Area Teens Create Their Own Societies, Surrogate Families
(Note: This is the sidebar to my larger story about runaways for The Argus, in the Bay Area. See the full story. It was published on April 7, 2001.)
Kim shivers and sucks Easy Cheese from a can.
Sitting in her home – a shed near the Union City BART station – the 17-year-old Fremont runaway says she’s lived on the streets for four years.
The shed – lit with a single light bulb – contains a bed, a table, a stereo and a cabinet where some canned food is stored. A 40-ounce bottle of beer rests on the table, and a Confederate flag hangs on the wall above it. Kim and her three friends – another 17 year-old girl and two men in their 20s – smoke cigarettes.
Kim says she snorts crystal meth every other day with friends, a habit that has caused her to drop from about 105 to 90 pounds and her gums to bleed, her mother says. Her mother also says Kim’s been pregnant twice – one fetus was aborted and the other miscarried, she says.
“I depend on myself,” Kim says. “I don’t trust anybody. And I’m doing OK. I’m still breathing; I’m still healthy.”
Kim’s not alone. Scenes like this are familiar for many teens in Fremont, Newark and Union City.
Beneath the sterile surface of the middle- and upper-class suburbs that have become a part of the Silicon Valley exists a network of homeless teens and adults who stick together, forming a kind of surrogate family.
The network isn’t news to parents of runaways or to local police. But knowing about the network and having the ability to reach out to those who are part of it can be two different things.
To reach out, one must speak their language.
Kevin Gribble of Newark says he knows this language because he’s been there, and still is there, in a sense. Gribble recalls riding with the Aryan Brotherhood in Los Angeles until the police arrested him for armed robbery. He went to prison for seven years and has been out for six. Now, Gribble says he’s a new man.
A short, stocky 39-year-old with tattoos on his forearm, Gribble wants to give back to those who are aimless, and says he has the street skills to do it.
After serving his time, Gribble started a trucking company. He employs runaways and derelicts to load the trucks and handle the paperwork.
He also stays in touch with area runaways. Often, he and an assistant, a 17-year-old runaway named Samantha, check up on more than 25 young homeless people who congregate at about six sites in Fremont, Newark and Union City, he says. Though they belong to no organization – most runaways don’t trust those who do, Gribble says – the two provide runaways with food, blankets, cigarettes and, most importantly, a chance to engage in small talk.
Gribble knows Kim and some of her friends well. He also says he knows Mark Jenket, a 17-year-old runaway from Union City whose parents have hired private investigators to find him and bring him home. (Click here to read the story about Jenket.)
Gribble and Samantha say Kim and Mark traipse in a circuit of young transients from the area. Investigators, police and parents can search all they want, they say, but only runaways know the whereabouts of other runaways.
“(Runaways) don’t want to get caught,” says Samantha, who dropped out of a Fremont high school a year ago. “We get into this little group, and it’s all we can trust. So when we say someone’s at 7-Eleven, they might actually be all the way across town.
A Nightly Stop
One of the regular stops on the circuit for Gribble and Samantha is the shed by the Union City BART station. About 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night, Gribble and Samantha head to the shed.
As he approaches the shed, Gribble explains that he gives most of the teen runaways he visits a gold-colored bracelet.
“The only thing I ask of them is that they don’t sell it,” he says.
The bracelet is more than a simple gift. It is a thermometer that tells Gribble when he needs to intervene. If a teen runaway sells the bracelet, the logical conclusion is that it was sold to obtain money for drugs.
Gribble and Samantha approach the fence surrounding the back yard in which the shed is located. The door is open and the light is on. He calls Kim’s name through the fence.
A girl’s voice shrieks. Another giggles. Gribble and Samantha, who have found Kim and another girl with two men, cover their eyes and shake their heads.
“They’re naked,” Gribble explains. The girls dress while a man named Jesse approaches the gate, fully clothed and carrying a beer.
“Hey Kevin, what’s up?” says Jesse, a tattoo artist who’s missing a front tooth.
Now fully clothed, Kim, who has been seeing Jesse for about two months, gives Gribble a bear hug when he enters the shed. She thanks Gribble for the electric heater he gave her for Christmas.
“You were purple when I came here the first time,” Gribble says. “By the way, can you get that bracelet? I want to see it.”
Kim says she’ll get it in a while.
Then, to quell the awkward silence that has befallen the room, Gribble explains the presence of a news reporter. Kim and the other girl, who refers to herself as “Spaz,” give short answers to questions about Mark Jenket, but they talk openly about themselves and runaways in general.
“I see (Jenket) all the time,” Kim says, twisting her braided hair with both hands. “All the runaways hang out with each other. If you’re friends with one, you’re friends with all – it’s like a big family.”
Kim says the network includes 20 to 30 people.
They hang out wherever there is a room, Samantha adds. Sometimes, that means sleeping during the day in the home of a working parent or a friend – or at a local motel with others, they say. Kim says she has slept in the parking lot of a local restaurant.
Despite their poverty, the girls always have money for crystal meth, or crank.
Spaz, 17, earned her nickname by snorting vast quantities of it. Crank, she says, makes her smarter.
“I don’t smoke weed. I don’t drink alcohol,” she says. “I just do crank. It makes you able to communicate.”
Both of the girls get money through seasonal jobs and “spanging,” slang for soliciting spare change.
“You’re like, ‘OK, get away, bye,’” Kim says. “On the right day, you can make $150.”
Their reasons for running are as diverse as each runaway’s personality, the teen transients say. Spaz, for instance, ran away just to fit in.
“Most of my friends have no place to live, so I felt like I was missing out,” says Spaz, also a high school dropout. A 25-year-old man named Fie sits in a chair behind her, periodically tilting Spaz’s chair back to kiss her neck as she talks.
Samantha, on the other hand, says she ran away because she doesn’t get along with her family.
“I come back for the holidays and some weekends,” she says. “But it’s only a matter of time before I gotta get out of there.”
Kim, like Samantha, says she can’t get along with her mom, but certain people – such as Gribble – have given her the support she needs.
“I’ve known Kevin for a while,” she says. “He lets me help unload boxes (for money at his trucking business). If I need cigarettes, he will help me out – he brings me money, and something to eat.”
Gribble, while flattered, seems bothered by something.
“Kim, can you please get me that bracelet?” he says. “I have to get going.”
Kim leaves the shed to go look for it and returns, empty-handed. She shrugs her shoulders.
“I don’t know what happened,” she says. “I can’t find it.”