The stereotype of a homeless person is such: an older man, holding a sign, with missing teeth, begging on a street corner. But in cities around the country and especially here in Long Beach, that image is fading away.
There are 160 homeless youth in Long Beach aged 18 to 24, according to the 2011 Homeless Count.
These youth tend to be “system involved kids,” coming from dysfunctional families, extreme poverty, and mired in the foster care and probation systems, according to Wayne Munchel. Munchel is a Services Director for Stars Inc., which has transition age youth programs in Long Beach.
“They literally hit the streets as they head over the cliff and age out of the system,” he says. “Trauma exposure is also a common denominator.”
VoiceWaves spoke to many homeless youth in the city and heard their stories. The following are four profiles of living young without a roof in Long Beach.
[pullquote]Hear the youth tell their story in their own words in the audio slideshow above.[/pullquote]
Jonathan Serra, 19
A few short years ago Jonathan Serra was a successful high school student in the QUEST program at Millikan High School. He had good grades, a stable friend base, supportive teachers, and two glamorous college offers to consider. CSULB– a chance to stay close to home; or University of the Pacific– a chance to explore a different community and discover independence.
Serra felt that he needed to explore the world, away from an overprotective adoptive mother. But his mother didn’t. After a college discussion escalated, his mother essentially threw him out of the house, telling him to prove his independence.
As he packed his bags, planning to stay at a friend’s house for the night, she attempted to apologize. But, as Serra explained, if one’s mother could kick them out of the house, how could they continue to live there.
He wasn’t able to graduate from Millikan, as the struggle of classes became too much as he attempted to adjust to his new life. He was living with friends, on and off for a while, and took OFL classes to complete his diploma.
But from his happy, positive energy, one can tell Serra will make any situation work out for the best. He used to be a lot more critical of the world around him. He judged the homeless he saw on the streets.
But he’s learned a lot in the last 6 months he’s been officially homeless. He’s learned from others, and depended on others. Hearing their stories and sharing his, he’s become a less judgmental person. Serra’s discover and found that the homeless are a community, a family.
“Everyone has a different perspective, a different reality.”
Serra doesn’t seem “homeless,” mentally ill, or struggling. And he doesn’t think of himself in that light either. He points out: “I have goals, I have aspirations, this is temporary for now.”
He’s living at Long Beach Rescue Mission, plans to join their NewLife Program, attend school at Long Beach City College, and hopefully join the AirForce.
Serra’s learned a lot from life, on and off the streets, has a level head on his shoulders, and takes each day one at a time. He’s positive about the future, after all, “there’s a moral to every story.”
Chris Jenkins, 21
As a baby, Chris Jenkins was beat by his step-father. He was an infant in a hospital, suffering from broken bones and concussions. Today, Jenkins is 21 and sleeps on Lincoln Park’s cement floor, surrounded by blankets, scores of luggage, and a group of close friends.
It actually looks pretty comfy for an outdoor bed. “I’m not worried about things, I know it’s not gonna’ last,” says the youth.
Growing up, Jenkins says, he went from foster home to foster home, encountering abuse until he was seven. Finally, he was adopted into a home, into a Texas family that didn’t lay a hand on him.
So why leave?
“I got tired of looking at same old farmland,” said Jenkins, who at the time was living next to a slaughterhouse. “I needed a break from that lifestyle.”
He ventured out to North Carolina for his first stint with homelessness three years ago. Then he briefly came back home to the ranch to reunite with his adoptive parents. “They had never said they were proud of me until then,” he says. Now he’s in Long Beach streets.
Jenkins identifies as gay, a writer, and a drummer. He has a youthful face, strangely bright and clean clothes, a tamed shadow around his chin, and seems very happy. But he does have a dark side.
“I’m sober, except for dope,” he says. “It mellows me out…but I’m managing out of it.” It helps with his anxiety and recurring bad memories, he says.
He has suffered from such depression problems throughout his life. He’s tried all the pills: the xanaxs, the lexapros. He says they do not help.
He says he’s constantly depressed for genetic and environmental reasons.
The abuse he suffered as a child had an obvious effect.
But he researched his biological mother’s files, and discovered she had suffered from manic depression.
When Jenkins talks about his life, about going from foster home to foster home, about facing abuse at many of them, a sharp pain emerges in his eyes. His eyes glisten with a piercing glow, as if desired to be heard.
He has the same glow when he talks about Long Beach police officers.
“They’re just making it harder on us,” he says.
Jenkins’ ex-boyfriend almost beat him to death in the street, not once but three times, he says. The first time, he called the police for help, but he says, “They didn’t do anything.”
On the second time, the cops responded only when another one of Jenkins’ friends, also homeless, called for help, he says.
Jenkins says that he is in transition. He is optimistic for the future.
“In my opinion, we’re not homeless because we’ve got God…My eternal lasting is upstairs.”
Heather Schatzman, 19
February 23, 2012 was the day that Heather Schatzman became homeless.
