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Runaways Find Freedom, Community And Danger

Eight young homeless people died in a fire at this abandoned warehouse in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on Dec. 28, 2010. The blaze was sparked by wood burning in a barrel, which the squatters were using to stay warm during the freezing night.

In December 2010, eight young people died in a fire in a New Orleans warehouse. Local accounts describe them as homeless squatters. One of the victims was Katie Simianer, a 21-year-old who had told her mother she was backpacking across the country.

Simianer's mom, Marty Goslee Jaramillo, learned a lot about her daughter's life on the road from her journal, which she received after Simianer died. In that journal, Simianer wrote that she felt sorry for people living in apartments and going to their jobs, and wondered if they envied the squatters and their "lack of normal responsibility." Jaramillo tells NPR's Neal Conan that the last time she talked to her daughter, Simianer said she was happier than she'd ever been.

Journalist Danelle Morton gained access to this young community through an unlikely source — her runaway daughter, Marissa, who spent time in the New Orleans warehouse and later returned home. She wrote about their experience for the Boston Review.

Morton says most of the time, Marissa was happy on the road, too. "I think she was happy to be completely free," says Morton. "I know there were many an evening when it was uncomfortable for her and where she wondered where she was going to get her next meal, but ... as many of them said in New Orleans, you're looking for your survival, and you're doing it with your friends, so every day has this kind of intensity that you can't get in the regular world."

Though news reports after the fire described the victims as homeless runaways, the kids Morton met and talked with dismiss that characterization, preferring to describe themselves as artists and musicians. The transient lifestyle, she says, has a structure to it, "almost like a tribe." The kids travel across the country in groups, hopping trains from town to town where at least one of them knows a bar or a cafe with a warm couch to sleep on, or a place to lay a sleeping bag.

Squatters like those living in the warehouse in New Orleans had a community — a support group that worked together and looked out for one another. But that's not always the case for homeless teenagers, says Maureen Blaha of the National Runaway Switchboard. They can become targets for criminals because of their vulnerability, "and then after a while, just for a means of survival, they often become perpetrators of crime."

Danger is part of the attraction. But it's also this kind of radical freedom, where they're not responsible to anyone.

But for the kids who convened at the warehouse in New Orleans, says Morton, it wasn't poverty that forced them into the transient lifestyle. In fact, money didn't seem to be much of an issue. "There was one young woman that I interviewed in a squat who pointed to three dollars that were sitting on a crate next to her mattress and said that that $3 had been on that crate for three days."

Most of the kids "had tried a number of ways to connect with the world, and it hadn't worked," she says. They were kids who had gotten jobs but found them unsatisfying, who couldn't quite fit in in one way or another. "And every time they come home, people are scowling at them," she says. "So the urge to shake off the scowls with this kind of blind act of daring is something that appeals to them."

Of course, there are dangers, even for the squatters who form communities. "It's an unclean world," says Morton, where running water is hard to find and "virulent infections like MRSA are common." Train yards can be dangerous, and food typically comes from trash bins. But still, some kids are drawn to the transient lifestyle. "Danger is part of the attraction," she says. "But it's also this kind of radical freedom, where they're not responsible to anyone."

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