The Adolescent Alone - Lives in the Balance:
A Profile of Homeless Youth in New York City

by Michael C. Clatts, Deborah J. Hillman
Aylin Atillasoy, and W. Rees David

It has been estimated that there are at least 20,000 street youth living in New York City (Shaffer and Caton 1984). Some of these youth live transiently in overcrowded welfare hotels or in various kinds of transitional living programs. The vast majority, however, have spent considerable amounts of time in which they were alone, living on the streets without adult assistance or supervision.4 In an effort to better document the service-related needs of this population, the Youth at Risk Project was initiated in 1992 as part of a program funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to evaluate street outreach programs targeted to homeless youth in New York City. A series of street-based survey interviews were conducted among 432 street youth in the central Manhattan area (Clatts and Davis 1993).

Approximately 80 percent were male and 20 percent were female. Nearly 75 percent were between nineteen and twenty-three years of age. The vast majority identified themselves as ethnic minorities, with about 25 percent black and nearly 40 percent Latino. Roughly half were born in New York City, although more than 7 percent wee born outside the United States. While most self-identified as heterosexual, nearly 50 percent identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

More than half were abjectly homeless at the time of the interview, and nearly 80 percent had lived on the streets at least some amount of time in the past year. Roughly 60 percent of those who were homeless at the time of the interview had been homeless for more than one year. Only 33 percent received financial support from parents. Nearly 33 percent had some type of legal employment. Only about 25 percent received some kind of public assistance. Roughly a third obtained 25 percent received some kind of public assistance. Toughly a third obtained money from panhandling. More than 33 percent supported themselves through prostitution, and about 25 percent earned money through the sale and distribution of illegal drugs.

Many had used a wide variety of drugs in their lifetimes (Clatts and Davis 1994). Well over 33 percent have used crack, over half have used cocaine, and more than 33 percent have used heroin. Nearly 25 percent have used speedballs (mixed cocaine and heroin). More than 25 percent have used speed or amphetamines, and more than 33 percent have used LSD. More than 25 percent used marijuana and alcohol on a daily basis, 20 percent injected drugs at some point. Within the thirty days prior to the interview, more than 10 percent had used cocaine, crack, heroin, and LSD. It is noteworthy that less than a third of the entire sample had ever been in drug treatment.

Youth also reported a wide range of high-risk sexual activity. More than 50 percent were sexually involved with more than one other person. More than 33 percent were involved in prostitution. More than 33 percent had a sexually transmitted disease at some time in the past, and roughly 15 percent had a sexually transmitted disease within the past six months. More than 75 percent said that they knew someone with HIV or AIDS. More than 50 percent reported they believed that it was “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that they would get AIDS. Approximately 4 percent disclosed that they already had HIV infection or AIDS, although earlier seroprevalence studies of HIV infection among these youth indicate a much higher rate of infection.

Multiple risks in this sample of youth are highly intercorrelated. For example, youth who had ever participated in prostitution were less likely to use condoms in vaginal sex with main partners. Similarly, crack use was associated with greater sexual risk for vaginal sex with multiple partners as well as for anal sex with both main and multiple partners. Ever having injected drugs was statistically associated with unprotected multiple partner sex, prostitution, unprotected sex, and homelessness.

Involvement in multiple high-risk behaviors is by no means unique to street youth in New York City. In a comparative analysis of street youth in Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco, for example, Kipke (1995) found that a high percentage of street youth in all four cities reported the use of a wide range of illicit drugs, including cocaine, crack, heroin, and speedballs. Lifetime cocaine use among street youth was particularly high across all four cities (New York, 58 percent; Los Angeles, 54 percent; San Francisco, 69 percent; and San Diego, 49 percent),and is substantially higher than rates in the general adolescent populations in these cities. In a similar analysis of the same data set, Kennedy (1995) found that all the youth in this three-city study had engaged in at least one high-risk behavior, that about 75 percent were involved in two categories of risk, and approximately half were involved in all three kids of risk behavior.

An Ethnographic Profile of Street Youth in New York City
As alarming as these statistical data, they do not in and of themselves reveal much about the early life experiences of these youth or about their experiences on the streets. Similarly, we know little about how youth themselves experience street life, particularly how they view their involvement in the street economy and the multiple dangers that confront them there. Finally, we know little about how early experiences of trauma and abuse influence street youth's subsequent capacity to make positive and sustained changes in behavior, including leaving the streets.

