American Street Kid: A Conversation About Life on and After the Streets

“Two years ago, my mom kicked me out because she couldn’t afford me and a dog.”

David “Greenz” Johnson stated the above as a homeless teen in the trailer for the documentary “American Street Kid.” This blunt and raw emotion continued in JWU’s Media & Politics Café’s Zoom event “American Street Kid: A Conversation About Life on and After the Streets.” The Media & Politics Café is a biannual virtual series in which students from all disciplines hear directly from people affected by and impacting a myriad of complex topics. The event has become a hallmark of a JWU education.

Cohosted this spring by Associate Professor Carla White Ellis, Ph.D. and JWU Policy Lab student coordinator Tyler Piekarski '21, the panel included Johnson; Marquesha “Kiki” Babers, a homeless youth also featured in the documentary; and producer Michelle Kaufer as they relayed their experiences with the film that took 10 years to make.

Kaufer began the discussion with the initial vision she and director Michael Leoni had planned: a two-minute public service announcement about homeless youth in Los Angeles. “We were going out for a weekend, meet some kids, do some interviews, get some actors to spout statistics, and that was it,” she says. They soon realized the severity of the abuse and neglect these kids endured and decided that the world needed to hear these stories.

“Education is the beginning of any kind of change,” Kaufer attests. “If you don’t know, you can’t be part of the solution. Now I’ve seen and I can’t unsee.” Her goal? To encourage people to act in any way that they can — from donating clothes to a homeless youth shelter to advocating for policy changes (for instance, the law hasn’t always considered couchsurfing as homelessness).

“You are not your circumstances. The things you go through do not define you.”

The initial PSA grew to a short film and then ballooned to feature length with entire hard drives full of footage. They had the film cut before they met Johnson, Babers and others — and that’s when a more definitive and emotional tale emerged. They scrapped the old footage and started from scratch. As director, Leoni wasn’t supposed to be part of the narrative. But he connected so well with the kids, Kaufer realized they couldn’t proceed without including Leoni’s efforts to help them.

Vicious Cycle

According to the National Homelessness Law Center, the number of homeless Americans has increased 43% in the past year. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that a staggering 2.5 million children are now homeless each year in America, representing one in every 30 children in the United States. Panhandling, a common practice despite being banned in several states, has become even more prevalent. Kids living on the streets soon realize that the kindness of passersby is not enough on which to rely, and many resort to childhood prostitution and drug use. The film features an entrepreneurial group of homeless youth holding a sign that advertises their learned abilities while highlighting their sense of self-worth: “Kick My Ass — $1.”

You may be wondering, “Why aren’t these kids in foster care or getting jobs to support themselves?” Several of the teens in the film reported just as much, if not more, abuse and neglect in foster care than with their parents. The vast majority cannot get jobs because they do not have an ID or a work permit. To get these items, they need a birth certificate. To get a birth certificate, they need a social security card. To get a social security card, they need an ID. But they can’t get an ID without a birth certificate. Parents unable or unwilling to feed, clothe or house their children do not have the capacity to help find this information. These kids who fall through the cracks of society literally have no identity.

Photo of the cast of the "American Street Kid" documentary

Kaufer was able to find a website that mails birth certificates for a fee if the recipient is able to report the hospital in which they were born. Many of these youth can’t even do that — although some have been able to retrieve hospital information from parents. Then these youth need the money to pay the fee — and an address. Since they are homeless, where should the ID be sent? Those who successfully navigate this process and receive their ID then face a new threat: Their belongings are constantly stolen. And the vicious cycle repeats.

“You’re Crazy”

Babers laughs when asked what her thought process was as she ran away from home at age 15. “I was so naïve. I was already homeless with my mom [and two brothers]. We were staying in a beat-up shelter with water damage on floor, and I figured I was one less person for my mom to feed. I can go get a job and go to school, make money and share what I made, and provide a better life for my family.” She didn’t realize how wrong she was — without identification, there was no way she could work.

After surviving an attempted rape while sleeping in an abandoned house, Babers returned to her still-homeless mother. Babers had been raped at age nine by her stepfather and the memories of both traumas overwhelmed her. On the verge of ending her life, she was placed in a psychiatric hospital.