Sexually assaulted by her father, Schatzman left her Orange County home for street life in Long Beach, she said. She left behind a little brother.
“Sometimes you have to lose everything to gain something,” Schatzman said. I asked her what she gained from the alternative she currently lives in.
“A family that actually cares about me.”
She and her boyfriend have been without a roof, for eight months. Her boyfriend and the some of the other homeless youth in the city are the support system she’s never had.
Schatzman is a blond-haired youth, who is also a poet. Perhaps it’s the poetic side of her when she speaks the truth so directly, yet softly. She looks at the city around her and at her home.
“They are many abandoned buildings that haven’t been touched in 20 years,” she said.
Schatzman’s biggest issues are her chronic lung problems and recurring bronchitis, which do not help when food gets scarce.
One winter week, all she had to eat was “a piece of fruit a day.” Her and her troupe were literally too ill to seek food.
She was hit with her bronchitis and the group went through an entire cold week of this scarce eating.
“I have had to steal to get medicine to survive…I don’t like stealing,” said Jenkins. But that cold winter week, “I couldn’t even go to Wal-Mart to steal anything, I was too sick,” he said.
And as usual for a homeless civilian in Long Beach, Schatzman also perceives tension with the police.
“They woke us up at 3:30 AM,” she said. Waking up to police lights at this time of the day (or night) is common, the group told me.
So what’s currently on Schatzman’s to-do list? She’s saving money for court.
Schatzman was cited for boarding the blue line without a ticket. Her problem was that she was sick, had a hospital visit, and had no money.
She said she knows there are rules to follow, but she argues, “When you’re homeless and don’t have money- you get desperate.”
Jake Sanchez, 22
In a crowd awaiting dinner at the Long Beach Rescue Mission, Jake Sanchez stands in front of me wearing dress shoes, black slacks, a button-up shirt, tie, and vest. He looks professional, handsome, mature. He stands out.
It’s a big change from being a meth addict living on the street.
This profound change in his life is entirely thanks to the New Life Program at the Long Beach Rescue Mission.
The last few years haven’t been easy for Sanchez. His life was on a downward spiral that’s now quickly turning itself around.
When Sanchez lost his father to a brain hemorrhage, everything fell apart. Within a few months, he had attempted suicide and ended up in a mental hospital.
A while later, he ran away from home.
He was addicted to crystal meth and living in a corner, next to a wall, by a liquor store.
Fellow homeless on the street were shocked by his state, “You’re too young to be on the streets.”
After about two months of this, Sanchez met someone who offered him the opportunity to live in a house. He couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
The first morning he woke up in that house, he looked around, took-in his whereabouts. A man approached him, “Do you know how to cook crack?”
He had moved into a crack house.
After a month of his living situation growing worse and worse, he knew he couldn’t stay there anymore. He sought refuge at the Long Beach Rescue Mission.
They offered him shelter, food, counseling, and a chance to reconnect with his fate.
He called his mom on Mother’s Day. She broke down crying, just glad to know he was safe.
He returned to the crack home to pack up the rest of his belongings. He stood in the doorway and the leader of the house asked, “Why are you leaving?”
Sanchez replied that he was going to make a change in his life; he was going to take responsibility for his actions. He said, “It doesn’t matter what you do or say, you could kill me right now, but I’m taking back my life.”
Although Sanchez was terrified that the man would attack him or harm him or something, but the man said simply, “Good for you, kid.”
The New Life Program has had a profound impact on Sanchez’s life. He has a job at the mission, and a job lined up once he graduates from the program, he’s reconnected with his family, and found a new one at the mission.
Life’s looking up for Jake Sanchez. He knows where he’s going and won’t allow himself to fall back into the darkness. He’s taking a job as a waiter and is moving back in with his mother, to reconnect to his family and support her as she battles breast cancer.
As he left the drug house, he says, “I looked back at my surroundings, examined everything before me and behind me, and said out loud as I fell to my knees, ‘I won’t ever put myself in this position again.’”
Desperation, drugs, and abuse are common in these youth’s past. But there are other commonalities in their present story.
A sense of belonging. A sense of family. Dreams.
The American dream looks a little different around here. A white picket fence is nowhere in sight, let alone a roof. But these youth have goals and a family to support them as they aspire to reach them.
It’s also a different kind of family. One that they commonly choose.
To this day, they are still mostly “invisible,” as Wayne Munchel ,Transition Age Youth Services Director at Stars Behavioral Health Group, tells VoiceWaves. Homeless youth sofa surf, crash wherever they could, and tend to stray away from traditional shelters and programs.
“They could be seen as entering a gateway to chronic homelessness, crime and drug exposure, sexual exploitation, and further traumatization,” Munchel said. “With help and a lot of heroic work on their parts – many can get off this road, but it’s tough.”
For more information and resources contact:
1301 W. 12th Street
Long Beach, California 90813
(562) 733-1147, extension 101