Santa Monica teens spend a chilly night outdoors in solidarity with their homeless peers
By Stephanie Case
On the night of her 17th birthday, Nike Oladipupo slept on concrete. Stuck outdoors with a wool cap and puffer coat to keep her warm, she cocooned herself inside two sleeping bags.
She wasn’t alone. Sprawled around her, 129 other teenagers were wrapped in blankets atop the pavement and under a bed of stars.
The gathering was the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Monica’s inaugural “sleep-out” — an overnight simulation of homelessness, one of the city’s deepest-rooted problems.
There are more than 700 homeless adults or children in Santa Monica who sleep out on the street, in vehicles or in shelters on any given night, according to the city’s annual homeless count. It’s a small but significant slice of the estimated 42,000 homeless throughout Los Angeles County.
These facts weighed heavily on 15-year-old club member Mylan Ross. To her they aren’t abstract numbers, but familiar faces: the teens wandering the Third Street Promenade or curled up by a Big Blue Bus stop, and even a few of her classmates at Santa Monica High School who have no permanent home to go to when the afternoon bell rings.
“There are a lot of people my age and younger sleeping outside every night,” Mylan said.
One night outdoors, she thought, could help her peers see their neighborhood through a new lens.
No Boys & Girls Club in Southern California had ever held such a sleep-out before, and Ross wanted hers to be the first. In September, she pitched the idea to other teen organizers at the club, including Nike Oladipupo. Everyone — even the eventual birthday girl — got on board, meeting with local aid groups, delving into research on the causes of homelessness and asking kids to donate clothes and toiletries.
On Jan. 22, the teens lined up outside the club’s doors with bags of gloves, socks, mouthwash and travel-sized bottles of shampoo, all to be assembled into care packages and handed to others in need.
Katrina La Madrid, one of the teen organizers, looked on and gave instruction as a gaggle of middle schoolers stuffed Ziploc bags with toothbrushes and scented soaps. For Katrina, the four months of planning and research for the big night opened her eyes to homelessness more so than ever before.
“I always thought that if the homeless really wanted to [find housing], they could help themselves,” La Madrid said. “But that’s not always the case.”
This is especially true for teens. Some are forced from foster homes; some are disowned by their family. Some watch their parents lose their jobs, get deported or battle mental illness. Others flee abuse and end up on Venice Beach, wondering what to do next. No one story is the same.
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Sheyenne Seals, a club member at the sleep-out, was nine when her mother and three siblings were kicked out of their Hawthorne apartment.
Money had already been tight. A resourceful third grader, Sheyenne made DIY folders out of neon paper and Scotch tape, sold them to kids on her elementary school playground, then surprised her mom with the profits.
Still, they fell short of affording a new place to live.
For six years, the family of five zigzagged between temporary homes: a Salvation Army shelter in Westwood, a church in Pasadena and couches belonging to family friends or distant relatives.
Only once, they missed the last bus of the night by mere minutes and took refuge in the staircase of a Santa Monica parking lot until morning. Sheyenne “hated it,” she remembered, but never once felt afraid with her mom by her side.
“She was the one that kept us at peace,” she said. “It felt like she was a shelter to us.”
More than five years after Sheyenne surprised her mom with her crafty folder business, her mom pulled off a surprise of her own: a two-story apartment in Ladera Heights, all to themselves. On move-in day, the four kids giddily scoured their new surroundings, racing to claim bedrooms, bathrooms and the coveted first shower.
“I was like, ‘I could get used to this,’” she laughed. “My mom said, ‘Don’t get used to it — we’re going to get a house.’”
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In 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District reported that more than 13,600 of its students were, like Sheyenne, experiencing at least some form of homelessness.
“Many young people are actually in school and employed but are still homeless, because they can’t find housing [in the area] that’s affordable,” says Alison Hurst, the founder of Safe Space for Youth (SPY), a young adult services center in Venice. “A lot of them work in fast-food restaurants, earning minimum wage, then come to us for food and health needs … while living in a transitional shelter.”
Since Hurst opened the center in 2010, she’s seen thousands of adrift teens — more than 800 in the last fiscal year alone — come in and out, looking for a helping hand.
“The majority have the same dreams that our own kids and our own grandkids have,” she says. “The biggest misconception is that there’s somehow a choice in this” — that they’ve picked to spend nights in the cold, and picked the anxiety of a life without a home.
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Past midnight, the sleep-out was quiet. But Deron Gopie, one of the club’s teen leaders, laid amongst the sleepers, restless and shivering.
“The cold weather got to me,” he admitted. That, plus the added pressure of organizing a sunset-to-sunrise event at 18 years old.
“It’s a pretty difficult experience to be a teenager, let alone [a homeless teenager],” he said. “We’re all already dealing with a whole lot of stuff already” — new responsibilities, surging emotions, homework.
On the girls’ side of the concrete yard, Sheyenne Seals perched her economics homework between a juice box and her backpack. Making the text out using a dim overhead light, she grabbed a pencil and got started.
In her Santa Monica High School economics class, Sheyenne said, discussion had recently turned to basic human essentials: What objects matter?
“People were like, ‘You need a phone!’” she recalled, amused — then set the record straight: “You don’t need a phone. You don’t need a lot of things. You just need things to keep you clean, and you need people to talk to, so that you don’t get down,” she said.
Back in middle school, Sheyenne kept her living situation under wraps, afraid that her classmates would be judgmental. But looking back, she admits, one small gesture from a friend would’ve made her feel understood.
“[I wish they’d have] asked me if I’m OK, you know? Because sometimes I wasn’t OK. Sometimes I was irritated because I had to wear the same pants again,” she said, cracking a grin.
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As dawn broke, kids gathered in the center of the paved yard, sharing stories around a glowing fire pit. Most were groggy, but others felt empowered.
“There are a lot of homeless youth that I could connect to,” said club member Colbie Witherspoon, 17. “After this, I want to be in somebody’s corner.”
For more information about the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Monica, call (310) 361-8500 or visit smbgc.org.