Charting the Path of the Rail Kids

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John Fleming

Back in early March, our colleague Pete Colbenson came by for a visit as he is prone to do.

Pete is our ‘network weaver,’ our advisor on all matters concerning juvenile justice. He spent decades working in the field, most recently as the director of Georgia’s Children and Youth Coordinating Council. He’s been invaluable to our efforts here at the JJIE in connecting with people within the system and understanding many of the issues. He is never so happy, though, as when he dishing out story ideas.

He was full of ideas that day in March, reeling off thoughts, followed up by anecdotes to drive the point home. It was one of first times I had met him, so I was weighing this stuff, trying to judge the news value of each, trying to look at it from the reader’s point of view.

All were good, as usual, but there was one story that jumped out front, that rose above the more prosaic policy- and legal- oriented ideas we were knocking around.

It was about a kind of sub-culture of youth who rode the rails, pretty much constantly throughout the country. Rail kids, he called them.

Pete had ran up on them while working on a project with the Census Bureau last year that aimed to get a handle on the homeless teen population in Georgia.

You can find them around Little Five Points, Pete had advised us, referring to an in-town Atlanta neighborhood. Not hard to spot really, he said, they always, always have a dog, usually a puppy, with them.

When our reporter Clay Duda caught up with a clutch of them, sure enough the canines were there.

And it didn’t take long for him to make the acquaintance of the young people, three of them.

Over the course of a few days, he managed to construct a story in word and in photos of young people living a life on the fringes of the homeless society.

The result was is a piece of journalism that captures, mainly, the life of William Hansen (known to his rail pals as Trash) his tragic past and his carefree, but terribly uncertain future.

It’s good reading and the photos and video are good viewing.

Mostly, though, this story and others like it, need to be told.

And that’s what we are striving to do at the JJIE.

Please do join us on Wednesday when this story, along with photos and video appear here on the site.

We hope you’ll tune in.

 

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