Young, Gay, and Homeless

Christopher, Peter, and John Have Four Things in Common: They Are Gay, Young, Mormon,… and Homeless

By Randolph Prawitt, Pillar Features Editor
Originally printed in Salt Lake City’s The Pillar, August 2001, pages 7-9.

The teenage years are a difficult stage for everyone. Standing on the threshold between childhood and adulthood, teens must reconcile issues of individuality versus community, and independence versus accountability. They awkwardly begin to unravel complex dating rituals, transform juvenile friendships into lifelong support networks, and develop skills that will aid them through the rest of their lives.

But while most kids his age are anxious to get their driver licenses, “Scott” has a special concern that eclipses everything else: Scott doesn’t know where he’s going to be sleeping tonight.

At 15, Scott and his family were evicted from their Midvale home because of his mother’s partying. For weeks they moved from one motel to another until his aunt and uncle told him he could stay with them at their home in Bountiful. When they learned, however, that Scott was gay, they told him to get out of their house.

In desperation, Scott went on-line to try to find help. What Scott found was an anonymous man who said he would take him in. Scott was picked up by the man that night and moved in with him. In only two weeks his mother signed over legal guardianship to this man who, until that point, was a total stranger.

Scott says things started getting scary with his new “guardian” when he decided he wanted to get his GED. At that point, he says, “He wouldn’t let me out of the house. He threatened me. When I finally left, he wouldn’t let me take anything but my clothes. My computer was there… my bed… stereo… camera. He’s followed me to work and he’s told me he’s going to make my life bad for me.”

While it’s worrisome to see young Scott tell his story with a stoic face that seems utterly severed from his emotional core, it’s shocking to realize that Scott’s situation is anything but isolated.

How Could This Happen?

There are as many components yielding homeless kids as the kids themselves; but, generally speaking, homeless youth are either runaways or castaways. While some kids do run away as a misguided expression of teenage rebellion, far too many leave home because of fear or abuse. Castaways come from families that cannot or will not care for them — often they are ejected from their homes deliberately by their own parents.

Whether because of fear, shame, remorse or mistrust, most homeless gay kids will not share details of their experiences with strangers — especially the press. The ones that will go on record — even if anonymously — only add to the volumes of horror stories.

Paula Wolfe, director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Utah, believes so little attention is given to homeless kids in Utah because of cultural denial.

“Kids here are not supposed to be on the street,” Wolfe says. “This state puts a big emphasis on ‘family values,’ so I think there are some people who don’t even want to know this problem exists.”

Add the fact that the prevalent mind-set in Utah is openly resistant to the very notion of gay teens and you begin to see why homeless gay kids are especially disenfranchised.

Unfortunately, these unheard voices are hiding a very real problem for the LGBT community. Some research does exist, however, illustrating the close relationship between youth homelessness and sexual orientation. According to Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, Inc., 26 percent of gay youth nationally are forced to leave home because of conflicts with their families over their sexual identities. They further report that 42 percent of homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Locally, a survey conducted by the Fourth Street Open Door Clinic (404 S. 400 W., Salt Lake City) found 47 percent of homeless youth report a bisexual orientation. Homeless youth advocates postulate kids reported as bisexual may be attempting to identify as LGBT.

Resources for homeless youth are scant; programs that target gay homeless youth are nearly impossible to find. In the state of Utah, there are to date no services or programs, either private or state-run, specifically designed to address the unique issues of gay homeless youth.

Who’s Helping Whom?

In the vacuum of resources for LGBT homeless youth, there are a few private citizens who have taken matters into their own hands. They include accepting parents of gay kids (many are involved with PFFLAG) who help their children’s less fortunate friends get on their feet, adults who were once homeless themselves, and people whose social interactions or civic causes have brought them so close to homeless kids that they can’t ignore their plight.

Eva Wasilewska, a professor at the University of Utah, began doing volunteer work in 1996 to help ease the grief of her mother’s death. A few months later she was asked to be on the board of the Homeless Youth Resource Center. Wasilewska was reprimanded several times for taboos such as giving children rides to school in her private car and offering them hugs. She finally resigned in frustration. Today she can be found Sunday afternoons at the Liberty Park Drum Circle, carrying a cooler filled with sandwiches and soft drinks for the homeless youth who congregate there. The kids all know her and openly express their appreciation.

“Most of the time what you find is kids helping kids,” Wasilewska says. “Kids who are working take care of the others. Two kids will get a motel room and sneak their friends in after it’s dark. They buy an old, beat-up car for $100 and that’s their home. They protect each other. They will share everything.”

Wasilewska tries to supplement the help kids give each other. Aside from her Sunday snacks, she has offered simple first aid, clothing, personal effects, and transportation to school and job interviews.

Many of the kids have her phone number. Once, she says, she got up at 3:00 a.m. to drive a young girl from a dangerous party situation to a safe-house.

But if you’re a youth new to the streets and you don’t know where to look for a genuine helping hand, as Scott’s situation suggests, there’s a serious danger of falling victim to someone offering help, but whose motives are less than honorable.

