“You got any weed?” is how William “Trash” Hansen introduced himself on a hot spring day in the Little 5 Points neighborhood of Atlanta. The heels of his socks peeked through the disintegrated soles of his steel-toed boots as he walked the strip in search of the drug.
If you passed him on the street you may have thought twice before striking up a conversation. If the soot- drenched, patch- woven outfit didn’t give you pause, the blatant drug references and casual cat-calls may have.
Sporadically he’d push back the small puff of dreadlocked hair sprouting from the crown of his head or run his arm across his forehead to wipe away sweat. With each swipe a new abstraction of brake dust and grime clotted against his pale skin.
The dirt on his back came from across the United States. The FourLoko in his pocket, an alcoholic energy drink, came from a nearby convenience store.
At 20, Trash has endured, experienced and seen more of the United States than most will see in their entire lives. He has been riding freight trains around the country for nearly eight years.
Just like everyone, his story is unique, but his tales of foster care, abuse and ultimate freedom are a glimpse into a culture existing on the fringes of society, rarely seen by the general public. Trash and many others like him have no home, yet they call home the hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad that cross the country, the rail cars that bump along the tracks and the expansive yards of gravel and steel found in nearly every American city.
They are the modern vagabonds of today -- sometimes abused and abused by the system without anywhere else to go, sometimes there by choice – young, independent and free to ride the freight lines into their own uncertain futures.
It’s like Trash said after eight years on the rails, his hobo days weren’t anywhere close to coming to an end. Then again, it may be hard to figure where you’ll be in five years when you’re still not sure about your next meal.
“There are some good people… it just depends.”
“When I hit the streets I was 12 years old,” he said. At 13 he hopped his first freight train.
Trash didn’t remember the day he entered foster care. He was young, maybe one or two years old.
At the age of 10, a couple adopted him near his birthplace of Seattle, Wash., He stayed with them until leaving for the streets two years later.
“[That was] two years of the most f*cked up sh*t ever,” he said, followed by a long pause. “I was afraid to walk down the hall to take a piss [when I was grounded], so I’d piss in my closet.”
When Trash was 11, he came in from playing in the yard with grass stains covering his new clothes. His adopted mother started screaming, forcing him to scrub the stains in the kitchen sink, but the streaks were there to stay. Then, without warning, she grabbed a mason jar of smoked salmon from atop the nearby washing machine and smashed it against Trash’s forehead.
“If I didn’t do something right the first time I got beat,” he said with a blank stare.
Eventually he only saw two options: stay in a group home or risk life on the street, eventually getting picked up and sent back to juvenile detention. Staying with his adopted family wasn’t an option.
Trash wasn’t the only foster youth faced with such a stark choice. An estimated 21 to 50 percent of homeless youth reported being placed in foster care or an institutional setting at some point, according to a 2007 report by the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.
“Group homes f*cking sucked,” Trash said. “Your home environment is just like your school environment. You don’t have parents, you have staff.”
“The whole idea about foster care is, it's a temporary arrangement while the state finds the kids a home,” said Amy Dworsky, Senior Researcher with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, adding that foster care and group homes weren’t designed to provide the same support system as a permanent family. “What often happens [before kids leave for the streets] is that young people end up with a couple of different foster families and the arrangements didn’t work out.”
Trash decided to take his chances on the streets. He spent about a year bouncing around Seattle before hopping his first freight train south. Trouble seemed to follow no matter where he went. He has seen the inside of a jail cell more times than he could count.
“I don’t want to ask the same people for change every day.”
While in town you could find him in the plaza at the heart of Little 5 Points.
“I’ll be here every day,” he said. “Just come find me.”
And that’s where he was with his pregnant dog Daisy and a cast of other homeless and nomadic characters only identifiable by their street names – “Trees,” “Twig,” “Torch,”“Karma” and so on.
After flying a sign in front of a nearby retail store Trash had enough money to make it through the day. It took him less than half an hour.
He ordered a bowl of chicken alfredo from Pizza Hut, his favorite, and split it with his dog. He brought a round of breadsticks back to the plaza for the rest of the impromptu crew.
“I live off of kindness and how can’t you be kind if you live off it, you know?” he said. “How can you not?”
Trees, Twig and their dog Stumps – fellow travelers – welcomed the breadstick breakfast with open arms and hungry bellies. They sat on the cool concrete sidewalk and ate, sharing with their canine companions. Every train rider sported a skank, even the dogs.
Daisy, Trash’s pitbull, was due to have puppies in a month or so. Trash planned to give the dogs to other train kids. Daisy was his best friend, he said, and the closest thing he had to family.
The woodland trio of Trees, Twig, and Stumps had been together for about four months.
Trees, 24, had “Thug Lice” scrawled across the bill of his hat and a train track tattooed on his right cheek. He rode the rails on and off for eight years, but has spent the last three months housed up with Twig’s relatives and friends around Georgia.
He said he was from California, but declined to give his full name. He pointed at two tear drop tattoos on his face and explained they were for two close friends who died on the rails, but he didn’t feel comfortable telling their stories.
