Battered but Not Broken: Hope Lives Among LGBTQ Homeless Youth

By: Holdyn E. Brand

MAIN LGBT HOMELESS VIDEOSixteen years old, struggling, and longing to find the mother she never knew, Zariah left her home in North Carolina and her ailing grandmother who raised her to come to Brooklyn only to struggle and live longingly in a completely different way. At first, everything went well. She and her brother, Antonio, lived with her mother and they all got along well. “But then he got locked up and I realized everything my grandmother was saying for 16 years was correct about her,” she said. “My mother was asking me for $100 every week because she is an addict. She does crack, heroin, all kinds of drugs.”

Zariah wanted no part of her mother’s habit.  “I don’t do those and I don’t support it, so when I told her I wasn’t going to give her $100 a week she told me, ‘Either give me a hundred dollars or I am kicking you out,’ and she kicked me out,” she said.

This was just the beginning of 19-year-old Zariah’s story. The young homeless teen, who identifies as bisexual, had always dreamed of having an amazing life in New York City with her mother and brother. However, reuniting with her mother she was hit with several harsh realities about New York City and her situation; her hope-filled dreams quickly became living nightmares.

Zariah, her preferred name – a name homeless teens use instead of their legal names – chose this name for herself only a few days before the interview. Zariah was betrayed by a parent and shunned for having a different lifestyle, which became her mother’s rationale for kicking her out. The day she became homeless was the day she realized she had to literally fight for her place in the world. With nowhere to turn and no place to go, Zariah took to the streets and did whatever she could to hold onto her part-time job at Target and maintain being a straight “A” student at a Brooklyn High School where she enrolled while living with her mother, all while having no family support or home to stay safe in.

“When she kicked me out basically I had nowhere to go. I was sleeping on the train, I would go from friend to friend’s house, sleeping on the beach, which sounds fun like it’s a beautiful thing, but after you do it enough the beauty of the sand and water just becomes sad because it isn’t a home and your things are in bags. I did this while I was in school and working, it was really hard. I found out the hard way that you cannot trust people period. Right now I don’t even know where my mother is.”

Zariah was able to hide the truth of her homelessness from her friends and teachers for a while after getting kicked out because her teachers were so fond of her attitude and academic prowess that they would often take her out to dinner and shopping. Likewise, her friends loved to have her over as she was generally selfless and joyful. However, she reached a point where she couldn’t hide it any longer. The reality of living out of plastic bags and sleeping wherever it was safe to rest her head started to wear on her. She found shelters and organizations such as New Alternatives and Street Works – a drop-in center for the homeless — to get meals and, if she was one of the lucky ones who had the time and patience to wait in line for seemingly interminable hours, a bed. At these organizations she was inspired to hold her head up high and go to college and be successful.

“The hardest part about being homeless is embracing the fact that you have nowhere to live, you cannot call the shelter your house because it isn’t. The winters are worse because whenever it gets cold, the shelters get fuller, and being in assessment shelters is like basically you go from one shelter to the next. If they are full you have nowhere to go and you go to trains and pretend; I would pretend the train was my house,” she said during an interview at a weekly Sunday dinner hosted by New Alternatives.

VIDEO: Interview with Zariah

For the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 New York City homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth on the streets at any given night, staying safe on the streets is only half the battle; the other half is finding food, shelter, and opportunities for personal and professional development while remaining positive through unimaginably difficult times. For this burgeoning group in the city’s large population (as a result of the current economic crisis and anti-gay sentiments), hope is often as elusive as food and shelter.  But for those who refuse to become victims of their circumstance, home is where the heart is and hope undeniably resides in the soul.

According to a recent report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the number of homeless and runaway youth ranges from 575,000 to 1.6 million per year. [One] Our analysis of the available research suggests that between 20 percent and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). [Two] Given that between 3 percent and 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay or bisexual, it is clear that LGBT youth experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.”

What is undeniably true is that each year hundreds of LGBTQ youth become homeless for numerous reasons, the most common reasons are family issues, personal economic problems, poor decisions, and most devastatingly, for simply being gay.

“There are as many causes as there are children, but the thing I hear over and over again (and it still shocks me) is that kids are kicked out of their homes for coming out; and it shocks me because I simply cannot imagine turning on a child in that way,” said Russell Suggs, President of New Alternatives – a nonprofit organization located within Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan’s East Village. New Alternatives provides weekly meals and advocacy, life skills training, education, immigration assistance, housing assistance, court representation and assistance to LGBTQ homeless youth.

VIDEO: Interview with Russell Suggs

As early as 16, and sometimes younger, many teenagers and young adults are forced from their homes all across the country. “They come from all walks of life and all stages. The population consists of everything from kids who are in college, high school, in temporary housing, and kids who are street kids, left to fend for themselves,” said Suggs.

Many find their way to New York City under the toughest conditions. Often they are filled with delusions of grandeur about life in the city and its perceived openness towards the gay community. However, once they come to the city, they experience a completely different reality—one filled with homophobia and tribulations from all sides.

