She was 12 the first time she ran away, trading a troubled home life for life on the streets.
In the years that followed, Jaclyn Mellon would live an uncertain — and sometimes nomadic — life fueled by drugs, alcohol and desperation. She would couch-surf, sleep beneath bridges and in abandoned buildings, and shoot up heroin in public bathrooms.
There would be the predictable encounters with police. She would get pregnant twice, give the first baby — a son born when she was 17 — up for adoption. She would do — and deal — dope, land in jail and, eventually, end up in a treatment program.
Along the way she would meet Renton’s Elaine Simons. At 47, Simons stands just under 5-foot-1 and has long curly black hair streaked with gray.
"You can tell how stressed she is by how poufy her hair is," Mellon says with a laugh.
What Simons lacks in stature she makes up for in determination, and given her calling — working with street kids — that’s a good thing.
Raised in Bellevue, Simons graduated from Sammamish High School, went on to Bellevue Community College, then to the Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University’s Teachers College.
By 1995, she was a middle school art teacher in the Seattle School District. That summer, working in an alternative school program and increasingly alarmed by the number of her former students she saw living on the streets, she helped her students organize a concert at the Seattle Center.
"Fifteen hundred people showed up," she says now.
That concert would become the seed for Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets, a not-for-profit headquartered on Capitol Hill that provides support and services to homeless youths and young adults.
"What makes us unique is that the kids help develop our strategies for helping them transition to productive lives," she says.
Three years after the concert that started it all, Simons left the school district to become the organization’s director.
Mellon was on the streets when Simons met her.
"She’s the mother I was meant to have," Mellon says. "She’s a mother hen. She says what she needs to say even if you don’t want to hear it. She’s totally compassionate and wants to help. But she doesn’t sugarcoat anything."
It was through the Streets organization that Mellon got her GED, completed an internship and found referrals for other agencies that helped with housing, her pregnancies and other needs.
"If I hadn’t had that support I would have left looking for something. … They were there through both my pregnancies, through my using and getting clean and my relapses," Mellon says.
Today, Mellon lives in Auburn with her fiance and their 14-month-old daughter, Wednesday, who was born while Mellon was finishing a six-month inpatient drug program.
A stay in a YWCA shelter in Kent followed her release, then transitional housing in Auburn. Recently, the family was approved for Section 8 housing.
"It means we won’t be in shelters any more. We’ll have a place to live," says Mellon, now part of a "Step Beyond" group, a Streets program for older youths who live in permanent housing, but still need support.
Her fiance, who also battled drugs and did prison time, is in recovery, holding down a job and planning to attend auto body school. Mellon, still in an outpatient drug program, plans to work while he finishes, then he’ll work while she goes to auto mechanics school.
"Hopefully, one day we’ll open a shop," she says.
Simons says people like Jaclyn Mellon "are what this agency’s about. We’re there for them when they make the decisions for whatever place in their life they’re in."
Now going on 13 years in the field, she has no plans to quit.
"I see a lot of people working with street kids leave, retire or change fields," she says. "But I still feel young — and so connected."
For information, go to www.psks.org.