By Kayla Moon
Imagine you are 15 and running, racing through the streets of Fresno. It’s late and you have nowhere to go, staying at a friend’s house is no longer an option because that person’s parents are starting to ask too many questions. No one is answering their phone, and the last time someone offered you a place to stay it was a grown man who expected sexual favors for a place to lay your head.
You find yourself at a bus stop and sit for a rest, with a backpack filled with dirty clothes. You can’t remember the last time you had a decent meal and, more important, the last time you felt safe. The last time you had a roof over your head was in an abandoned home where the police found you and took you back to your abusive parents who you were running from in the first place.
This is a brief look into the experience of many runaway adolescents across the nation.
November was National Runaway Prevention Month—a time to investigate, contemplate and inform ourselves as well as our community about these often-overlooked experiences. One of the major organizations advocating for and providing resources is the National Runaway Safeline. In November, it holds different events including Facebook filters to show support for homeless and runaway youth. It also hosts a national education week early in November to educate the public on these misunderstood concerns. Learn more at 1800runaway.org.
Within the entire Central Valley, there is only one resource for this population. According to the Fresno EOC (Economic Opportunities Commission) Sanctuary Youth Shelter’s Web site (fresnoeoc.org), the “Sanctuary Youth Shelter is the only self-referral emergency shelter between Bakersfield and Stockton and is recognized as a Safe Place.” This youth shelter is a 24-hour shelter for runaway, exploited and homeless youth. It provides meals, clothing, crisis intervention, case management, counseling and family reunification if appropriate.
Nasreen Johnson, director of marketing and communications for the Fresno EOC, noted that the Fresno Police Department reports around 350 missing persons and runaway teens per month. She stated that there are many reasons adolescent youth become displaced; among the main reasons are evictions and family disagreements. There is also a shared experience within the LGBTQ community where their family no longer wants them.
Other common experiences are due to families experiencing a housing crisis themselves. Last year, the sanctuary youth shelter served 280 displaced, homeless and runaway teens. Johnson stated that “the number of beds at Fresno EOC Sanctuary Youth Shelter is 16, and the number of beds at the Fresno EOC Transitional Bridge project is 16.” Although they have many different resources, the issue is much larger than they can serve.
When a community does not provide adequate services and awareness for these issues, at-risk teens are more likely to become victims of human trafficking, criminalization, staying in abandoned homes, finding help from predators and falling into the world of incarceration.
Although the month of awareness has come to an end, we must continue to shed light and bring resources to this population. This community is young, helpless and deserving of more than a label of just a rebellious teen. They are not rebels; they are children dealing with trauma and products of unsafe environments. Let us all work together to create a safe space for those who have no option but to find shelter in the streets.
(Author’s note: The author thanks Christine Howard-Eshmawi for editing this article.)
*****Kayla Moon is a freelance journalist who focuses on women’s rights, youth advocacy, and environmental and social issues in the Central Valley. Find her work at futureofminds.com, We Are Change, the Conscious Resistance, the Fresno Flyer and Instagram (@futureofminds).