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North America
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Youth, USA, California, Teenagers, Homelessness
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The Phoenix Theater, a converted movie house, has opened its doors to area teens for over 15 years. In its currently incarnation, the Phoenix is home to tutoring sessions and health clinics, scrap-wood ramps for skateboards and bikes, local hipsters and live bands every Friday and Saturday night.
Mark Murrmann

2004 — student runner-up

At the corner of Keller and Washington in downtown Petaluma, California, a drab, gray movie theater sits dark but not empty. Small, black letters on the understated marquee promise not a Hollywood blockbuster or obscure independent film, but SUBURBAN THREAT, a punk rock band, this Friday night. Under the theater's overhang, a small cluster of teenagers stand with their skateboards and bikes, talking and trading cigarettes.

Tyson walks up with a tattered army surplus backpack hefted over his shoulder. His dog Angel, a pinkish pitbull, leads him straight to Ian and Jennica, who sit on metal folding chairs close to the open doors, smoking and saying little. Tyson decides he needs a haircut and enlists his friends. He and Ian go inside, past the lobby crammed with cast-off couches littered with lounging teens. The two boys slip into the ladies' restroom, pull out three Bic razors and a can of shaving cream. They get to work freshening up Tyson's grown-out mohawk while Porno for Pyros plays on a barely functioning boombox in the hallway. After an hour's work, Tyson emerges with the sides of his head freshly shaven.

The Phoenix Theater, a converted movie house, has opened its doors to area teens for over 15 years. In its currently incarnation, the Phoenix is home to tutoring sessions and health clinics, scrap-wood ramps for skateboards and bikes, local hipsters and live bands every Friday and Saturday night.
I have been photographing at the Phoenix Theater for the past two months. While the work began as an examination of an older building in danger -- earthquake retrofit costs threaten its existence -- the project quickly became less about the building and more about the teenagers who make it a place worth saving.

Among the many people who hang out at the Phoenix Theater, a small number of homeless youth have become regulars. Tyson has lived in Petaluma for a little over three months. He travels around Northern California, eschewing the Bay Area (a popular draw for many homeless kids) generally sticking to the smaller towns around the region known as "wine country," including Napa and Sonoma. Likewise, Ian, Evan and Dave live on the streets of Petaluma, sometimes crashing at friends' homes, or abandoned houses and otherwise camping under bridges or by the train tracks.

Across the country, services for the homeless have fallen victim to shrinking municipal budgets. In efforts to balance the books, shelters, soup kitchens and health clinics face severe funding cutbacks, if not outright closure. In this climate, the homeless teens of Northern California confront an increasingly hostile environment. The Phoenix Theater and similar shoestring projects offering comfort and company are small and rare oases.

Homeless teens have been the subject of numerous documentary projects, most focusing on street kids living in big cities: New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco. As such, homelessness is often imagined as an urban phenomenon, or worse, a problem found only in developing nations. Turning away from this notion, this project profiles the lives of homeless teenagers and young adults like Tyson, Ian and others, on the streets of Petaluma and other small towns. Building on preliminary work at the Phoenix Theater, I will document what it means to be young and homeless in the boutique towns and rural counties throughout Northern California.

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Tyson, his girlfriend Claire and his half-pitbull dog, Angel. Tyson has been in Petaluma for close to a year and has made a number of close friends, many of whom either still live with their parents (such as Claire) or have apartments of their own. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Chris, smoking outside the Phoenix Theater, a converted movie theater in Petaluma, California. For almost 20 years, the Phoenix Theater has been a place for area teens to hang out, see live music, get help with homework and, most recently, get confidential medical help (including HIV and STD testing) from a licensed nurse. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Ian, outside the Phoenix Thater in Petaluma, California. Many of the young homeless in Petaluma prefer the easy, slow-pace of the small town over the manic, crowded and dangerous life on the streets in nearby San Francisco. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Skaters outside the Phoenix Theater. Inside the theater, local skaters have built ramps. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Casey, with her doll "Josie," outside the Phoenix Theater. Casey, 16, still lives with her parents but regularly hangs out with Ian, Chris, Tyson and the other homeless kids in Petaluma. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Inside the Phoenix Theater lobby. The old theater was built in the late 1910s, then closed in the 1970s. It was reopened in the 1980s as a teen center. After school, the Phoenix Theater buzzes with activity as one of the few places teenagers can hang out. The homeless kids in Petaluma likewise make regular afternoon visits to the Phoenix to meet up with friends. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Having taken over the women's bathroom at the Phoenix Theater, a Petaluma teen center, Tyson, Ian and another friend re-shave Tyson's grown-out mohawk while Porno For Pyros blares from a battered boombox. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Three Bic razors for Tyson's new mohawk. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Tyson lights a cigarette by the “pipe bridge,” a regular hang out for homeless kids in Petaluma. At 23, Tyson has been homeless most of his adult life, living primarily on the streets of small Northern California towns. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation
Phoenix Theater, Petulma, California. Mark Murrmann/Alexia Foundation