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Here be dragons

For every homeless statistic, it is oft forgotten that — many of those raw numbers are youngsters just starting out in life.

Put a face with the stats, the numbers speak volumes: — It is estimated that there are, at any given time, some 1.4 million runaway/homeless — children in America. One out of every seven children will at some time — run away. Thirteen children die every day on the streets.

On medieval maps, those places that were beyond the reach — of the known world were marked "Here be Dragons." The world that these — young people move in is equally unknown to many of us, but we can assume — that, inevitably, there be dragons.

They aren't hidden in caves. Pass by Lithia Park virtually — anytime and notice the clusters of young people sitting on benches or — gathered on the grass.

Dressed in frayed, baggy clothes, some with wild hair — or dredlocks, their faces youthful, they talk animatedly. Some appear, — briefly, then drift away, a few with faded, sun-bleached backpacks, others — carrying bundles under their arms. Several are barefooted, but most are — wearing shoes. It's growing colder now, the fall air edged with winter. —

Who are these young people? Where do they come from? How — did they get here? And where are they going?

Teen years

Most are in their late teens. Many have not been home, — however one might define it, for years. They live a nomadic life on the — streets, drifting, finding their way. They hitchhike, walk, and ride the — rails. Some have crossed the United States several times, a few claim — to have been to Europe and back and talk hopefully about returning.

Mike, for example (none of the names in this article are — real). He's 19, grew up in Chicago. He's slight of frame and quiet, perhaps — a bit wary. He is wearing a ragged sweater, workout pants, and a battered — hat. He's been on the road for two years.

He said he is an orphan and grew up in foster homes. "I — left Chicago driving this car. No license, no registration, no insurance. — Only got as far as Tucson and lost the car. Hard to have a car if you — don't have all that stuff."

He's been thumbing and walking ever since. Mike said he's — always been pretty independent. When asked if one day he didn't want a — home and a job, a place to call his own, he just shook his head. "Maybe — work on a farm somewhere, get paid under the table. I didn't ask to join — this club. I'd write a letter saying 'Dear USA, I'm born with this card — that says I'm supposed to be a member of your club. Instead, I'm born — a free person, so here's your card back. You can put me in jail if you — want, but there's no purpose. I'm not joining up.'"

Mike mentioned that music was once really important to — him. Just a month or so back he'd seen the ocean for the first time. He — thought it was amazing.

Then he looked off in the distance and said, "The reason — we're angry is because society blew us off. Your parents got drunk, got — pregnant while drunk. Now you stand on the side of the road and all people — do is give you a dirty look."

James, also 19, has been on the road for four years. His — mother is somewhere in Central America. James' face is covered with a — nascent beard and he's wearing a much-used grey-white T-shirt, two pairs — of pants (one pair he calls spants since they're not shorts and not pants), — and shoes that are blown out, the soles well ventilated. He's been all — over the USA, sometimes traveling by rail, pointing out that truckers — are always good for a ride.

Often he goes to a truck stop and hangs out for a day — waiting to bum a ride. "Truckers can be some grody (sic) people but they're — always good for a ride. Being a 'trainer' can be a cool way to get around," — he said. "But trains are also dangerous. You have to watch out for the — train cops. And then there's the F.T.R.A., the Freight Train Riders of — America, who're like these crusty old guys, some are crazy Vietnam vets." —

Mike, who said he didn't ride trains, added that he'd — seen some people missing limbs after trying to ride the trains. Once he — stood by the tracks for half a day trying to decide whether to jump on.

Both James and Mike, are, in their own way, thoughtful — and articulate. And adamant about what James refers to as their life style. — "Kids today," James said, "they go to school, watch NASCAR, play video — games, get up and go to school. We're different. Most kids don't want — to leave their back yards."

James said this with pride, as if what he is doing defines — him as being courageous and street savvy and in a way wise beyond his — years.

And then Dan and Joe appear. Dan is from Texas, 18, and — left home when he was 16. He wants to return to Europe. Italy.

He said he dropped out of school before he graduated. — "School was stupid. Education is okay, but not the way they do it here." — Joe is in his early 20s. He has been homeless since he was 14, first with — his mother when they were living in a car, then on his own. He was given — Ridilin when he was ten, and started selling it at school a few years — later, until they caught him. He left soon thereafter.