“They’re everywhere,” Wasilewska says, speaking about sexual predators. “There is one guy I would do anything to nail. The story is always the same: He gets on the streets and looks for kids — boys and girls — but always the run-aways. He approaches them and offers them a place to stay and food. The kids who have been around a while know about this man, but the ones who are new to the street fall for it. He takes them to his apartment and tells them if they don’t have sex with him he’ll call the police and have them arrested.”

The problem is, although a parent or concerned citizen can obtain information about registered sex offenders in their neighborhoods, no such information is available to homeless youth. Without any organized, comprehensive outreach program, the predators will continue to thrive. Predators don’t report to anyone — they fall outside the oversight of service-oriented organizations. They don’t care about the law or their own liability, and they especially don’t care about the young lives they prey upon.

A Crisis Situation for LGBT Youth

While all homeless youth struggle with similar issues of survival, LGBT youth face special risk factors. They include suicide (gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), verbal harassment and physical assault, and increased chance of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

A 1998 report by the Centers for Disease Control estimates young people under the age of 25 may represent one half of the 40,000 new cases of HIV infection in the United States. Furthermore, a 1998 report posted on the Utah AIDS Foundation website indicates Utah has proportionately twice the national average in AIDS cases among youth ages 13-19.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force further asserts, “It is estimated that up to one half of the youth who are forced to leave home early due to familial conflicts over their sexual orientation engage in survival sex while on the street.”

Factor in drug abuse, and the situation becomes even more grave. Off the record, many of the kids on the street who spoke to The Pillar confessed to both using drugs and dealing them to make extra money — if not to entirely support themselves. The list includes marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, crack/cocaine, heroine, chrystal meth and certain “fad” drugs. A 1992 study by Columbia University in New York found 56 percent of lesbian teens reported drug use. Of gay teen males, 44 percent reported drug use; 8 percent of those considered themselves dependent.

Statistics such as these reveal very serious issues for public health in general, and a powder keg of problems for homeless gay youth specifically.

Where Can Homeless Gay Kids Go?

To its credit, GLCCU is expanding its services to LGBT youth, but two full-time youth counselors have only been on staff since May, and their services roster, not to mention their new youth facility, are still under development. Furthermore, homeless youth resources are only a small fraction of GLCCU’s objectives.

“To provide services to homeless youth,” Wolfe says, “we would need a lot more money — we would need to have much more of a process.”

Youth counselor Tracey Slinger stresses that the youth services already in place do not preclude anyone from participation based on living status. But, she says, “We do need to hear from the kids who are in these situations, because if we don’t know what their needs are, we can’t help.”

Over at the Volunteers of America Homeless Youth Drop-In Center (655 S. State St., Salt Lake City), director Elaine Dahlgren concedes that, while her center provides general services for homeless youth ages 14-22 (including meals, showers, laundry facilities, counseling, GED classes and “life skills” training), they currently have no programs that specifically reach out to gay youth or effectively serve their special needs.

Dahlgren recognizes the need for LGBT services, however, and says she and her staff will receive training by GLCCU within the next few months.

The Homeless Youth Drop-In Center has applied for a federal grant to expand its outreach services. Part of their grant proposal is to partner with GLCCU to outreach to LGBT homeless kids; in fact, they propose hiring a GLCCU counselor part-time. It won’t be known until later this year whether or not the grant is approved.

Filling the Void

Meanwhile, too many kids are falling through the gaping cracks in our social services. Although some of their needs (such as food) are obvious, others are not.

“What is absolutely lacking,” Wasilewska says, “is the involvement of people who have social status in terms of their professional careers or education. These kids need role models. When you are on the streets, what kind of role models do you have? But if you can introduce these kids to someone who is doing something interesting, you can motivate them to get them back to school where they can get an education and do important things with their lives.”

“For example, if you’re a photojournalist, kids love to write and they love art! They love to draw; they love poetry; they love history and geography; they are interested in religion. Also, a lot of these kids are very much attached to their ethnic origins. So if you share interests with a homeless child and you can show him a better way to live, you give him hope.”

Wasilewska believes community involvement is essential, but she thinks more is needed from every level of society.

“The state has all this money from the tobacco settlement and they have this stupid ‘don’t smoke’ campaign. Can’t we spend that money to get a kid some real help? Can’t Salt Lake City afford to issue some free bus passes to this wonderful Trax system so these kids can get to school or go out of downtown to look for work? Believe me, telling these kids not to smoke is totally useless, because when you see a kid addicted to chrystal meth, you only have about six months before their life is over. That is what you are exposing them to if you leave them on the streets.”

It’s one kid at a time, Wasilewska says, and every little bit helps.

“Their limitations are incredible. They cannot get work because they don’t have interview clothes. The girls on the streets — they need makeup like any other little girls. I helped one kid who came up to me by buying him an alarm clock. It’s silly things like that — but tell me, how can this kid keep a job if he doesn’t wake up on time? The only reason I know this is because the kids tell me.”

“They are not dangerous — you do not need to be afraid of them,” Wasilewska says emphatically. “It is a very important thing to let them talk to you.”

