Under the Bridge

Freddy is one of the kids that tugs at my heart. There is just something about his winsome smile and charming manner. He dances and laughs and seems to walk on his toes instead of feet flat on the floor. He is not very good at pool and he carries a very large chain. He leaves it outside the door of the drop in center but he assures me that if one of his “family” is in trouble he knows how to use it.  His family is the group of kids he lives with under the freeway overpass downtown.  He tells me he hasn’t seen his mother in years and that’s okay because she wasn’t a good mom anyway.

Freddy says he is 18 but I know he is lying. One of the reasons I know he is lying is because he stays under the bridge with the other kids who aren’t 18 yet. The reason they live under the bridge is not because they choose it or because they think it’s a fun place to hang out. It’s because the law in the state of Washington says that homeless teens aren’t allowed to stay in an emergency shelter or transitional care without the permission of their parents. The law (“Becca Bill” SB 5439) states that their parents must be notified within 8 hours of arriving at the shelter and give their permission for assessment and treatment or their child cannot stay at the shelter.

There are hundreds of kids under the age of 18 that live under the overpasses in Seattle, coming together as little families, fiercely defending each other, comforting each other and caring for each other when they are sick.  Unfortunately they can’t really do a good job taking care of each other living under the bridge. Lucy, a 17 year old who has lived under the bridge off and on for the past 5 years tells me she has had pneumonia repeatedly because she has no money for antibiotics and can’t find a way to get to the doctor. Her young friends can’t cure her pneumonia. Living under the bridge in the winter certainly doesn’t help her chronic pneumonia.

The law that requires parental notification and approval for a homeless teen to stay at a shelter came out of the tragedy of the murder of a teenage runaway.  She was only 12 when she started running away, spent time in foster care and group homes and eventually ended up selling her body on the streets. The “John” who picked her up one night brutally murdered her, throwing her body in the river. This is the fear that every street kid lives with every day. Her story wasn’t that different than any of the kids I know, except that she had parents who would have looked for her. They were able to convince the legislature that a parental notification law would be in the best interests of other girls like her.

Perhaps it would be for girls like her, who had parents who loved them who would care enough to look for them. Most of the kids under the bridge don’t have that. They are products of the foster care system…kids like Micah who has been through 20 foster placements. Kids like Josie whose mom has been a stripper all her life who left her alone at 12 to find work in another city. These kids don’t carry signed parent permission slips in their pockets so they can get shelter and assistance from the programs designed to help them.  They carry pain in their hearts and a longing for a family that will meet their basic needs.  An emergency shelter is not a family, but it can meet their needs for medical care, for a hot meal and a bed to sleep in. It can keep them safe from the predators that troll the streets seeking to abuse, victimize and exploit these children.  It can be done without the need for a permission slip from a parent who has never been present in the child’s life.

Something must be done to change this law (“Becca Bill” SB 5439).  The law was designed to protect runaways and homeless teens like the kids I know.  Unfortunately it is now doing exactly the opposite, leaving these kids vulnerable to those who would exploit them for commercial sex, abuse them and harm them in unimaginable ways. Leaving them to form their own “child families” where they attempt to care for themselves, leaving them to face whatever danger may face them under the bridge.

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