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Credit: Katie Lukes
personal essay

As a Homeless Teenager, I Didn’t Know That Food Was About More than Just Sustenance

updated Jan 21, 2021
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“License and registration.” My hands shook as I pulled every loose paper and receipt out of the glovebox. “Do you know how fast you were driving?” the police officer asked. I blurted out that I was very sorry, but I was running late to bring lunch to homeless teenagers. He stared at me silently, only his eyes visible behind his face mask as traffic raced by. I doubted he had ever heard that excuse before. 

A few months into quarantine, I signed up to make lunch for p:ear, the education, art, and recreation program for homeless youth in Portland, Oregon. Each year, p:ear provides hundreds of teens with a supportive community, art supplies, instruments, workshops, tutoring, and nutritious food when the stresses of homelessness jeopardize their lives. And in a year like 2020, when police tear gas impacted the health of housed and unhoused neighbors alike, and food banks were overwhelmed, the dangers of being homeless were compounded and more life threatening than ever before. I know this, because 20 years ago I was a homeless teen myself. When I found p:ear, cooking and food became more than just sustenance — it was a source of connection that I had been missing.  

Credit: Katie Lukes

I was 14 when my mom kicked me out after my little brother announced that I was gay (it didn’t matter that I’m actually bisexual). I left our home in Port Angeles, Washington, and spent several years intermittently living alone in the woods, at a hippie commune, on the streets of Seattle and Victoria, B.C., and for a while in an abandoned house when it grew too cold. My relationship with food and cooking was already fraught before I was kicked out. As a child actor until age 10, my mom only allowed me to eat iceberg lettuce the week before I was scheduled for an audition, and there was frequently no food in our house because my mom padlocked the cupboards and refrigerator (which usually held only wine). I grew carrots, tomatoes, and greens in our backyard to help feed my younger siblings and my mom. 

While homeless I continued attending school so my mom wouldn’t get in trouble. I also worked seven days a week at various jobs. I was a barista, a maid, a landscaper, a caregiver, and even pastry chef at one point — I took any job I could find, but remained homeless because no landlord was willing to rent to a teenager. Living on my own in the woods, I foraged berries in the summer months and gathered plants to cook like sautéed fiddleheads and horsetails, which have a flavor reminiscent of wild asparagus. 

In Portland, I resorted to dumpster diving when I didn’t make enough from busking and singing downtown, or when I couldn’t find a weird job like being a human WiFi signal or tacking up political campaign posters that I didn’t agree with. Years before I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I mostly subsisted on stale bagels and pizza tossed out by bakeries and stressed-out college students. At night, I climbed into the Tazo warehouse dumpster in Southeast Portland and fished out discarded tea. Then, I would go to the local Starbucks and order “another” cup of hot water and stay inside, safe from the winter rain and snow. 

One winter morning, a fellow teenage girl found me sleeping outside Powell’s Books. I was hesitant to follow her when she invited me to p:ear, uncertain whether it would be like the Christian soup kitchen that wouldn’t let you in unless you agreed to watch Veggie Tales — an animated kids’ show about vegetables that reenact Bible stories. I was homeless because of my mother’s religious piety, so it was uncomfortable being forced to sit through a children’s Bible study in exchange for food. I chose to just go hungry.

The girl held the door open for me and warm air bellowed out. After years of surviving alone in the woods and on city streets, it was disorienting to see so many people laughing, playing music, painting, drawing, and eating breakfast together. Everyone seemed so happy. It was culture shock. On a table in the back there was fresh fruit, not-dumpster-dived pastries, hot coffee, tea, and apple cider. I began going to p:ear every day for lunch in between work (by this point I had dropped out of high school, and ended up graduating later). Local restaurant chefs and volunteers prepared a beautiful feast, and the lunch menu rotated each day. Some days it was pasta, others days we assembled our own tacos, and on special occasions we even had pizza. I had spent so many years alone in solitude, fending for my own survival and learning over and over again not to trust anyone. But sitting down to eat with people who became my friends and adopted family, I felt accepted, loved, understood, and cared for. We told jokes, shared secrets, and wrote song lyrics in between bites of bread.

Credit: Katie Lukes

I’ll always remember the first time I was able to cook for p:ear’s annual holiday party where they invite youth, donors, family, and volunteers. I wanted to make the most elaborate dessert I could think of: Buche de Noël. After carefully rolling the cake in tea towels, I decorated the Yule log dessert with little icing lichens, mushrooms, and elves and carried the heavy pastry nearly a mile to p:ear. One of the directors told me that it looked beautiful — which made me feel a confusing mix of embarrassed pride. I set the Buche de Noël on the table beside an array of other desserts, turkey, roasted vegetables, spätzle, and colorful salads. Making something for the potluck felt like a small offer of gratitude for everything p:ear had given me. I was delighted to watch as the cake was quickly devoured.

That first p:ear holiday party was almost 20 years ago, and so much has changed since then. The people I live close to now love to share extra fruit and vegetables from their own gardens. Hearing that knock on my door makes me feel connected to my community, and the fresh ingredients inspire me in the kitchen. As I stir the bubbling plum sauce to pair with a roasted turkey, I feel so grateful to have a kitchen, food, and kind neighbors with fruit trees.

Homelessness and p:ear taught me that we all need to eat, and if we can find joy in the process of cooking and eating, and if we can find a way to maintain community (while still social distancing), everything might be just a little better. Food is integral to life and survival, and so is sharing it with the ones you love — even if that’s on a phone call, Zoom video, or by wearing a mask when you bring a bag teeming with extra tomatillos to your neighbor’s doorstep. 

Credit: Katie Lukes

I folded up my speeding ticket and put it into my bag. As I drove across the bright red trusses of Portland’s Broadway Bridge, I was surprised to see so many tents lining the streets. Many more than I had ever seen before. I lugged the heavy cooler filled with burritos across the street and peered into the empty gallery. As I organized p:ear’s social distancing lunch bags — placing an apple, water bottle, burrito, and cookie in hundreds of sacks — I thought about how it is more dangerous than ever to be homeless today. Homelessness is debilitating. Homelessness is exhausting and depressing. And during COVID, homelessness has become more dangerous than ever before. There are no cafés or libraries open to wash your hands or use the restroom; there are no tourists to busk for downtown if you need money; and it is harder to find a job when restaurants and other businesses need to close to keep employees and customers safe.  

P:ear was the one place I felt safe and could eat food that didn’t make me sick when I was homeless. Housing is the most obvious solution for homelessness, but I can’t buy a home for everyone. Volunteering to make as many burritos as possible for the program that saved my life felt like one small thing that I could do to give back.

For more information on teen homelessness, please visit the National Runaway Safeline. And if you’d like to donate to p:ear, you can do so here.