Every city in America has them. There are a thousand in Seattle alone--homeless teenagers who use only their first names to hide their identities. And more alarming than that gun in Mike's hand is what these street kids represent today: a new generation of runaway and abandoned children struggling to survive on their own. Each year more than one million American youngsters between 11 and 17 run away. More than half are girls, and the majority are never reported missing by their apparently indifferent families. These kids aren't looking for '60s-style hippie adventure. Many leave home because living there has become impossible for them. Most are fleeing turbulent households racked by conflict, violence, neglect and--in a disturbingly high percentage of cases--sexual abuse. "Some of these kids are running for damn good reasons. The most logical option they have is to get out of there," says Gordon Raley, staff director of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources, which gathers data on runaways. But a growing number are casualties of the prolonged recession. "The economy has had a tremendous impact," Raley continues. "There are a hell of a lot of kids literally kicked out and thrown away." Each year some 5,000 unidentified teenagers end up in unmarked graves, according to federal records, and another 50,000 simply disappear. No one knows what happens to them. Too young to get jobs or to receive welfare, a significant majority resort to theft, peddling drugs, and prostitution to support themselves. Father Bruce Ritter, a Catholic priest, whose Covenant House crisis centers in New York, Toronto and Houston aid thousands of kids each year, believes that 80 percent of runaways use sex to survive. "Without dealing in myth or exaggeration, there are 500,000 kids younger than seventeen involved in prostitution," says Ritter. "Nobody will dispute that. They have nothing to sell but themselves." Government programs and privately funded centers like Ratter's shelter roughly 10 percent of the chronically homeless at any given time. In Seattle, where 6,000 runaways are reported each year, there are only a single eight-bed facility, The Shelter, and a few impoverished church-run programs like the St. Dismas Center to provide help. Fending for themselves, most street kids spend the nights in abandoned buildings, unlocked cars, steam-bath cubicles, under bridges and even in cemeteries. Some pool their cash to rent cheap motel rooms, with as many as 15 sleeping on the floor. To illuminate this growing national problem and encourage more effective solutions to it, LIFE here examines these children's dangerous and pitiful lot.
"Being on the streets is tough, but it's kind of a challenge," says Christy, 16, who left her suburban Seattle home five years ago when her mother moved in with a drug dealer. "Everybody here just goes day to day. A lot of us wonder where the next meal is going to come from, where we're going to sleep." To answer those needs, many of Seattle's street kids risk arrest--and worse--by becoming prostitutes, what they call "turning dates." Boys and girls, who stash their clothes in bus station lockers during the day, drift near the waterfront's Pike Street Market and wait for offers. "I've been raped eight times by dates. One held a gun on me and almost broke my arm," says Sam, 17, a professor's daughter from Idaho who ran away. "After a while, you can't handle it. I started crying all the time, having these really weird fits. I thought I was crazy. So I stopped, but then I had to start again." While boys operate independently, female prostitution is controlled by pimps, who use drugs, sex or threats to keep the girls in virtual bondage. "A girl doesn't think she can sneeze without her pimp," says Linda Reppond, executive director of the privately run Shelter. "He makes his girls dependent on drugs in order to control them. Boys do drugs to survive the humiliation of turning tricks, just to live with themselves." Tragically, trafficking in drugs is considered a step up-street kids find it less degrading than prostitution. Those are the only choices, they insist. None of these kids can go to schoo-l-even if they wanted to. They have no permanent address, and schools will not admit them. (One undersized 16-year-old, Itty Bitty, hasn't been to school since fourth grade.) Regulations ban those under 18 from adult shelters, but most of the street kids are too proud to sleep in a room full of alcoholics and bums anyway. Shadow tried it when he turned 18 this spring. "I'd rather sit in an all-night coffee shop," he says. "The government thinks if it makes it hard enough on the streets, we'll go home. But there's no place to go."