As part of a series of ethnographic studies of street youth that used a combined life history and life event methodological approach (McLaughlin and Sorenson 1985; Clatts 1990), an ethnographic profile of this population has been constructed.9 Interview data were analyzed with reference to seven interconnected themes that are discussed later:

1. Youths' tendency to frame their experiences on the streets in terms of freedom and independence, proving themselves, and making it on their own
2. The considerable sense of loss and depression that characterizes their lives
3. The harshness and violence of everyday life on the streets
4. The daily struggle with hunger and exhaustion
5. The issue of "trust" and the difference between "friends" and "associates"
6. The effect of watching others close to them get sick and die from AIDS
7. The tremendous barriers that confront them in trying to leave the streets.
The Notion of Freedom
Many youth described their lives on the streets as a chance to make it on their own, to experience freedom. Many described the move to the streets as a viable escape to experience freedom. Many described the move to the streets as a viable escape from intolerable home circumstances. A twenty-two-year-old Hispanic gay youth involved in prostitution said of the many times he had run away in his early teens:
I just, you know, I had gotten a taste of the street, like what it was, it felt like freedom, like complete and total freedom, and I just didn't want to be home anymore.

A nineteen-year old black youth described his move to the streets as a way to fulfill his quest for adulthood. After having exhausted the aid of relatives while "totally strung out" on cocaine and crack, he realized, "Well, I'm getting older, it's time that I get out on my own. I have to start looking after my own. I have to start looking after my own responsibilities as I get older."

Once on the streets, that environment soon become a way of life:
I've slept on the subways. When it's hot, I have slept in parks...trucks and vans, you know ...things like that. But, it;s not like I could never, it's not like I had to do this, because my mother and my father, my brother and sisters, they say, you don't have to do that. But I tell them, I'm not your responsibility. I'm old, I'm getting older. I have to learn how to look out for myself. And I figure if I be doing this, this is part of survival. If, even if I, like, don't Have to do it, this is just an experience for me.

Other youth, though proud of their ability to survive on their own, spoke of the conflicts that led them to opt for "freedom." A nineteen-year-old black youth talked about the difficulties at home with his mother and his abusive stepfather, a "hard man" who drank a lot:

[It] was based on domestic, you know, like household problems, you know, in the house. Arguments, a lot of quarrels, you know a lot of altercations broke out. We'd argue over silly stuff, you know? It started getting rougher and rougher, and rougher, you know, so it was like a thing where you live in my house, you're gonna do what I want you to do, or get out. Staying at a place that you're not running it, is a pain you know, it goes deep, you know what I'm saying? The pain goes deep down and you want to leave, you know? So that's when you really get yourself together, sit down and think, you know? What do I got to do here, you know, to be on my own. Can I survive out there? Basically, so I put together, put together my own plan, master plan, and I went out on my own and did a lot of praying. Thank God I am still here today to talk about it.

After some time spent on the streets, the "independence" he values in himself bad been severely tried. He explained:

I'm at the bottom right now, I can't go no lower. I'm sleeping outside, in boxes. Barely sleep, can't go no lower, I'm not eating, hungry. Can't go no lower, see? We just sort of good mentality. Not try to rob. Have a lot of faith.

For a seventeen-year-old youth born in Jamaica, street life meant freedom from foster care. He mused:

I have to be free, you know what I'm saying? I can't be living with this and living with that. I gotta, you know, I pray till this day to live on my own. I wanted to live on my own since...they said put you in a foster home. You know what I'm saying, it's just like it's easier for me, cause I can solve my own problems. I like that. See, I like a challenge. I like a challenge, you know, that's going to make me work to get what I want, you know what I'm saying. I like a challenge, I like to solve my problems.

The street economy is one of the only avenues of survival accessible to many street youth, and often becomes synonymous with being "on their own." A twenty-year-old black youth involved in prostitution for the past ten years, beginning in his New Jersey hometown, summarized his feelings about leaving home:

I don't think I will ever regret [it].Never. Because I can always go back if I wanted to, even now, but I don't think I would. I like being on my own. I mean, it's hard, but it's the price you have to pay.

Although his HIV-positive status has enabled him to get a subsidized room, he continues to "turn tricks" and spend most of his time on the streets. His goal in coming to New York was to find independence:

To get out on my own. You know, see what it feels like to pay bills and stuff, and I do that now, so far what I planned for myself is coming for me. It's coming slowly but surely, I always said I wanted to live on my own with my own, you know even if it's nothing but a room, it's mine. And it's coming for me.

An eighteen-year-old bisexual youth from a large and affluent family in Texas complained that material things did not make up for lack of attention in his home. Surviving in the New York street economy primarily through prostitution, he said, "I couldn't take the spoiled life. I wanted to see what it was like being like everyone else. Having to work and do things on your own. So that's why I left Texas and came to New York."

For many street youth, their surface bravado and pride in surviving on their own hides tremendous stores of pain - pain from their daily struggles on the streets and the many losses and abuses they have suffered, both before and after entering street life.