This is why it is so important to have LGBTQ-specific homeless organizations with programs for the youth to continue their education and personal development, according to advocates who work with this population. Many agencies work so hard to address the problem of homelessness at large, and consequently overlook the real remedy – getting homeless youth the personal and professional development they need so that they can help themselves.

According to Jeffery Ream, a New Alternatives board member, the traditional way of thinking about the LGBTQ homeless community was that those members could simply utilize general homeless services such as soup kitchens and shelters. However, many of these sites have proven to be dangerous for sexual minority youth, who encounter homophobia and violence from staff members and heterosexual homeless youth and adults.

“When they try to access traditional homeless services they encounter homophobia by both the staff and the other homeless people,” said Ream. “They risk getting beaten, harassed, and much worse; this is why they need LGBTQ specific homeless shelters and developmental services.”

Organizations such as New Alternatives help to fill this problematic area. At the very least they provide a weekly meal. At most, they provide peer-to-peer and one-on-one volunteer counseling, workshops for personal development, and most of all a compassionate and caring staff solely devoted to helping their homeless members. However, due to city budget cuts that specifically impact LGBTQ-specific programs as well as a lack of volunteers, New Alternatives and other such organizations are finding it hard to stay afloat and expand their services to reach more LGBTQ homeless youth.

The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) is the city agency that is in charge of dealing with the problem of LGBTQ youth homelessness. It is not the Department of Homeless Services that deals with homelessness on a larger scale without regard for sexuality. The New Alternative website asserts, “The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development has decided to turn their backs on this incredibly vulnerable population by systematically defunding LGBT-specific youth programs.”

“DYCD and other funding organizations believe that it should be enough that they are funding homeless service organizations and that the LGBTQ youth should be able to find comparable assistance from those organizations. However, they simply do not get equivalent services and the data shows this,” said Ream.

With regards to sexual minority-specific programs, DYCD disagrees and challenges such allegations of abandoning homosexual related issues by cutting services and funding. The department’s press officer, Ryan Dodge, said, “We believe that while many LGBTQ youth are best-served in an environment with special supports to help them confront issues related to their sexuality or sexual identity (along with all the other supports that a youth in crisis may need), other LGBTQ youth are well-suited to a mixed environment and feel most comfortable amongst a peer group with varied backgrounds and experiences. Young people should have the choice, and we will continue to offer them choices.”

What’s more, Dodge said, “when it comes to its fiscal responsibility to LGBTQ youth, the department has also increased funding for the 2010 fiscal year to approximately $11.2 million which is an increase from the 2009 fiscal year budget which was $10.5 million. And, we are proud of the high-quality services DYCD-funded programs provide to LGBTQ youth, whether they are seeking RHY [Runaway Homeless Youth] services, afterschool programs, or youth leadership programs.”

Although the popular perception among many LGBTQ-specific organizations is that the department is to blame, other organizations and city officials do believe that the city, especially the DYCD, has done a lot to develop and fund LGBTQ programs that address youth homelessness.

In an Oct. 15 press release on the department’s website, Mayor Bloomberg recently announced the launch of New York City’s Commission for LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth. The Commission “is charged with devising strategies to address the unique needs of LGBT youth before they run away, to provide homeless youth with both shelter and the support they need to live independently, or to help them reunite with their families when appropriate.” Despite the Mayor’s newly appointed commission and efforts by the DYCD and nonprofit organizations, for thousands of the city’s homeless LGBTQ youth there are simply not enough programs for them to actively engage in for their personal development, or safe spaces for them to have a decent meal and rest their heads each night. When compared to the funding received by other agencies for other youth-related issues, the DYCD’s approved budget for LGBTQ youth services is among the lowest.

With what many in this field perceive as a bleak outlook for the city’s organizations that provide specific programs and services for this group in our population, one must wonder where the inner-strength, bravery, and unwavering sense of hope comes from for homeless teens such as Zariah. She goes to John Adams High School where she attends the night program from 3:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. From 8 a.m. to noon, she works at Jamaica Hospital in the cardiology ward as an administrative assistant. Although she still has no place to call her home and she utilizes the city’s shelters for a place to sleep and bathe, Zariah will graduate in January and plans to attend Norfolk University in Virginia in the fall.

Her success is not unique; in fact, there are many more stories of young homeless youth who refuse to become victims of their circumstance and, when given the chance, make the most out of every opportunity that comes before them. Their journeys may be turbulent but they do not all end in tears and brokenness.

After the interview, Zariah let out a nervous laughter that sort of betrayed her unwavering confidence throughout the interview. When I asked her if she was okay she said, “I love to share my story, I just hope I did good because I was trying so hard not to cry.”

For more information on New Alternatives visit: www.newalternativesnyc.org

For more information on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in NYC visit: www.nyc.gov (Department of Youth and Community Development)