OPINION: I Was a Teenage Runaway — How I Found Home in a City Park

by Marti McKenna

Content warning: This article contains references to sensitive topics such as sexual assault.

This week activists and advocates rose up to protect the controversial encampment in Cal Anderson Park. The same day, in a neighborhood Facebook group, a neighbor — one of those infamous “Seattle progressives” — responded to a post discussing a small encampment that recently appeared in Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park, writing, “It’s the people that refuse help. They want to stay outside so they can continue their lives of crime.” 

I am here to prove her right — but also, I hope, to prove her wrong.

Because living a houseless life is complicated. The reasons a person might choose a houseless life are complicated. The reasons a person might refuse an offer of shelter and other services are complicated.

I wasn’t abused at home when I started running away, but I was extremely unhappy due to a convergence of factors including my parents’ unhappy marriage, my father’s frequent absences from home, and repeated sexual abuse starting at a very young age. I became a habitual runaway beginning at age 11 when my parents split up, and I continued to fall back on running away from home whenever I couldn’t cope with the challenges of my everyday life.

After my dad left when I was 11 to be with his 22-year-old secretary, my family had little in the way of resources of any kind, least of all emotional ones. Everything turned upside down and I remember hearing my mom — suddenly a single mother of four young children — crying in her bedroom. We were all hurting and no one knew what to do with that. My mom and I clashed often, and running away offered me a way for me to express my dissatisfaction (i.e., punish my mom) and enjoy a sense of control over my life. Luckily, that first time, I only ran as far as my dad’s place of work, and after some negotiation (an 11-year-old girl didn’t fit into his new lifestyle, after all), he took me back home. But when things felt out of control, I ran away again. And again.

At age 12, I was raped by a 14-year-old neighborhood boy and embarked upon a year of Hell as my case went through the justice system, and in the end, I felt nearly as victimized by that process as by the original assault. This is about the time my childhood ended and I began to look for more ways to control my life that societal norms didn’t offer. I smoked cigarettes and weed and drank alcohol. I cut school with my friends to hang out and drink and smoke and listen to music all day long. I got blackout drunk on the weekends and stayed out all night and at age 14, I was raped again, this time by two adult men who found me passed out in a bedroom.

At 14, I had no control over anything, so I ran away and sometimes secretly slept on the floor between my schoolmate’s bed and the wall.

At home, things were difficult. My mom had four kids, no partner, and she worked a full-time job. As the oldest kid, it often fell to me to be responsible for my younger brothers at times when my mom had to be away from home and couldn’t afford childcare. I wasn’t up to it. I did what rebellious teens do, and I broke rule after rule, and my mom and I fought near constantly. I ran away whenever I couldn’t cope, climbing out my bedroom window with only what I could carry in a small bag, seeking the happiness I didn’t seem able to achieve in my home life.

During one stretch away from home, hanging out with people I thought were friends and apparently overstaying my welcome at someone’s house, I finally got a clue and left. When I walked outside, everything I owned was spread across a damp lawn under a streetlight, and all of it was covered in toothpaste. The message was clear: “We don’t want you here.” When I think of it now, it reminds me of Seattle’s encampment sweeps and how we make sure that people know they are unwelcome when they seek safety and togetherness and how we destroy their belongings — everything they own — to seal the deal and make sure they get the message.

I don’t remember how many times I ran away during my teen years, but I do remember this:

When I was 15, I found a group of teenagers and young adults who were as lost and directionless — and very likely as traumatized by life — as I was. We hung out in a park during the day, smoked weed and drank beer together, and bonded to varying degrees, and at night we camped out, usually in a field near the park. Most importantly, we took care of each other. I know that there was a lot that was suboptimal about my lifestyle and choices — and theirs — at the time, but when I look back, I remember having a family around me that had my back and made sure I ate and that I was safe while I slept. 

I was a victim of sexual assault. My friend John was a young divorced father of two who wasn’t allowed to see his kids and had checked out of society. John’s brother Steve and Steve’s big, black, wonderful dog Boris, and another runaway, Sarah — and a few other people — camped together, avoided the cops together, and kept each other warm and fed to the best of our ability.

