Gathered around a public bench in Venice Beach, three young men share a celebratory marijuana joint early one morning.
Cody, who has just turned 20, takes a long drag and passes the joint to his friend Squirrel.
“You want to know the meaning of life?” he asks.
Homeless on the streets of Los Angeles for two months, Cody says that for the first time in his life, he actually feels alive.
According to the 2011 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Report, nearly 4,000 homeless youth without families currently live in Los Angeles County.
Though the number accounts for unaccompanied minors, individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 make up the bulk of the homeless youth population.
Like Cody, many homeless young adults in Los Angeles end up on the city’s Westside.
“A lot of the kids, especially down at the beaches, they just like the freedom,” said Kenan Henderson of the Hope for Homeless Youth program. “They’ll leave some small town in Iowa and they want to just come out to the West Coast and see what it’s like out here.”
Such travelers account for most of the region’s homeless youth population.
“I just travel, I don’t think about really what’s going to happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday,” said Squirrel, a 21-year-old from Alabama, who, like Cody, uses a nickname to prevent his family from tracking him on the streets.
“I’m going with what’s going now, I could be here right now and in two days … I could be in Portland, Ore.,” he said.
Officer Robert Martinez of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Program said traveling youth rarely stay in Westside cities for extended time periods.
“They’ll come in, they’ll get what they need, whether it’s a needle exchange, to see the doctor … then they’ll move on to the next community,” he said.
Travelers, however, are not the Westside’s only homeless youth population.
“There are some young kids that are homeless and don’t travel, they just stay there,” said Dalton Mock, a 19-year-old currently living on the streets of Santa Monica.
These individuals, called street kids by travelers, are chronically homeless youth who are permanently fixed in one location.
“Those are the people that I feel need more help,” said Mock. “Whenever they’re on the streets and not moving, they’re usually subjected to some kind of drug, like crack, coke [or] meth.”
Despite the population’s internal classifications, homeless youth organizations say that all young adults eventually face the same problems on the streets.
“You’ll start seeing some symptoms of mental illness,” said Katie Sue of Night Light, a youth homeless program at OPCC in Santa Monica. “Other times you’ll see a lot of drug use, a lot of alcohol use.”
At the Teen Project in Venice, Executive Director Jeff Williams says drug abuse is one of the biggest issues facing youth on the streets.
“75 percent of [these] youth are on drugs,” he said. “Heroin is rearing its ugly head again.”
Mock said homeless youth find it hard to maintain cleanliness and hygiene while living outdoors.
“I’ve had a staph infection,” he said.
“I was up in Northern California this winter on a weed mountain, trimming weed and making hash … not taking showers and my hands got infected.”
Throughout the Westside, dozens of agencies are fully committed to fighting these problems and helping homeless youth get their lives back on track.
At Night Light, the staff shapes its daily schedule around the specific needs of its clients.
“Sometimes that means driving them from place to place to make an appointment, or sometimes that means connecting them with the right resources to get them where they need to be,” said Sue.
“It’s literally walking them through each and every step to get them off the streets.”
Hope for Homeless Youth, a Christian organization, uses a religious approach to combat youth homelessness.
“What we do basically is go out … and meet their physical needs as well as spiritual needs,” said Henderson. “A lot of the time we’ll share a testimony of what somebody has done or [what] God has done in our lives … then we’ll give out food and talk to them.”
Though such organizations try to build trusting relationships with their clients, many have trouble getting youth to respond to the outreach.
“One of the major problems we had was just dealing with authority,” Henderson said about a former Hope for Homeless Youth program that housed youth at the Los Angeles Dream Center.
“When you would try to set up boundaries, rules, a lot of the time they didn’t want to listen and would just leave.”
According to Sue, excessive restrictions and authority will repel youth and make them resist aid.
“That’s exactly what young people are trying to get away from … they’re trying to break out of rules and they’re trying to break out of someone telling them they have to do things a certain way,” she said.
“If they break one of those rules … they get kicked out and that’s it for them in terms of trying to get off the street.”
Common Ground, a Santa Monica agency that specializes in HIV treatment, has recently faced a different problem with its homeless youth clientele.
Currently in the process of relocating, Common Ground previously housed a youth drop-in center for its homeless clients.
Former neighbors have said that while the service was valuable to the community, the program caused problems for surrounding businesses.
“We would get families shopping in our store and they wouldn’t want to come anymore because of that,” said one store manager who wished to remain anonymous.
John Garcia, an employee of another former neighboring business, said that the transient youth population “would do some shoplifting,” but since Common Ground has moved, he has seen fewer incidents.
According to Interim Executive Director Jeff Goodman, Common Ground’s new neighbors voiced concerns that the drop-in center would bring similar problems to the Sunset Park community.
“Arguably, the neighborhood residents really did not want this program in their neighborhood,” he said.
In April, Goodman announced that the youth drop-in center would be relocating to a partnering agency in Venice.
According to the homeless youth of the Westside, they are not offended by such accusations of criminal behavior or stereotypes that portray them as social nuisances.
“I feel like in a way though, that I can relate to these people out here, that when they see us, that when they see me hold a sign for them, they don’t even look at me,” said Squirrel.
“I understand that people look down on homeless people and think about them like ‘Can’t you do something better with your life?'” said Mock.
“I just try to be a better person myself and try not to judge them.”
Despite the social pressure upon them to find jobs and homes, the youth say they have no reason to leave the streets anytime soon.
“What I try to do when I’m on the road is I try not to want for anything, I only take what I need,” said Squirrel. “For some reason, when I do that, when I don’t want and I just chill and take everything for what it is, everything that I need presents itself right in front of me.”