Faces in the Shadows

Adam, 16

Adam is a charming young man with thick dark hair and soulful eyes. He has a generous spirit and contagiously bright disposition. Meeting him for the first time, you would never imagine what he’s been through.

“In March my father was released from jail. When he got home he beat up my mother because she was in another relationship. My 11-year-old brother was home when that happened. When I got home I called the cops because I didn’t think my little brother should have to see that.”

“I went to stay at my friend Mark’s house. His mother didn’t know I was gay when I moved in, and now I’m looking for another place to live because she told me I have to get out because she hates gay people and the way they live. Mark has been harassing me since I came out to them. On Friday I made a poster of all my pictures from Pride Day. When I got home later, I found out he tore it up.”

Adam is under DCFS custody in the “Independent Living Program,” through which he provides for himself. DCFS garnishes $500 a month from his mother and gives it to him to cover all his living expenses, including rent, food and clothing. Adam says his DCFS caseworker will register him for school. But the immediate concern for Adam is always finding a place to live. “I just went and looked at a room yesterday at this guy’s house in Sugarhouse. Seven other people live there.”

In the six weeks since he spoke with The Pillar, Adam has not been seen by his friends at the Gay and Lesbian Soccer group, where he used to hang out every Sunday.

Christopher, 19

Christopher, 19, is the first to see the irony of his situation. An honor student and his high school valedictorian, Christopher is now scrambling from place to place in a desperate attempt to keep from landing on the streets.

His only mistake was coming out to his devoutly LDS family. “My parents disowned me on the advice of their bishop. They were supposed to be practicing some sort of LDS ‘tough love.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I got on the Internet to find someone in a similar situation. I was looking for someone who didn’t drink, do drugs, and wasn’t promiscuous. That’s hard to find, so I was looking for someone who was raised LDS like me. I met a guy, but that was a bad experience because it turned out he did drink and do drugs, so after five months I moved out.”

Moving from place to place for as long as he can, Christopher has been trying to find some stability. “Right now I’m living with the parents of a friend of mine, but their neighbors have started asking questions — they figured out I’m gay — so yesterday they told me I have to get out in a month. I have no idea where I’m going to go.” Christopher lost everything he had when his parents dispossessed him — even a BYU scholarship.

“I just want an education,” Christopher says. “You try to get your life together, and just when you think things are going your way, you’re asked to leave again.”

“I’m working, but I’m only 19 and I’m having a hard time making enough to support myself. I’ve always given to charity, but now there’s no one for me. … My spirit isn’t broken. I still have hope. It’s just a day at a time.”

Four weeks after he talked to The Pillar, Christopher had a heart attack due to the stress of his situation. With no health insurance, he doesn’t know how he’s going to pay his thousand-dollar hospital bills.

Peter, 21

Peter has had to start his life over since his parents threw him out at 18. With only the clothes on his back, they ejected him from their home because Peter decided not to go on an LDS mission, came out to his family, and refused to go to therapy to “fix” his sexual orientation.

“Being true to myself is lot more important in the long run. I’d rather be homeless than live a lie.”

But, says Peter, the most difficult thing to live with is the loss of his family.

“When your family disowns you and you don’t have anyone to turn to when you feel lonely, that is the hardest thing — not being able to turn to your family when you need support. They are the people I think about the most. But I don’t even remember what my mom looks like anymore.”

Peter hasn’t seen his family since he left home three years ago. He’s only spoken with them on the phone three times since then.

John, 20 

John is an approachable, friendly guy who goes almost beyond his means to help others. He shares his small downtown apartment with three other young men, ages 16-21, with stories of their own. John’s compassion is probably born of his own history.

“My stepfather beat me with a leather belt for 12 years of my life, but he definitely got more violent… Let’s just say when he found out I was gay, he didn’t appreciate that one bit.”

John’s stepfather searched through his room for anything that might be remotely gay.

“He made me sit on the porch and watch — I couldn’t leave — as he burned everything of mine in a big metal drum. He burned my clothes. He burned all the artwork I did in school. From then on my room was constantly under siege.”

Then there was the night John’s stepfather brought a man home to meet John.

“He was from Evergreen. I sat there for six hours with my grandmother praying and this guy telling me I was going to get AIDS and die.”

John spend 16 days at an Evergreen camp. His stepfather picked him up believing John had been “cured.” When he found out he wasn’t, his rage erupted more violently than ever before.

“It was two weeks after my 15th birthday. I was a high school freshman. My stepfather picked me up — literally by the seat of my pants — and threw me down a flight of stairs. He broke both my legs. That was a pretty sight — me in a wheelchair. I still have a bow in my legs — I stand crooked.”

John’s injuries caught the attention of his high school guidance counselor, who managed to convince his mother to sign over legal guardianship to her. Still just 15, John moved in with two lesbian friends.

“It’s been years and I keep telling myself it’s all over – it’s done – but every now and then I think about it and…” The words get stuck in John’s throat. He covers his eyes and mouth with his hands.

“I guess I was never technically homeless, but if it weren’t for that guidance counselor I would have eventually got out of that house one way or another. If I didn’t, I can tell you I would not be here today.”