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My Hometown

(Reflections from a Homeless Youth)

by Isabel Esperanze Quinonez

     I was sixteen when I ran away from home to find a better life.

      Downtown Seattle is primarily a place for work and entertainmen,t but for some fortunate, wealthy people, itís where they live. One of the main reasons that I love downtown Seattle so much is because it is just the right size. Cozy almost. A perfect fit, well, for me anyway. It is not so big that you can get lost in the midst of it, or so small that you would feel as if you were enclosed in an air-tight box.

      Downtown Seattle is a part of a lot of people's lives, but it is my hometown. This is the place I have fallen more times than I can count. Here I gained the strength to pick myself back up again. This place has welcomed me with open arms, and housed me with its sturdy walls of skyscrapers, the Puget Sound, I-5 freeway and the Space Needle. Downtown Seattle was my backyard. In fact, it was my front yard, basement, attic, and home all in one. It would even become my garden, a safe haven for me where most of my lifeís lessons were learned.

      I get to return to my beloved hometown on the rare occasions that I need to pick up my mail or I feel the need for a street-family reunion.

     When I do return, I always step off the bus on either 4th Ave. or 5th Ave. As I look to the right, I see the Bank of America. There I opened my first bank account. It was also the first place that I had ever heard someone tell me they were proud of me. Never mind the fact that it was from a banker who was proud to see that I kept up with my debit card spending. A few blocks from here sits a little green building called the Orion Center. It is a drop- in center for homeless youth and the first place that I had called home. I grew up in that green building.

      When I first arrived back in December of 2006, it really wasnít much to look at. It was a grayish building that had a handmade sign stating "Youth Careís Orion Center." It never looked like it was in use. People tended to stay clear of it because it was often surrounded by homeless kids. Some of us were as young as thirteen, and the oldest twenty-one. There wasnít much in it, just a few tables, a tiny kitchen, a broken down piano, and two very slow computers. The offices were just a corner of the room blocked off by old bookcases.

     Now, it is painted a God awful light green color and has washer and dryers, showers, three updated computers, a brand new piano, and a larger donation area. The offices are now actual rooms, upstairs. UpstairsÖ. Fancy.

      I finally get to the heart of Downtown Seattle, 4th Ave. and Pine, and can see what regular everyday people see: Just a theater stage in the middle of the city. Before, it used to be the meeting grounds for me and all of my friends. It was our front door. When we lost track of one another, we would first look around to see if we recognized a loved one. If I could not find a friend, all I had to do was walk there, and more likely than not, they would be sitting there just laughing and chatting. That is, unless the police got there first and scattered them away. Now that area is patrolled daily by police, and I canít even remember the last time that I was able to see any of the homeless gang sitting there. Back then, if I was still unable to find a familiar face, I would walk to the nearest Barnes and Noble and head to the anime section. I was never a fan myself, but everyone else seemed to be. I would walk down the aisles, "History.... Biographies.... Fiction.... Mystery... Religious....," just turn the corner, and I could always spot at least six of my friends enjoying a good book. They almost always had their backpacks all over the floor, legs stretched out, and books everywhere. I remember waiting for the day when one of the store workers would throw us out. It happened once or twice, but somehow we would manage to sneak back in. This was our living room.

      Stepping off of memory lane, I try to focus on the reason that I came to downtown Seattle in the first placeÖto pick up my mail. I havenít used the Orion Center as my address in such a long time I donít really know why I still have mail being sent there. I continue my walk down Stewart, and then I turn the corner at Yale Ave. The building has been redone. What used to be the front door to the drop in center is now just a closed off wall. I can remember two large glass doors that used to stand there. I hated those doors. I would always have to wait outside with a couple of friends, often freezing in the snow and rain, until the clock showed 2:00 p.m. exactly. Not a moment sooner would those doors open.

     The Orion Center at that time did not have that much to offer, and yet everyone was happy to be there. This is where I met friends, boyfriends, escaped from the cold, learned to work, dealt with life's disappointments, and dreamed about the future. My first taste of a real family of people I cared for was given to me there. I can no longer see most of those memories, but I can sure feel them. Now they have four computers, lockers, a washer and dryer, showers, a ping pong table, a meeting center, stairs that led to the main offices, and a large kitchen. As I walk into the remodeled Orion Center, I do not recognize one familiar face. I glance over at the new piano and suddenly have a longing for that old broken down piano. I can see it in my mindÖa great instrument with memories just dancing around it. I grab my mail and head out.

