Streets Called Home: Q&A With Author Jessica Blank
Rachel Kramer Bussel
February 27, 2008
Author Jessica Blank's debut young adult novel Almost Home brings the topic of teen homelessness to life in vivid, heartbreaking detail. Her tale of seven teens starts with 12-year-old Elly, who runs away from home after being bullied at school, not to mention getting raped by her stepbrother. She's soon befriended by tough girl Tracy, who christens her Eeyore and teaches her to dumpster dive. Touching on sexual abuse, homosexuality, and the violence, hunger, and danger these teens face, Blank movingly presents these characters in all their vulnerability.
Almost Home has been optioned by Jon Bon Jovi's film production company, with Blank and her husband Erik Jensen writing the screenplay. This spring, Blank will do several readings, peer outreach and book giveaways with shelters in Southern California. Her publisher, Hyperion Books has donated several hundred books to National Safe Place to distribute to teens through their shelters. Blank also offers a resource guide at the end of the book, including Roaddawgz, an online community by and for homeless youth, and Covenant House, which provides youth shelter and services. Wiretap spoke with Jessica Blank about her new novel and her thoughts on teen homelessness.
WireTap: Where did you get the idea for Almost Home?
Jessica Blank: In college, I worked at an anarchist vegetarian café. We used to give away whatever food we didn't use. There was a group of homeless gutterpunk kids I saw every night; those kids must have stuck in my head. Six years later, my husband and I were directing The Exonerated at the Actors Gang Theater in Hollywood. It's an interesting place: you look up at the billboards, and it's all the gloss people associate with Hollywood, and down on street level things are very, very gritty. That juxtaposition is really telling. Somehow those kids in Minneapolis came together with the place where I was working and I started writing the book.
Eeyore's story was one of the most interesting because we see her at home, and then very shortly after living on the street. You showed how that process can happen very quickly.
JB: There's a cultural mythology about teen runaways--that they run away because they're rebellious and want freedom. The vast majority [1.5 million teens per year according to Blank] are running away from horrifying circumstances--severe abuse or being abandoned by their parents or their parents have alcohol or drug addiction problems. Some are going through the foster care system. A lot of kids get placed and replaced [in foster homes] over and over again; sometimes if they've been through that for a very long time, they tend to go out on their own.
Some age out of the foster care system; there are kids on the streets who are 18 and 19. What's shocking is that there are hundreds of thousands of kids who wind up on the streets who are throwaways. They actually were thrown out of the house. That's particularly true for a huge number of LGBT teens, but is not exclusive to them. Kids who run away and wind up staying out on the streets are running away from things that feel worse to them than what's on the streets.
What can the rest of us do to help?
JB: I've been working with an organization called National Safe Place. It's a fantastic organization, a nationwide network. They partner with major companies, grocery stores and fast food restaurants, on a local level. Those businesses put up a safe place logo that lets kids who are in trouble know that they can come in and someone there knows how to connect with them with a youth shelter.
There are youth shelters, but they're hard to find. National Safe Place, whose board of directors I just joined, helps get the word out to kids in trouble. It exists to connect kids with shelter and services, job counseling, education. A lot of the shelters have a lot of youth services and health services. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act has existed for several years and is up for reauthorization this year. They've been cutting the funding and it's been shrinking. I've found out just how invisible these kids are to most people. As a society, we don't care about the fact that there are millions of kids living on the street. They're not a voting bloc, so politicians don't have a reason to talk about it. I've had responses to the book where people are shocked that these kids even exist, the real kids, let alone on the scale that they do.
One of the scenes I thought was really poignant was when Eeyore returns home and confronts her stepmother [about her sexual abuse] and she doesn't believe her. What can parents do?
JB: I think it's really important for parents and adults to listen to teenagers and take seriously what they're telling them. If a teenager comes to them with something difficult, it's so hard for most teenagers to tell adults something hard [that] they won't do it if it's not true.
Your book is set very specifically in Los Angeles. Do you have a sense of which cities are the biggest hubs for homeless teens?
JB: Los Angeles is definitely a character [in the book]; the places are real places. Beyond that, I don't think the struggles the kids face in the book are particularly different than homeless youth face in any large city. And in terms of what the hubs are, I don't know scientifically; there are pretty big homeless youth populations in Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
I think kids migrate to cities [from] smaller areas nearby in part because as a homeless youth, you can't survive without community. Their street family becomes their family. These kids are so vulnerable that they really need each other, so they tend to migrate to cities for that reason. A lot of kids get their food from dumpster diving, and not rotten food. It's easier to scavenge in larger cities.
Do you have any advice for readers in dealing with homeless teens we see on the streets?
JB: I could tell you what I do. I usually give people food. I'll give people money unless it's completely obvious it's going immediately to drugs. There's nothing wrong with going up to a kid on the street who looks like they might need help [and] ask them what they need.
A few years ago, there was a homeless girl sitting on Fifth Avenue and crying. She looked like she was 11 or 12 and was clearly homeless. I wound up canceling an appointment to talk to her. I went up to her and said, "Are you okay?" She started talking to me. She looked much younger than she was--17 or 18. I sat and talked to her for an hour about her life and why she was on the street. Her mom had died, her dad wasn't around, she'd graduated high school but didn't have anybody to stay with and she lost her job and was broke. She was trying to get a job, but when you're homeless it's hard to get a job immediately. It's a vicious cycle because you get into a situation where you can't find work that can get you off the street.
Sometimes all it takes is human contact. That can go a long way--just looking them in the eye and smiling and saying hello is really different than keeping your eyes pointed forward and keeping walking.
Do you have a message for teenagers who want to get involved?
JB: Kids can go and volunteer at their local shelter. They can use the Internet, if they live in a city, find a shelter in their area, and ask what they need. A lot of times shelters have wish lists; teens can donate old cell phones and things like that. Unfortunately, there aren't that many national organizations; aside from National Safe Place, there's the hotline 1-800-RUNAWAY. Most of the rest of it is all localized.
The other message that I would want teens to get is to think about people who have less than them, and whose lives are maybe more difficult than theirs, as not so different from themselves. [They are] not some other people who live in some other place, but are actually the same kind of people that they are.
You've been thinking about this issue for a long time. What's changed since writing the book?
JB: I'm a busy New Yorker, and sometimes you notice people you pass on the street and sometimes you don't; I've been as guilty of that as anyone. Since writing the book, it doesn't happen to me with homeless kids. I always see them and I always think about where they came from.
Is teen homelessness more invisible?
I've literally had conversations where people are shocked to even hear that there are homeless teenagers. There's societal denial; when people have to think about things like children living on the streets in the richest country in the world, that disrupts the mythology that everything is okay in America.
No kid's born fucked. Things happen to them to get them to that place. They don't run away from home for fun, or if they do, they don't stay away long.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer, editor, reading series host, and blogger. She wrote the popular Lusty Lady column in The Village Voice, hosts In The Flesh Reading Series, and has edited over a dozen anthologies, most recently "He's on Top" and "She's on Top."