This post is part of an ongoing series on Jewish homelessness and poverty.
A 12-year-old heroin user's life on the streets
By Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
She was a 12-year-old heroin user who got her first high by tricking an older boy into believing she was 16. He did for her what she couldn’t yet do by herself – he shot her up.
She was a 12-year-old runaway, a kid parents warned their kids about, wild and unpredictable.
But she had behavioral problems long before the first time she felt heroin course through her veins.
And when she was 9, her parents sent her to a therapist to resolve them. But the therapist sexually molested her.
She spent most of a decade on the streets, sleeping in squats, in shelters and under bridges. She ran with a group of homeless kids and survived while many other street kids did not.
Her name is Shoshana. I spoke with her yesterday. This is her story.
She was raised in a Modern Orthodox community in the Los Angeles area but she grew up on the streets of Hollywood and New York. She train-hopped across the country. She stole to eat and she stole to feed her heroin habit. She watched friends die.
Shoshana ran from a home and a community where she didn’t fit in, a perception that was certainly enhanced by the sexual abuse she suffered.
She told me she vomited over and over and over again during that first heroin high. “I remember things like, why am I doing this? But it really didn’t feel that bad because I was puking and it didn’t really feel like I was puking.…I’m not sure why I still did it.”
Female victims of child sexual abuse often cut themselves or injure themselves in other ways. Another Jewish survivor of child sexual abuse I know used to masturbate with a pencil, point in, hard, until she bled. When she told me this I called Vicki Polin of The Awareness Center to ask her about it. She told me it’s common, and went on to talk briefly about girls who cut their vaginas with knives. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation and drug addiction and overdose are often the byproducts of child sexual abuse, and lend credence to the few Orthodox rabbis who have ruled that child sexual abuse is a crime that overrides any concern about mesira, the Jewish law that forbids informing on another Jew to police or secular authorities.
Heroin offers a form of self mutilation combined with a numbing effect that dulls emotional and physical pain – at least until the heavy cravings for the next high sets in. Perhaps that’s why Shoshana used it. “It was weird,” Shoshana told me about her first experience with the drug that killed Jimmie Hendrix.
Her mother sent Shoshana to a boarding school out of state to try to reform her. After a while, Shoshana convinced her mother to move her to a boarding school closer to home. When she did, Shoshana ran away, back to the streets of Hollywood and her friends. “I manipulated her,” Shoshana said.
Sometimes they hopped freight trains and travelled to New York, where she told me she met a large number of haredi street kids. She told me about one boy in particular, a rabbi’s child. “He looked religious but he sure didn’t act that way.”
Shoshana and her friends panhandled for money to eat and feed their drug habits. They would supplement that income when necessary by robbing houses. But if she saw children’s toys, cribs or strollers, she’d try to stop her friends from robbing the house. There was something about the children and the need to support them that stopped her cold.
Sometimes Shoshana picked up johns who wanted to be dominated by a young girl. She'd handcuff a man to the bed and then take his money and watch, and leave. She justified this by convincing herself she was victimizing perverts."You wanted to be f@%$ed by a young girl? Well now you have been."
Even though she was on the streets and often high, Shoshana somehow managed to get a high school diploma. A school bus driver looked out for her and used to pick her up from the street at five a.m. every morning and get her to school. “I actually owe my bus driver my high school diploma,” she told me, and she wasn’t kidding.
Shoshana stopped using heroin when she found out she was pregnant, and says she has been clean ever since, about 5 1/2 years. She lives with her daughter and works and hopes to go back to school to become a Medical Assistant.
Her relationship with her parents is still strained. She can spend a day with her father and all he says to her is good morning. She still gets along with her siblings, though, half of whom are very religious. The other half are secular.
But she recognizes the pain she must have put her parents through. “There must have been so many times when they thought I was dead,” Shoshana told me.
I asked her what the Jewish community could do to help street kids. She pointed to a lack of street outreach and the need for drop-in centers that are open 24/7.
She spoke about a Hollywood-area drop-in center that served breakfast and lunch, allowed kids to take food with them, had showers kids could use, and gave kids clothes and hygiene products. But they couldn’t sleep there. The couldn’t even take a nap sitting in a chair. That’s probably because many cities have laws that forbid using drop-in and day centers as domiciles. These laws may be a reflection of attempts made to discourage homeless people from congregating in a city, or could be meant to encourage the homeless to get jobs or to force them into the shelter system or to prevent them from sleeping all day and hitting the streets all night where, presumably, they would otherwise commit crimes.
But largely all these laws do is make already sleep-deprived people even more tired and less able to cope.
Shoshana told me she wouldn’t have gone to a Jewish-only drop-in center or shelter. It would have to be a place where everyone was welcome, she said.
The street outreach Shoshana means isn’t a Chabad mitzvah tank and its table of Shabbos candles and tefillin.
She means a different kind of outreach, one that is based on helping people no matter who they are. “There used to be people who went out on the streets and handed out [free] sandwiches…,” Shoshana said, voice trailing off. Those people are now gone. Shoshana means outreach done by people who care about these street kids, who are willing to meet them where they are and be their friend, no strings or conditions attached.
There is one former haredi rabbi, Yehuda Fine, who has been doing this for years, working on his own and with Covenant House and the Reciprocity Foundation in New York, and in other cities, including the L.A. area. But he’s one man. And he isn’t funded by the Jewish community.
There are literally hundreds of Jewish kids in New York City that on any given day could use these services. Other cities, like the L.A. and it’s surrounding communities, have a large number of Jewish street kids, as well.
These kids are largely on the streets because they were raped or abused, or because their sexual preference was not accepted by their parents, who threw them out rather than have a gay son or daughter at home.
They make up a large segment of our community’s homeless and they have more access to government services than any other segment except the elderly. But their needs are far greater, and they are not being met.
They are off our community’s radar.
The Federations could fix this gap in services by funding Covenant House and the Reciprocity Foundation in New York, and by using Jewish professionals – like the above-mentioned Rabbi Yehuda Fine – who have worked these streets and who have saved the lives of many of these street kids, to train other people to do the job, and then paying for that job to be done.
The theme of this year’s General Assembly of North American Jewish Federations is tikkun olam, repairing the world. The GA will be held in New Orleans, and part of what its thousands of attendees will do is help rebuild homes destroyed in Hurricane Katrina five years ago.
This is good, important work. But it is not enough.
Right now these Federations rely on Covenant House and the Reciprocity Foundation to do the work with our homeless kids. Worse yet, the Federations do not support this work financially. This is inexcusable, just as it is inexcusable that Jewish homeless between the ages of 21 and 60 can’t count on the Jewish community for help or shelter, either.
Tikkun olam means more than using federal grant money to help a designated class of people. It means helping people even when their needs are not funded by government money or when their appearance and their drug habits are off-putting.
If the Federations really want to repair the world, helping our own homeless, along with advocating for affordable housing and government programs that would help everyone who needs it, would be a good start.
Rebuilding Katrina-ravaged houses cannot be allowed to be both the beginning and end of the Federations’ tikkun olam.