One night in John’s car, out looking for a new campsite after the cops ran us out of the park, we hit a small doe on a back road lined with tall weeds, and that night at our campsite next to a burbling creek, John did whatever you do to a dead deer to make sure it’s edible (I didn’t watch, but I have a clear memory of seeing him silhouetted against the moonlit water, doing the work), and the next day he took it to a butcher friend he knew who butchered it and wrapped it in nice, white paper for us (in return for a share of the meat). Back at the park, at the mostly unused barbecue grills, John grilled up that deer, and we fed everyone. It was a feast, and it remains a fond memory. But when we put that deer in the trunk instead of reporting it to Fish and Game, we very likely broke the law. 

We broke lots of laws. 

We drank and did “drugs” (weed). We trespassed. Just the fact of all of us being together — with me at age 15 and my friend Sarah at 16, both of us runaways — was against the law. Sarah and I sold joints so we could get sandwiches from the deli across the street from the park (and every day we cleaned up and did our makeup in the restroom of the library next to the park — thank heavens for libraries). The group of us did some traveling together, just around Northern California where we lived, and we made more memories, like the one where we camped in a fenced area John chose and woke up to a herd of cows staring and mooing at us (and a furious farmer behind them) or the one where we camped near a beautiful covered bridge. On a walk by the river we found an old wagon wheel in a ditch surrounded by a bunch of antique glass bottles of various shapes and sizes. As we examined and collected the bottles, some pale blue or green, we told each other stories about the people who might have left them there — over a hundred years ago, we figured. We loaded a bunch of them into the trunk of John’s car and they made such a lovely clinking sound as we drove away to our next adventure.

We were, in the eyes of some, simply criminals and lowlifes who chose “lives of crime” rather than, say, going back home to our families, as was certainly an option for some of us, including me. But each of us had different reasons for the choices we made, and in a very real way, we were a family. Other than the police running us off, it never occurred to us that we might be inconveniencing anyone else. We were just living our lives and trying to be happy. Happier. 

Each of our houseless neighbors has a story, a history and a reason they live the lives they do, whether by choice or due to circumstances beyond their control. Either way — any way — each of them is a human being with the right to pursue their own happiness. Many would absolutely be inside if they had a choice and if that choice didn’t include separating families, giving up beloved pets, or being forced to attend religious services in order to receive food and a bed in a place where they and their few belongings may (or may not) be safe. 

In school, I learned about Hoovervilles — encampments created by people forced into houselessness by the Great Depression. We were never taught that these folks were criminals, though some of them almost certainly stole food to stay alive and probably broke other laws and norms as well. We were meant to feel sympathy for these people and to empathize with their plight. This year, many more Seattle residents have become or will become houseless due to poverty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and negligence on the part of the U.S. and City governments. In 2019, 150 of our houseless neighbors died, and when the count is in for 2020, I expect it will be much higher. Our local news stations broadcast propaganda videos painting houseless people as a disease that is killing Seattle, when in reality, Seattle is killing them.

I was a teenage runaway, and for a time, I chose houselessness. I was luckier than most, and today I’m fortunate to have a roof over my head along with better coping strategies. But when I lived outside, I was still human and I still deserved to be allowed to live, to have belongings that were mine, and to pursue my happiness in my own way. Many of our houseless neighbors here in Seattle were once our housed neighbors, and all of them are our fellow humans. What they need from us is support, whether they are houseless by choice or forced outside by circumstance. What they don’t need is thoughtless contempt, sweeping generalizations, or sweeps by the City of Seattle during which City employees take all of their belongings — tents, blankets, photos and keepsakes, important paperwork, clothing, food, and medicine — and toss them into dumpsters as though the people who own them simply don’t matter.

“We don’t want you here. We don’t want you anywhere.”

How on Earth is a person supposed to get back on their feet under these circumstances we have allowed to become normalized? How is one to rejoin society when society treats them like they’re not even human? 

They’re our neighbors, and they are humans, and they — we — deserve better. We have to do better, Seattle. 

We have to be better.

Marti McKenna is a writer/editor living and working in Beacon Hill. She has been a fiction editor and publisher, a games writer, a country/pop singer, and a pizza-slinger, among other things. She’s proud to be a contributor and editor for the South Seattle Emerald.

Featured image: Marti McKenna as a teen.