The Runaways

On the road with homeless youth

Photographs by Matt Mimiaga
Text by Lauren Smiley
Audio by Amy Standen

Dirty Kids and Crusty Kids, as they call themselves, sooner or later end up in the Haight. They are the philosophical descendants of hippies — professing love for pot nugs and tattoos and the Grateful Dead and Rainbow Gatherings out in the wilderness. But they’ve also evolved their own reject culture with its own genus and species: Train-core are the rail hoppers. They’ve been around as long as the country has had rails, but they now convene in Facebook groups with names like Dirty Kid Couchsurfing Coalition and Heathen Train Riders. Rubber Trampers live out of their cars and pick up plain old hitchhikers. Asking for spare change is “spanging.” If you’re new to the scene, you’ll be called an “oogle,” but you can avoid that by wearing a “skank,” a handkerchief around your neck. (“If you don’t wear one of these, you’re going to be asked to buy drugs, guaranteed,” one tells me.) The whole scene is laced with marijuana and alcohol and ’shrooms, but harder drugs can creep in, too.

They may tell you they chose the traveling life, that they love it. They say that they do it for adventure, love of nature, rejection of capitalism, and “there’s so much to do in the city; you don’t have to be in one spot,” as one puts it. But some let on that they can’t exactly find a way out. “I don’t have a résumé for shit,” says a 26-year-old named Saydee Byers, who’s been hopping trains for eight years. “It’s so easy to run back to it.”

For much of the past fews months Saydee has been living out of a van in Oakland, but she frequently heads over to San Francisco to reunite with Dirty Kids from all across the country. This life started with a hitchhiking trip to get out of the ho-hum Northwest at age 18 — and no, she didn’t have a dysfunctional childhood, she makes sure to tell you. (Mom will still pay her cellphone bill from time to time.) “I’m a free sprit,” she says. “I like to not be told what to do.”

Hear Saydee talk about life on the road

Statistically speaking, the path for Dirty Kids isn’t promising. The death rate for homeless youth under 25 in San Francisco is ten times greater than the state’s general youth population. Talk to Dirty Kids and they’ll tell you about losing friends to overdoses or car wrecks, about addictions and being narrowly revived by an emergency Narcan injection to counteract a heroin overdose. They’ll tell you about rumors of kids getting killed and encounters with creeps: “Some guy stood over us and started trying to masturbate on top of us while we were sleeping. It was really scary,” a 19-year-old girl tells me about her stop in Los Angeles. “So we had to chase him off with an ax.”

In San Francisco, the scene has lately turned darkly tense. Last year, three young drifters were accused of shooting a tourist dead in Golden Gate Park, then doing the same to a man walking his dog in Marin County. Last month saw new violence: Two men called Pizza Steve and Evil and who lived in the park turned on a man they accused of masturbating near kids, allegedly beating and dunking him in a pond at the park entrance over three days until he died. This month, a group in the park stabbed a passing man on Hippie Hill.

Since last fall’s murder, neighborhood property owners have said they’re fed up, voicing complaints at community meetings and in letters to the mayor. Police have ramped up their enforcement of drug crimes and have instituted a controversial zero-tolerance policy toward sitting and lying down in the district. The atmosphere has led many of the usual kids to skip town; a homeless-youth outreach center has seen its daily walk-ins cut in half, and many days you can stroll the length of Haight Street without encountering a single Dirty Kid sitting down or loitering.

A few adults, however, have tried a much different approach, offering the kids a viable alternative to traveling. A 40-something piercer named Christian Calinsky is hellbent on improving the image of Dirty Kids in the Haight; he himself was a Dirty Kid from the age of 12 to 34. “What seemed best for me was this brightly lit road like Vegas, and it was homelessness instead of the dark road of adulthood,” he explains. Now on the latter path, he and a co-founder started a program aimed at converting the kids into stewards of the neighborhood, sweeping and removing graffiti in exchange for food and a room in a residential hotel — where, importantly, they can live with their dogs and partners. “It took me about two years to get unferal,” Calinsky says of his own experience. “They now know some stability and some responsibility and it’s in ’em.”

More than 60 Dirty Kids in the group have graduated and are living somewhere indoors full time. But the program hasn’t worked for everyone: In 18 months, four kids have deserted, and Calinsky has kicked out ten others for breaking the (very flexible) rules. Even those in the program aren’t all completely sold. “The inside life is too comfortably boring,” says a 19-year-old girl named Gabrielle. “There’s nothing to do.”

Saydee and Lil Frankie met in 2011, a few hours before this picture was taken. Lil Frankie, who was 19 at the time, started squatting when he was 13 to escape an abusive household. At 14, he hopped his first train.
Saydee and Lil Frankie greeting friends while drinking at a rail yard in Roseville
Saydee’s friend Topher with his dog, BubbaGump, in Colorado Springs. Topher hopped his first train in 2010, looking for a new place to live after losing his girlfriend and their unborn child to a heroin overdose.
Kids sleeping in Texas. For two of the three, it was their first time on the road.
Lil Frankie jumping in a creek, and Saydee in Oklahoma City. The pair were briefly engaged in 2013. Lil Frankie has since stopped traveling and is now a tattoo artist.
Saydee’s friend Suzy in a hot spring near Salt Lake City
Last year, Jay, pictured here, died of a heroin overdose in Oakland.
Saydee bathing with her dog, Penny. Saydee lost Penny in 2012 when she was arrested by train police.
Topher’s tattoo is a squatters’ rights symbol. Recently, Topher was diagnosed with heart disease and will have to stop riding freight.
Saydee and her friend Kenzie in Golden Gate Park
Felix, Saydee’s then-boyfriend, with his van
Kenzie and Saydee in Felix’s van in Oakland
Felix warming up a shot of heroin he prepared the night before. He usually saves wake-up shots for himself and Saydee to stave off withdrawal in the mornings.
Saydee on Haight Street
Saydee cooking heroin in the Tenderloin next to her dog, Udie
Brian and Kenzie, who are a part of Calinsky’s program, at the Sunset Hotel in the Tenderloin

Matt Mimiaga is a photographer based in Oakland. His long-term projects document generational cycles of homelessness, addiction, and incarceration.

Lauren Smiley is a San Francisco journalist covering how the tech boom has changed the city.

Amy Standen is a podcast producer and radio reporter based in San Francisco.