year-old sister, they live with her grandfather back in Missouri.
“My grandpa tries to take care of my mom and sister,” she said.
A train-hopping pro, Misfit has been all over the United States. She settled in Utah in 1999.
With baggy jeans, blue flannel shirt, tan cap, short hair, and a bike chain dangling out of her pocket, she pretends to be a boy. “I’m a girl, but I have to look like a boy to survive,” she explained. “People are going to fuck with you [as a girl], so you have to cut your hair and dress like a boy.”
And you need a street name, too, like hers. “It’s safer with a nickname,” she said. “People can use your real name against you.” If there was a warrant out for your arrest, a rival could turn you in for revenge, she said. One of her female friends goes by “Joey,” a street name that also provides a masculine shield.
One long, dull day she was hanging out at a bus station when she met a scared, bewildered homeless teenage boy. Her alter ego, he dressed as a girl. She called him “Freak,” her “street brother.” Freak was running away from home in northern Utah.
They lived with another friend in a condemned house, until the cops caught sight of smoke and busted the joint. Freak’s mother came down to pick him up, only to drive a few blocks and “dump him back on the street,” Misfit said.
They had good times together; disturbing ones as well. “We would beg for spare change at Sapp Brothers [a truck stop on the west side]. When we got some money, we tried to bribe a truck driver to get us out of Salt Lake,” she said.
“No one would take us, but this guy offered us jobs with the Fair. He said to follow him to an office so we could have a job interview. So, he walked with us and we stopped to get some alcohol and were drinking under a viaduct,” she said. “This guy figured out I was female and tried to get me to prostitute myself to him.”
She made it clear that she wasn’t for sale, so they got drunk and the guy passed out. Misfit and Freak robbed him of $10 and ran away. This worked so well they did it to five other men.
“We didn’t rob these guys unless they tried to get on me,” she said. Another time behind the Dead Goat Saloon, they robbed another man of $20 and took his drugs too, she said.
About this time, Misfit decided she needed to find a “respectable” occupation, so she began visiting the Center.
“I was sitting in a spiral of self-hatred and destruction. I would look in the mirror and say, ‘I hate you!’” she said. “I self-medicate with marijuana. It calms me down,” she said.
At the Center she received counseling, earned her high school diploma, learned welding and received security training.
She’s overcome some violent tendencies. “In my most violent days, if someone said the wrong thing, I would beat the shit out of him,” she said. “Now, I might raise my voice, but not my hand. I don’t want to hit people anymore.”
Campolucci sees Misfit as a case for more youth services. “Some people wonder why they should help these kids, when they have their own problems,” she said. “Well, it sounds cheesy, but kids are the future. If you look at the cost to society in economic and moral terms for doing nothing, then you realize it’s a bargain to help them now, not later.”
Last year, the Center provided nearly 3,000 referrals to: medical, substance abuse, mental health, shelter care and other human services, according to a Volunteers of America report. Visits to the free Open Door Clinic are a fraction of the cost of taking a homeless person to an emergency room. For every $1 spent on substance-abuse treatment, $7 in taxpayer monies are saved in medical and government costs. And a drop-in Center provides a supportive environment for homeless youths to work toward finding jobs and contributing to society.
“It’s going to be a lot cheaper now than paying for it later in treatment centers, government assistance, Medicaid, and prisons,” Campolucci said. “As a young person, they are more apt to change. A kid may only need to go to a substance abuse treatment center once, but 20 years from now, he may take five times to break a bad habit.”
In moral terms, Campolucci is equally adamant about society’s responsibility. “Any warmhearted person would care about these kids, if they heard what these young people have been through,” she said. “I’ve got my own problems, but these kids make me thankful that I have a family. Most of them don’t.
“You don’t want them going out and having more kids without first helping them solve their problems,” she said.