“I still don’t trust people,” she confides. “I’m over the initial fear I used to have of getting on the bus or walking down the street, always on my guard, but I believe that I still have work to go; I still do keep up a wall when I first meet someone. It’s making it hard for me to evolve — not a fear of safety, but a fear of being let down. Trust is really hard to just give when you’ve been through so much. A mental hospital staff member would mess with the girls, and any time [the girls] would tell, [staff] would think ‘you’re crazy’ and [the girls] would get drugs that knocked them out. I’m even scared now that I said something here! Being told that you’re lying about something that you know is true, being made to seem crazy when someone is hurting you instead of getting help from people who are supposed to help, it makes it harder in the future.”

But Babers soon found her voice. Get Lit, a youth poetry organization that has sent poets from Compton, Watts, and all over California to the Hollywood Bowl, the Kennedy Center in DC, and even the White House, came to her school when she was 15 and began offering a boys-only program. She convinced them to create a program for girls; within she it found the power of her words — and her calling. After four years studying poetry with the organization, today she is one of its teaching artist and mentors. She has launched a successful career as a poet and spoken word artist, performing for global icons like HRH Princess Reema Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton, Freida Pinto, and countless others. She also serves as an ambassador for Girl Rising, a global movement working to ensure that girls around the world are educated and empowered.

During the Zoom, Babers recited her poem “That Girl,” chronicling her despair while homeless and the discovery of her self-respect. The poem brought many in the audience to tears. Even though she has achieved success as a poet, she someday hopes to achieve the dream she held as a child: to cook and run her own restaurant, a desire that was further solidified after working in a food truck for a day.

Good Kids in Bad Situations

In Los Angeles, Babers reports, half are homeless because of the high cost of living. Working full-time at minimum wage only pays for a one-bedroom apartment’s rent — and nothing else. The numbers will only get worse as the gap between cost of living and minimum wage continues to grow.

Babers is reminded of the insurance commercial that teaches people how not to become their parents. “The way we are as adults is directly correlated to what we went through as children. There’s no separation from that. If you do not get proper assistance mentally and physically you will always be dragged back into old habits. Even if we give everyone houses, it’s not going to work.”

Homeless youth need more than food, shelter and employment that current programs provide. They need purpose. They need to feel valued, part of a family, and deserving of love.

Baber continues, “I teach that you should wake up in the morning and write the poem you thought about last night, so you have something to strive for and help you make it to tomorrow. If you are abused by significant people in your life, you really have to work through that before you can move on to anything else.”

Kaufer hopes that the film helps people realize that homeless youth “are good kids in bad situations.” Growing up in New York City, she didn’t know homeless youth existed and thought that the kids who were sitting outside the 7-11 were juvenile delinquents. The truth is that the majority are actually products of abuse and neglect. “Things that were out of their control contributed to where they are now,” she states.

From Burden to Bettering

David Johnson was only available for the last 10 minutes of the event due to his work as a construction supervisor in Vancouver, Washington. But he made the most of his time as he recalled his teen years and answered questions. He first became homeless at age 14, when his mother left his belongings outside because he “wouldn’t stop hanging out with the Hispanic kids at school,” he says. Nicknamed “Greenz” for his love of marijuana, he went to live with his dad, a drug dealer. When Johnson let his brother in the house against his father’s wishes, his brother stole a pound of marijuana, so his father beat Johnson in retaliation. Johnson left his dad in Arkansas to move back with his mom in Arizona, until she chose to feed the dog over him. Feeling like a worthless burden, he developed a meth addition. This led him to the streets of Venice Beach, California — and the documentary.

“I would not be where I am today if not for Michael [Leoni, director], Erica [Katzin, producer] and Michelle [Kaufer]. Having just one person believe in you is one thing. But having three people who just met you and have your back no matter what and are always there for you — that’s another.”

When asked what he would tell another homeless child who ended up in his situation, Johnson says, “Depending on the predicament, if there was anything at all I could do for them, I would give them my number and try to be there. No matter how hard it seems right now, everything will work out as long as you believe in yourself and work toward bettering yourself every single day. Don’t become comfortable where you are.”

“You are not your circumstances,” Babers adds. “The things you go through do not define you. Strive for doing what you want, no matter what anyone tells you. Once you find something you love to do, you’ll never work again.”

Johnson grins and nods emphatically, repeating Babers last sentence. Beyond their occupations, they have learned there is something else they love: themselves.

Interested in affecting change for millions of homeless youth? Visit the American Street Kid Take Action page and see how you can help. Watch “American Street Kid” on your choice of streaming services (fee applies).