James estimated that there are two girls on the road for — every eight guys. That seems to be borne out by the numbers in Lithia — Park, though it's hard to know. He said that most girls weren't independent — enough to handle it. You have to be pretty tough and develop a hard shell. —

Frank drifted over and sat down near the bench. His long — reddish hair is in dredlocks, a beard covering his face. He looks older, — but how much is hard to gauge. When asked about his age he seemed suspicious, — hesitant. Finally he said he was 26 and had been on the road since he — was 15. He's from Wisconsin. Living the life of a streetie, he said, is — no stress. He could come and go as he pleased. The others agreed. Just — like they agree that they have no thought of returning home.

"This is my home. The earth's my home."

The freebox

Eating most often requires that they panhandle for spare — change. James called it "spange." And they dumpster dive. Dan commented — that food in dumpsters isn't bad, it's just food that hasn't been eaten — yet. And all had opinions about which fast food outlets threw away the — most food. Most days they get by with only one meal.

Then there are the "feeds": free food to be had during — the week at a local church; and there's a woman who shows up on Sundays — at the park gazebo and serves vegan soup; or a group called GOD, an acronym — for the Great Outdoors, serves meals to Parkies; and some will pool their — food stamps, load up on groceries, and share with everyone.

All knew about the "Freebox" a place where people drop — off discarded clothes. Dan and Don had just been down there to check out — what had been left and were sporting new ski caps. Don mentioned that — lots of the clothes were for small kids, but there was still some good — stuff. James explained that freeboxes weren't everywhere. Ashland was — one of the few, along with Taos, New Mexico; Boulder, Colorado; and Iowa — City, Iowa. They acknowledged that soon it would be getting colder. James — held up one shoe and his bare foot was clearly visible through the sole. —

The intersection

While tourists may glance into the park and see the Parkies — as local color, if you're a park side merchant or the local beat cop, — your perspective is likely a bit different. For example, Gateway Realty — - which has a low concrete wall directly in front of its entry, ideal — for sitting - is constantly faced with accumulated trash and cigarette — butts littering the sidewalk, left by the Parkies who gather there.

Ali Ross, a Gateway broker, whose desk is closest to the — window, has a front row seat to the street and has, over time, observed — the Parkies. Daily she watches as they gather, often panhandling.

"They don't harass people," she said, "they just ask, — and lots of people will give them money. Sometimes they get into tiffs — and use foul language. Our clients don't want to come down here at times." —

What bothers Ross the most is that they are capable of — being in the work force but choose not to. "They sit all day long and — don't move. They're throwing every bit of their lives away, just to sit." — She said that occasionally the owner of Gateway will have to hose off — the sidewalk, just to get it clean.

Police Officer Teri DeSilva, who is Ashland's Central — Area Patrol Officer (CAP), is in charge of the whole downtown area and — is responsible for all Ashland's 18 parks. She acknowledges that the littering — and blocking the sidewalk are a problem and that some customers trying — to make their way to a business feel threatened and will avoid the business — altogether.

"Anyone is welcome to sit and enjoy our city, and I respect — the choices these kids have made and most of them adhere to the rules," — she said.

However, problems with alcohol, trash, and foul language — exist as well. In Ashland, though there is no loitering ordinance, there — is also no camping allowed in city parks and the fine for doing so is — $250. Curfew in the parks is 11:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.

A question of poverty

Unlike the adult homeless, it is not poverty that drives — adolescents to live on the streets. At least not a financial crisis. Rather — it is a poverty of family, the absence of adults who will stand fast as — their caretakers. Most simply have no significant adults in their lives. — And while home is where we all start from, many find it intolerable to — remain. Even dangerous.

And so these young people live in the gray zone, a place — that is unrecognizable to most of us, insisting that to be on the road, — to be homeless, is a choice. One 20-something said he had been out on — his own since he was 16. He didn't want a house, which he called "a cubicle," — nor a car, which he called "just another cubicle." He felt his life was — all the richer for not having those things. His only possession was a — mountain bike. He is living and surviving on his terms. Or so he believes. —

But it seems evident that for all their bravado in declaring — that this is their choice, they also seem well aware that they live on — the edge and at their peril, clearly beyond the known world. In a placed — marked "Here Be Dragons."