      I find myself back on Stewart Ave. I walk my way back up to 4th Ave, and run into Alfie's Food Store. That was another meeting place of ours. It was an old store, but we were not buying anything special. We would get a few soft drinks, sit down and just talk. Good times. This was a place where we relaxed and exchanged gossip about the neighbors.

     I continued my way down the street and ended up running into the Metropolitan Tower Apartments. This apartment building was so beautiful and expensive. I have always wanted to go in and see what it looked like from the inside. I remember the day when I had finally received my Washington State identification card and decided to have a little fun. Armed with my ID, I went right over to the leasing offices and acted like I was interested in renting. Then I got to take a look at a place in which I would never live. Up the elevator and on the eighth floor, I saw the gym, with personal trainers available 24/7. Then came the swimming pool, complete with a hot tub, and what would the rich do without a sauna? Then on the the fourteenth floor was the apartment that "suddenly became available." The apartment was a step toward Heaven. The view was amazing. "We have a great deal going on with this beauty. Itís only $2500 a month." Is that all?

     I push my daughterís stroller and continue on. I walk past a lot of expensive shops and remember when I used to wish that one day I might be able to afford their cheapest item. I guess some things never change. Reaching the Seattle Public Library, I find my way to an empty computer on the fifth floor. Looking around, everything is the same. I experience the feeling that haunted me thenÖfear. Fear crept up inside of me every time I tried to think about where we would we go that night. Since the Orion Center closed at 6 p.m. The library was our next stop. We had two hours to sit and wait. Wait for what? We never really knew. We would just talk, and then at 8 p.m., when the library would close, we would leave and try to find a place to stay that night.

     Our bedrooms could be the Roots Young Adult Shelter in the U-District. But when my friends and I did not get in, we would make our way back home, wondering why we left in the first place. And finally we would catch our guest bedroom, the Metro Bus 174 to Federal Way. This bus was an older and a much bigger bus. It ran until 3 a.m. and started back up at 6 a.m. And the ride itself was about two hours, enough time to get some sleep.

      As that feeling of fear fades, I can finally come back to present day. I check the time and see that my own bus will be here in about ten minutes. I head out and catch a glimpse of my safe haven. The St. James Catholic Cathedral stands tall, overlooking the busy life of the city, almost staring it down. I had gone there for comfort and had received much more. Volunteering changed me. At that time it gave me a reason to live. I met so many people who never judged me and some even helped me get emancipated. A small smile finds its way into my heart. Why did I stop going there?

      Iíve missed my bus, so I decide to grab a coffee in what was the tallest building in the city. It was black with nothing but glass for walls. I never really knew what the building was called. Some of my friends said "Bank of America Tower" others said the "Columbia Tower". On the 40th floor there was a Starbucks with the most beautiful view. Whenever we would save enough, we would spend some time there and just enjoy the view. Sitting next to high paid executives, we felt important. Iíve always had a fear of heights and never really looked out for too long, but when I would get the courage, I would see everything; the Puget sound, Mt. Rainer, I-5, people, cars, LIFE.

     This was our TV. It only had one channel, but it covered more than the news at five could.

     Looking at all these streets, buildings, and places, everything comes back to me. This whole city was my backyard. At that time, everything seemed to be there for us. Nothing in the world mattered. We had to get out of this life style. We knew that. But when the world didnít expect anything of us and when it didnít even allow us to pursue happiness, we just had to learn to survive and live day by day. At the end of the day, we just had to enjoy what was right in front of us.

      I love visiting downtown Seattle and seeing the same sites from a different perspective. Watching how the world changes the city, I am glad to be changing with it. I never would have thought that it would be possible for me to get off of the streets. With a little faith, hope and hard work I am finally living in a new world. However, I will never forget my first home and the street family from which I came.

      My bus pulls up and the door opens. I gather my daughter, the stroller, car seat, diaper bag and purse, andI climb the steps. Selena is sleeping soundly in her car seat as the bus makes its way down 3rd Ave and onto I-5. I turn around and take one last look at my hometown, my Seattle.

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