A Teen Girl's Life on the Street

For Taylor, getting picked up by police means a second chance at life.

Jan. 28, 2011 — -- It was dark and cold in downtown Portland, Ore. Lying on a tattered sleeping bag on Southwest 3rd Avenue was 15-year-old Taylor.

In November, 2009, she was one of hundreds of young people living on this city's streets every year, according to Jani Morton, a case manager for Janus Youth Programs.

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Taylor was high. Her pupils were dilated and she was shivering from the cold. This was Taylor's life, day in and day out.

Over a year ago, "20/20" took its first trip to the Pacific Northwest to find out why it had the highest rate of homelessness in the country and what we found were youth who were resilient and strong.

There are over 2 million homeless youth reported in this country every year. Being without a permanent home doesn't necessarily mean not having a roof over their heads -- some teens "couch surf," staying with friends, while others stay in shelters.

Watch more teens' stories on the latest full episode of "20/20."

But some, like Taylor, actually live on the street.

In an interview with "20/20" anchor Chris Cuomo, Taylor said that her life on the streets reflected what she witnessed as a child -- a life full of pain, alcohol and drugs.

"I just did not like my stepdad at all and he didn't like me. He treated me like I was nothing, like a dog or a rat, or something," she said, "And then, my mom was always drunk in the bathroom."

Taylor's street name is "Squirrel Nuts," because she likes the taste of acorns and has a reputation on the street for being volatile and confrontational.

She said she left home at 13 and began to fend for herself, using any drugs and alcohol she could find to self medicate.

She said that, most of the time, the street life was better than life with her mother.

"I had people there that seemed like they cared about me that took care of me," she said.

But Taylor still had mixed emotions about her situation.

"Even though you have friends and everything, I don't know what it is, it's that feeling. It's that lonely feeling. It's hard to explain. You're lost and nobody knows how to find you or where to go to get you," she said.

Talia Matthias, a case worker for Maslow Project in Medford, Ore., did not work with Taylor but has worked with other kids who, as bizarre as it may seem to outsiders, find living on the streets feels safer than in their own homes.

"They're choosing to be safe in the sense that their instinct tells them that their home is not safe," Mathias said. "And although we could give a list of reasons why the streets are not safe for them, to them it's much better than going home."

Free Inside Prison Walls

"I want to be home with my family, not even just for the holidays, forever," Taylor told ABC News.

It was almost Christmas when Taylor was picked up off the streets by police. She was wanted on felony charges for an altercation on Portland's commuter rail. She ended up in the Oregon Youth Authority and was sentenced to up to five years in their custody.

But what about Taylor's family? Where were they?

"20/20" tracked down Taylor's mother, Charlotte, in Bakersfield, Calif., who got sober shortly after learning about Taylor's incarceration.

She said she lives with the regret every day of letting her daughter live on the streets.

"I lost all this time to be a good mom," she said. "I should have done things completely differently instead of just worrying about my, you know, getting my alcohol. You know? I mean, that was number one priority, and it should have been my children."

She said she was simply selfish and she let addiction rule her instead of ruling it. Charlotte has since visited Taylor several times. They write to each other and make weekly phone calls, trying to rebuild their relationship.

Taylor said that she felt more free inside the prisons walls then she did on the outside, where it was a constant struggle for survival.

But she also has another definition of freedom. It's "being with my family and being able to be with them, and not get in trouble, and not do drugs."

Taylor found a second chance. In just over a year, she has changed the course of her life and reconnected with her family.

Inside the Oregon Youth Authority, Taylor's earned her GED and sobered up. At her graduation ceremony, with her mom in the audience, she gave a moving speech.

"I never thought I could do this, ever. Here I am. I never thought I could be filled with so many goals and dreams, here I am. I never thought I could pull myself out of the gutter. Here I am. One goal down and many more to go," she said.

Charlotte's eyes shone with tears during the speech.

"I am the most proudest mother in the whole entire world," she said.

Young and Homeless

Just last month, Taylor was released into her mother's care in Bakersfield, Calif., sober and with more dreams than ever. Taylor said she wants to be a forensic artist and hopes to be well on her way to that goal one year from now.

By then, she said, "I'll probably be in college. I'll still be with my family,"

But if things don't work out exactly how she wants them to, Taylor has a game plan: follow the rules her parole officer sets and "not mess up."

Messing up, she said, would mean returning to life on the streets.

"I don't want to live like that," she said.

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