Out in the Cold, Part 8: Teen lost his way home

With his dog running ahead, Zachary Oie, 18, flicks his lighter so that in the seconds between the sparks he can see a precious few feet in front of him. Otherwise it's so pitch-black in his tunnel that Oie says when he wakes up each morning, "I ...

Zach Oie, 18, chooses to be homeless. He often sleeps in this tunnel in the Endion neighborhood of Duluth with his dog, Happy Meal. [Clint Austin /]

With his dog running ahead, Zachary Oie, 18, flicks his lighter so that in the seconds between the sparks he can see a precious few feet in front of him. Otherwise it's so pitch-black in his tunnel that Oie says when he wakes up each morning, "I don't know if I've died."

Above him are two of the busiest streets on the east side of the city, abutting some of Duluth's grand old mansions. Residents don't have the slightest clue that beneath them a homeless teen's bed, a narrow cement slab, can be reached only by climbing up several feet of sloping ice.

But to Oie, this old storm sewer line is home. When he can't stay with friends, it's a place to go that's out of the elements and safe from muggers and the police because it's almost impossible to find. Oie points out, his breath visible in the cold, where he'd put plywood, a stove and maybe a place to build a fire to make a life there.

He keeps warm now with just his layers of clothes, a blanket and a sleeping bag that doesn't zip all the way up -- not that he wants it to. Happy Meal, the dog he adopted after finding it abandoned at an Arizona McDonald's, sleeps with him, his "space heater with legs," he says.

It doesn't have to be like this. He could have chosen another life.


He could be living

24.6 miles away in Cloquet, with his mother and stepfather on a quiet cul-de-sac in a sweet home with a garage, a fireplace, grandfather clock, nice lamps and coffee tables in the living room. In her bedroom his mom, Brooke, keeps pictures of her son growing up, smiling and happy.

To have that, Oie would have had to make simple changes, his mother and stepfather said: clean up, try to find a job, stop doing drugs, stop stealing from them, stop causing them "hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt."

Because he couldn't do that, he's not welcome in their home.

"He doesn't want to follow the rules that we all have to follow. ... He can't comply with life, doing what you have to do," said his mom, Brooke. "I don't know how to help him anymore."


In 2009, almost 200 homeless teens applied for housing in Duluth through Lutheran Social Services, likely the most accurate indicator of teen homelessness in the city.

Most of those teens and young adults try to survive on their own without families, said Erich Lutz, a Human Development Center Homeless Project case manager who has worked with homeless youth for more than eight years.


If they remain homeless, if there's no intervention, the future of a homeless teen generally isn't good, Lutz said. Involvement with gangs and crime, chronic drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues are likely, he said -- even being picked up by sexual predators and forced into prostitution.

Whether a homeless teen chooses that life depends on how you define choice. Running away is a choice. Being kicked out of your house is not.

Oie seems to fall into both categories.

Oie and his parents seem to agree on little, except that he grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Duluth and started running away when he was 10 or 11.

His side of the story: He was rebelling against parents who were too strict.

"She had attachment issues at first," he said of his mom. "And then attachments turned into an abandonment issue. She was super-clean; she started making rules like I couldn't be out past 5 in the afternoon. ... From there, I ended up rubbing her the wrong way too many times."

He said his mom told him he'd learn the hard way, and she kicked him out of the house.

"And I was like, 'Alrighty,' " he said.


It's one of the areas he doesn't like to talk about.

"It's in the past," he said. "That's where I leave it."

His mom's side of the story: Her son grew up with an abusive father, he had a learning disability and he wouldn't stay in school after he stopped taking medication.

Ten years ago Brooke Oie met her current husband, who declined to be named for this story. They said they tried to give Zach a good life.

"He was spoiled," Brooke's husband said. "But then he turned on me. He turned on her."

When her son started running away, Oie said she put missing child posters in spots he'd be likely to go, staying up nights terrified about how to find him. They took him to doctors, she said, put him through treatment programs. The state took custody of Zach to pay for his treatment at centers across the state, she said.

He was in and out of foster homes. While at one, he lit another kid on fire, causing him third-degree burns on his stomach and chest, Brooke Oie and her husband said. Between foster homes, they would sometimes bring Zach back to live with them, only to encounter so many problems that they'd send him away again.

"He throws furniture when he's mad," his mother said. He's broken in doors to their home, sprayed their kitchen down with a fire extinguisher. Once they found lighter fluid poured around their porch and lit matches on the ground.


