Fourteen Years Old and Homeless in New York City

It’s 1985, and Janice is your typical boy-crazy, fashion obsessed 14 year old. Only problem is she’s fed up with watching her mother get beaten. She says “leave this man or I’m leaving you,” her mother says “oh no I won’t,” and Janice marches out the door. She tries a shelter for teens, tells them she has an abusive stepfather, her mother is too spineless to say no, she has no choice but to leave. They let her in, but the trougirlbombbles don’t end there. She has to contend with unsympathetic administrators (they think the teens are just disobedient) and violent fellow runaways (she almost gets stabbed by a pregnant girl.) She gets placed with a foster family, moves back in with her mother, they fight and she leaves again. Her violent stepfather leaves her mother, but still makes threats to take their child away. As for her mother, the woman continues to find men who use her and treat her like dirt.

Girlbomb follows Janice Erlbaum over the four between walking out of the house and getting her own place. The only thing that makes Janice’s life possible is that she’s in 1980’s New York. Rent was cheaper, jobs were plentiful, and finding a job wasn’t hard for a teenager. If you look at the homeless young people today (I wrote an article about it for City Limits) you’ll find things to be pretty bleak; fewer jobs, fewer programs to help homeless kids, and scarce “affordable housing.” When I say “affordable,” I mean a decent place, not one of those disgusting NYCHA buildings. Why would a white kid want to live there? Most of the black and Hispanic residents don’t seem to like living there either. While there were more opportunities in those days, there was also temptation to destroy yourself. Bars and clubs allowed minors in, so she snorted coke at the Palladium, took other drugs, nearly overdosed, had lots of loser boyfriends. She calls her story a “halfway homeless” memoir because she wasn’t living on the street; she bounced between foster homes, her mother, and her older boyfriends’ apartments.

Girlbomb reminds me a little of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolf. Both are about kids with abusive stepfathers and spineless mothers. Both are about kids who are trapped by their lack of rights. But the difference is that Girlbomb takes place in the 80’s NYC, not a 1950’s backwater in Washington State. In the time period where This Boy’s Life takes place, a 14 year old girl couldn’t just walk out the door. They didn’t have shelters for runaway teens, and the social workers would’ve just labeled her “disobedient.” Where would she have been sent to live? Probably a school with a barbed wire fence! It’s also a question of place; things can be more conservative in a small town, and the police will assume a kid is a “troublemaker” if he runs away from home. New York City is probably more accepting.

The same girl I interviewed for the City Limits article, I saw again a year later, still homeless. Her mother had finally left her abusive boyfriend (see a pattern here?) but due to family problems and local troubles, she couldn’t move back in with her. I asked her “why freeze on a NYC street, why not just squat in a foreclosed house?”

Her boyfriend summed it up by saying “it’s easier to be homeless in a metropolitan area.”

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