Lisa “Twig” Hogan, 18, was raised in Arizona, but later moved to Atlanta with her mom. Before she met Trees she had planned to move back out west. A few months ago, while working at a shop in Little 5 Points, “this cute train kid walked in…” Insert Trees, Stumps and a change of plans.
Now known as Twig, Lisa spent many of her middle-school years in private school. Her mother still wasn’t comfortable with her traveling, much less riding freight trains. But Twig wasn’t a complete stranger to the tracks. She did “a two-month tour” with a friend a few years back, but never really learned the ropes.
Both traveled very different paths to reach their intersection in life, but shared a common need for freedom and a lust for travel.
“I’m not better than anyone else, but I’m better than that.”
Five years ago, Trash met his father for the first time, and three years ago for the last. He didn’t see the point in going back.
“He always says he’s going to do something with his life… but he never does.”
Addicted to crack cocaine, Trash’s father rarely kept his word. While his children were in foster care he would schedule a time to meet Trash and his brother, but rarely showed.
“I knew what he was doing,” Trash said as he picked at pieces of leather on his Timberland boots. “He would have rather gone and gotten a crack rock then see his kids he hasn’t seen in years and years.”
Now 48 years old, Trash’s father still lives at home with his mother, Trash’s grandmother.
“I just didn’t want to be like him,” Trash said. “I just wanted to be the complete opposite... That’s why I just drink and smoke weed.”
In school Trash earned a reputation as a troublemaker. He spent time in anger management classes after a number of disruptions, one of which involved him throwing a snow globe at the school principal. School taught him to read and write, he credited, but the rest he figured on his own.
“You figure sh*t out,” he said. “You don’t need school.”
Trash didn’t keep in contact with most of his family in recent years. He knows where his two aunts and two uncles live, but doesn’t have their phone numbers. He didn’t have a clue about his mom and didn’t care to see his dad.
He was proud to have gotten his younger brother “Lost,” now 19, on a train for the first time along with dozens of other kids through the years, he said. Before he jumped off in Atlanta, Trash planned to meet his brother in New Orleans, but Lost never showed.
“He travels slower than me,” Trash said with a casual shrug, adding that he has only been riding trains for about two years. “It doesn’t really matter. We’ll meet up again eventually.”
“I want to be everywhere.”
Inside the train yard everything was industrially-oversized. The sun immediately began its slow baking process magnified by towering double stacks of steel and the heat from newly arrived freight.
Large chunks of bleached gravel made walking a straight line impossible. A nauseating mix of brake dust and what could only have been described as the smell of metal stifled the avenues between tracks, broken only by an occasional breeze. Trash’s boots may have been battered, but they beat sneakers in the yard any day.
Trash climbed down in a crevice between cars, sitting on a flat sheet of metal above the wheels. Types of train cars are built differently, some more dangerous to ride than others.
Trash sat in the shade of a car for a few minutes before staggering back toward the campsite at the edge of the yard. An early afternoon concoction of marijuana and FourLoko, coupled with the heat, made him woozy and light headed. Daisy and he slept the afternoon away beneath a scrubby dogwood. A small cloud of gnats hovered overhead.
He didn’t know exactly when he’d leave Atlanta to start on his trip up the East Coast. The question didn’t carry much weight. Why did it matter? What was the difference between this day and the next?
After spending three months housed up in the Atlanta suburbs, Trees and Twig were eager to head toward the beaches of Florida. Having trekked across most of the western United States, Trash wanted to see the rest of the country, but wasn’t in much of a hurry. Trees and Twig planned to leave town the next day. Trash wasn’t sure, but figured within the week. He was growing bored with the city.
Long time train kids often cross paths. Trees and Trash had met before, but could not remember in which city. It really didn’t matter. There were thousands of kids just like them, they said, crisscrossing the country on freight trains.
“The family that you create riding the rails, it’s like no other,” Trees said, adding that in some ways it’s like being in a loose-knit gang. “We look out for each other, you know?”
Trash and Trees said they rarely asked other travelers about their lives. They were happy living in the present. By and large the whole lot of them lived off the kindness of strangers and support from each other.
“If someone offers me a little job I won’t turn it down, but that doesn’t happen very often,” Trash said. “Most of the time those go to homebums.”
Trees admitted he couldn’t hold a job very long. It wasn’t his work ethic, he said, but his restlessness. Riding on and off for years, he would work a job for a few weeks or months and then head back out. Twig, on the other hand, had plans to finish a literature degree in the near future. The big question was if Trees could stay still long enough for her to get it done.
“When I get older I’ll have to settle down,” Trash said, adding that the train yard isn’t a place for an old man.
Aside from a vague itinerary their futures were completely open… free, yet bound largely by the generous whims of others and a vague knowledge of a constantly changing train schedule. Trees, Twig and Stumps headed for Florida. Trash and Daisy set their sights on Chicago.
Maybe their paths will cross again.
“If I died tomorrow I’d be happy with my life,” Trash said. “[But for now] I’ve always got a freight train I can run off after and take me away.
Photography and reporting by Clay Duda.