"He tried to light the building down with us sleeping in bed," she said. "As soon as we start trying to set rules, he turns on us."

Finally, "after so many years of the state having him," she said, "a social worker called me and said, 'We've exhausted everything we could do for him.' "

The state returned custody to them when Zach was 17. Afraid to keep him at home, she said she set him up in an apartment in downtown Duluth, bought him furniture and gave him an allowance. A couple months later after not hearing from him for several weeks, Brooke Oie had the landlord open his apartment and found it trashed -- burn marks in the carpet, furniture destroyed, a stolen cross from a church, a file cabinet with profanity spray-painted all over it, windows sprayed black so no one could see inside.

The money she had slipped under the door was still there. A note inside said: "I needed to go," Brooke Oie said.

"He's been floating around like that ever since," she said.

His stepfather has given up on him. They have their own lives and a 13-year-old daughter -- Oie's half-sister -- to protect, he said.

"When he's here, we're all on edge. He's so unpredictable. It's scary," he said. "He's an adult now. We cannot do anything more for Zach."

She still wants to keep reaching out to him. If it wasn't for her husband, "I'd still let him in here," she said


"You know what I worry about?" she said. "I'll tell you the truth. It's here, waiting for the phone call that no parent wants."

"It won't even be five years," her husband added. "A year. A month."


Even by his own admission, Oie chose to be homeless off and on for the last four years. And the way he talks about the life he's lived makes it seem almost enviable.

He said he's traveled across all 50 states of the country by hitchhiking or hopping on trains, has been to festivals in numerous states, slept in camps from California to Oregon, ridden a bike from Grand Forks to Montana.

Aside from a slight speech impediment, he comes across as laid-back, soft-spoken and has a friendly, almost gentle demeanor. The violent history his parents talk about is hard to imagine.

He calls their descriptions lies and exaggerations and said they overreacted to normal youth rebellion by putting him in foster homes. But otherwise, he said, "I see their point," about wanting him to following society's rules.

Not that he wants to.


"I just don't the see the point of it," he said. "I don't have a job. I don't have any problems. Why would I want to?"

He talks about wanting to live a green life. He boasts about waking up about noon, walking the city and living free until he goes back to sleep.

"I've had a blast doing it," he said.

But now, he adds, "I'm trapped in it."

He said he wants a new start. While in Oregon, Oie said he saw a 65-year-old woman pushing a shopping cart, keeping what she owned in plastic containers and sleeping in stairwells.

"I don't want that," he said. "I think I've traveled enough."

But what exactly he wants and how he plans to get it is difficult to pin down. He said he wants an apartment and is trying to get government help. Maybe, he said, he could live in a small place, and work somewhere as a janitor, he said, "or as the manager of the janitors."

He expects that getting government aid would take at least a year. And then he'd need to get and keep an ID. But whenever he gets one, he said, he loses it. How? "I just lose it," he said. "Like I'm with friends and it's there one minute, the next it's gone."

To get a job, because he has no permanent address and can only read or write at a sixth-grade level, he'll probably need social service help, but he refuses to go that route.

"I don't like brainwashing, to be in society," he said. "To be in society means to be insane."

Homelessness, he said, "is all I really know how to do."

Like many homeless, he has created a life of very few needs -- candles for his tunnel, cigarettes that he usually borrows from friends, food that he can get almost daily at the Life House downtown. When necessary, he Dumpster-dives to eat.

Sometimes he gets money but isn't clear about how he gets it. He's not on government assistance and says he won't panhandle in Duluth. It's too small a city and too easy "to run into your second-grade teacher." He's adamant that he doesn't steal -- except for the occasional bag of dog food. He's adamant that he doesn't deal drugs, and even more adamant that he's not a prostitute -- the only time he raises his voice in anger.

So where does he get his money? He just won't say. "It manifests itself," he'll say. Or: "I just get it. I'm lucky, I guess."

People see his clothes and Happy Meal, he said, and just hand him money -- often to feed his dog.

Because he doesn't seem to feel sorry for himself, it's difficult to feel sorry for him, except when he occasionally drops the tough veneer and talks about friends and family abandoning him.

"A lot of folks think I'm happy," he said, "but I'm just struggling, dude. I struggle to survive, like everyone else. There's no easy way out of life."

Brooke Oie
Brooke Oie of Cloquet holds photographs of her 18-year-old son, Zach Oie, who now lives on the streets of Duluth. [Clint Austin /]

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