How Kids Become Homeless & Alone
October 7th, 2008
Dirk Thomas has been homeless since both of his parents died from AIDS. This is Dirk's story.
at the Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center
There are a lot of ways that a kid can end up homeless.
"I was thrown out because I'm gay."
"I had to run away because I knew that if I stayed where I was, I probably wouldn't be here."
These are the stories I would hear daily at the planter boxes near Gallivan Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City. For as long as I can remember, that has always been a hangout spot for street kids to tell their stories and meet new people. These are kids that people either fear, judge, or simply ignore, but they each have a story to tell -- and the street is not where they started out. This is how I became a street kid.
My name is Enrique Eva-Renaldi, though most people know me as Dirk Thomas Delaney. After my parents died of AIDS I ended up on the streets hanging out with other street kids, hippies and travelers. I had been in and out of abusive foster homes since I was ten, and by 14, I decided I was not going to be a victim anymore. I had about $600 to my name and decided to head east. I wanted to go to New York and try my luck as a musician. I play marimba, bass clarinet, drums, alto sax and I sing. I came to Utah because it was the last place anyone would expect me -- seeing how I'm neither white nor religious.
I adjusted to street life easily because, on the streets, it doesn't matter if you're black or white, gay or straight. Everything just is. I've always looked and acted older than my age and it's gotten me out of a lot of sticky situations. I used what money I had on a hotel room (lied and said I was 19) that was infested with roaches and neighbors constantly asking me if I wanted drugs. Fists were thrown and I ended up on the street without any money, a bruised, bleeding butt hole and broken pride.
At this point I went to the shelter. In addition to seeing my assailants there, that's where all the drugs were. I met a goth/industrial chick named Cry (short for Crysta) and a drag queen that called himself Roxy. They fought the guys who attacked me and took me to the hospital. Then they disappeared. I wouldn't see Cry or Roxy again until 2003.
Being homeless, black and underage sucks! Especially when you don't know where you are and you're too young to get a job. I realized early on that 99% of the people I passed on the sidewalk were either terrified of me, or they looked down on me. I was able to use this to my advantage though, and finally found a way to make some money and have food to survive. I would take a couple of white friends to a store like Fred Meyer's or Wal-Mart; I would instantly get profiled and followed around while my friends would grab stuff and dash. On a good day we would pull at least $600 worth of merchandise. Eventually my friends got caught, but lucky for me I was underage and I technically wasn't doing anything illegal (most of the time I actually bought stuff but I was still followed around) but, once again, I was alone and my hustle was gone.
I would rather have died than stayed at the shelter so I stole blankets and slept outside. My first winter was horrible until Roxy showed up and helped open this abandoned house in Sugarhouse. I stayed there for a good eight months before the police finally busted it. It was okay, though -- it was summertime again, I was good at stealing food and some restaurants would even be nice and give me food. But, yet again, I was alone.
Being alone, young and on the streets is like being a mouse running through a gauntlet of starving cats. It's easier to get into a lot of trouble when you run into the wrong people. That's what happened to me. I went from honor roll student to coke fiend to crack head to E-tard (a person who uses ecstasy.) I've always considered myself a smart drug user; drugs have been a part of my life since birth. I've never thought of myself as addicted to anything and I never had to do anything messed up to get what I wanted or needed. When you're young and hang out with a bunch of old fogies it's easy to get the stuff you want.
I turned 16, so that meant I could work, right? Wrong! I looked bad, probably smelled worse, didn't have any clean clothes and I hadn't had a real shower in, like, four months. The only "friends" I had were 30- to 50-year-old Hispanic bums. I survived, though not in the way that I wanted, but at least I was still living.
Cry, my guardian angel, made another appearance in summer 2003, and showed me all the stuff I'd been missing in downtown Salt Lake. Being homeless downtown is so much easier than West Valley or anywhere else where I've been homeless. There are so many resources out there. If you're starving in downtown, then you must be brain damaged!
Our first stop was the Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Resource Center or VOA for short. Here, a homeless youth under 23 can shower, do laundry, hang out, play games, eat and a slew of other things without worrying about "super bum don't miss a crumb" or police.
Now that I knew of a place where I could shower and look less bum-like, I had a lot more options. I also met people closer to my age to hang out with. We protected each other, squatted together and just chilled. It felt like for the first time I had a family. They actually forced me to go back and finish high school. I was in AP and honors classes in California and I had skipped grades growing up, so I only had one year to finish.
DCFS (the Department of Child and Family Services) finally found me and put me in a home. After so many years of running from one set of parentals after another it was only a matter of time before I finally got caught. This new home was the best and worst thing for me. I ended up with a mother who defrauded the government in order to receive benefits and a little brother who worshipped the ground I walked on. I stopped doing drugs and stealing because now I had someone looking up to me. I wanted him to see that despite all the bad influences (including his mother) there was some good in his life.
In 2004, I went to Weber State. It seemed like things were turning around, but the problem was that I had been off the streets for less than a year and I still had that street mentality. I made friends easily because I always had a likeable demeanor, but I didn't trust them. They were never as close to me as my street family. Since I was so used to living in filth, my dorm room was always trashed. I ended up dropping out after a controversial editorial I wrote and my foster mom telling me she needed help.
I've been up and down -- on and off -- these Utah streets for quite some time. Assimilation is hard. The only friends I have are street kids. They don't judge and everything just is. I might get out of this mindset eventually but for now, I'm happy and free.