Misfit recently moved in with her fiancÃ©. They got a two-bedroom apartment with only two other people. Before, they lived in a squat house with 12 others. Misfit said they have been dating for nine months. Her fiancÃ© likes girls “who can take care of themselves,” she said. He works a job, while Misfit works out some depression issues so she can one day get a job, as well.
“My last boyfriend was horrible. We couldn’t stand each other and beat each other,” she said. But Malice treats her well, she said softly. “He helps me understand that the world is not out to get me,” she said.
Dirk ThÃ³mas sings in Italian with a high tenor voice: “You spoke to me from your beautiful mouth.” Out of his love for opera, this tri-lingual 18-year-old Puerto Rican teaches himself Italian arias—not the usual pastime for a homeless youth, but then ThÃ³mas became homeless in an unusual way.
A musician and honor student in his high school days in Puerto Rico, ThÃ³mas arranged a mainland move from his island homeland so he could pursue his dreams. “I paid some money for an apartment and applied for college at the University of Utah,” he said.
However, upon his arrival, a dispute with a roommate left him out on the street. Without a rental refund he was penniless and homeless. Equally disappointing, his college application stalled after the school listed him as a French national, rather than a U.S. citizen.
The confusion might stem from the fact that his mother is French, and he recently spent time there studying music and biology. He’s working out the misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, he’s met other homeless youths who hang out at the Drop-In Center, while he lives at the Homeless Youth Transition Home. Working a part-time job and volunteering with the Utah Opera, he spends his free time creating computer music at the Salt Lake City Public Library. He’s playing a Roman soldier in an LDS theater production of Savior of the World.
While pounding away on the computer at the Center, he said he’s trying to organize a vocal performance group. He also auditions for plays at the Hale Theatre.
A believer in clean living and abstaining from drugs, ThÃ³mas must still endure the inflammatory pain of Crohn’s disease. He gets occasional medical help through the free Open Door Clinic.
Family life hasn’t been easy for ThÃ³mas, but it hasn’t been bad either. His grandparents raised him after his parents died when he was young. He speaks kindly of them, except that they chide him for earning B grades in school. They offered to bring him home since he lost all his money. It’s a tempting proposition. He could go home, regroup his resources, resolve his problem of university admission, and then return with all his ducks in a row.
ThÃ³mas remains undeterred, sporting a sort of Huck Finn grin before saying, “Hey, I’m living the dream; I’m living the American Dream.”
The Crossroads Mall entrance on Main Street is a good perch. Myriad young people, tattered hoboes and mall employees on break survey the heart of the city as businesspeople and power brokers pass them by, scurrying to their next important meeting.
Nathan Krueger, who worked at the mall, remembers that once, while leaving to go home, a teenage boy blocked his path.
“Can you spare a dollar, bro?” he asked.
Krueger surveyed the kid: new Nike super-gel shoes, the usual baggy to raggedy clothes, and the ultra-cool skateboard. But the tip-off was most certainly the boy’s clean shoes.
“Why don’t you go ask your daddy for a dollar?” Krueger responded with a disapproving smile.
“Whaaaat?” The boy was incredulous.
“You’re wearing $200 dollar shoes and you have a $200 skateboard. I don’t think you need money,” Krueger said.
That many homeless youths congregate on Main Street around the mall entrances is no secret. But Krueger discovered that some urban teens, bored with homework and videogames, drive their parents’ SUVs downtown so they can indulge in the street-kid mystique without having to get their shoes dirty.
“I hate those posers,” said Misfit. “They think it’s cool to play like street kids. They would think differently if they had to find a place to sleep in Memory Grove, then have it rain on them.”
Campolucci is more sympathetic, observing that part of childhood is playing games. Kids are still kids, she said.
But some young pretenders are unrepentant. The Main Street teenager who provoked Krueger’s rebuttal caught the laughter of his friend behind him. As if to save face, the boy gave Krueger some mock applause. Then, like resetting a game, he returned to his friend, giving one last nod to Krueger, who returned the gesture, as if to say, “Keep it real, bro.”