Homeless for the Holidays: Ending a Nation's Cruel Indifference to Homeless Youth (PHOTOS)
I have been talking with homeless kids from all over the country, asking them to help us understand what it means to be left on the streets, asking them to give witness to what they endure. I ask you to look into their traumatized eyes and listen with me to their heartbreaking testimonies.
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At the first Christmas the infant Jesus was homeless. There was no room for him at the inn. And this Christmas hundreds of thousands of teens across our country are homeless. There is no room for them at the shelters. Today I ask you to think of the many frightened teens sleeping under bridges, on buses and subways, and in abandoned buildings in cities and towns across our nation.
At the Ali Forney Center, the nation's largest organization dedicated to housing and supporting homeless LGBT youth, we are witness to a national tragedy and a national disgrace. Scores of LGBT teens who have been driven from their homes by rejecting parents flock to us from across the country. When they become homeless, the overwhelming majority cannot find a shelter bed.
Last year over 500,000 unaccompanied youth experienced homelessness ("unaccompanied" means that they were on their own, without a parent or guardian), and some 40 percent of them were LGBT. Of those 500,000 youth out in the streets, fewer than 50,000 were able to find a shelter bed. In this, the wealthiest nation on Earth, hundreds of thousands of teens are stranded in the streets, alone and terrified, forced to make it on their own. All over our country there are vastly more homeless kids than there are beds where they might find shelter.
I have been talking with homeless kids from all over the country, asking them to help us understand what it means to be left on the streets, asking them to give witness to what they endure. I ask you to look into their traumatized eyes and listen with me to their heartbreaking testimonies. I have listened to kids talk of having nowhere safe to go and having to resort to sleeping in forests, buses and subways. They have spoken, with devastating honesty, of being forced to sell their bodies for sex in order to get a roof over their heads. They have described being terrified in the dark and cold, with no means to provide for themselves, and helpless to protect themselves from being prey to those who would exploit and brutalize them.
How can it be that our country won't allocate the resources to shelter these kids? How can it be that we provide no safety net for teens who cannot depend on their families? How can we allow our kids to suffer so terribly, and to have their lives be at risk?
A great many youth left out in the streets will end up incarcerated and/or suffering from HIV/AIDS or serious mental illnesses as a result of the physical violence and sexual assaults that they endure. Simply from a cold cost-benefit perspective, it is insane to leave them out in the streets. It is vastly less expensive to provide a kid with shelter than it is to imprison them or treat them for HIV/AIDS.
But what about the moral perspective? Isn't one of the clearest signs of a society's moral decency how it treats its young? How can we not tremble with shame at the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of teens left without shelter in the streets of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation?
The Ali Forney Center is joining with the National Coalition for the Homeless to bring together LGBT advocacy groups and homeless advocacy groups. In the coming months we intend to launch a national campaign demanding that no child be left in the streets without shelter. We intend to demand that there be a public commitment to protecting all teens from the terrors and harms of homelessness, replacing the sad, token efforts that currently exist. With LGBT youth enduring homelessness at eight times the rate of their non-LGBT peers, this is clearly an LGBT issue. With so many of our kids thrown to the streets, our movement must make it a priority to protect them.
In order for such a campaign to have any hope of succeeding, there must be public outrage at the plight of these homeless youth. My hope is that we will look at the reality of what these kids endure and be deeply ashamed, and that we will be motivated to demand that our collective resources be used to shelter them.
So please take this first step of listening to these kids. Open your heart to what they are telling you about their suffering. And please share their stories. Share them on Facebook. Share them with your friends, at your schools, at your churches. Share them with your elected officials. Help us wake up our nation to the national disgrace of youth homelessness. And join us in asserting the truth that no child should be left to fend for themselves in the street.
I grew up in New York City. My mother and I got evicted from our apartment when I was 17. She went to live with a relative, but there was no room for me. So I am on my own.
I used to stay with a friend in the Bronx, but staying with other people never lasts. Finally I just had to sleep on the subway trains. I've slept on trains more times than I can count.
I would sit there and hold onto myself. I didn't want to get robbed of the little bit of stuff that I had. Some nights I would be in the trains, and other than me it would be only males in the car. You'd think, "Man, I don't have nothing to protect me. I have no one to save me." It was scary. You feel like you have to be aware at all times. You are too afraid to go to sleep. It is exhausting. It is really frustrating. You have to put on that hard shell, 'cause if you don't, it is an open window for people to rob you, to bully you.
When you have to go to the bathroom, you have to know which stops have restaurants with bathrooms. And then if you don't have money to get back on the train, you have to beg.
It feels really lonely being by yourself on the trains. It feels like the lowest point in your life. I never thought I would get this low, having no one, with no place to go.
When I was 16 I got kicked out of my parents' house in Greenville, N.H. My dad didn't want me there anymore. And he told my auntie that I was bisexual, so she wouldn't help me either. I come from a big Christian family; they would tell me I was going to hell.
The state put me in a group home. They didn't specialize in LGBT stuff. When people found out I was bisexual and had a girlfriend, I got beat up a lot.
When I was 17 they put me back in an abusive situation in my home. But my father threw me out again right before my 18th birthday.
I met a guy online and told him I was getting thrown out. He told me I could come stay with his family in Michigan. I thought he was my friend. But when I got there, I had to do things I didn't want to do. I had to have sex with him and other people. I said no, but he coerced me to do it. I was an 18-year-old kid. I didn't know what to do.
So I met another guy online and moved in with him. At first it was OK, like it was just us in a relationship, but then he made me have sex with his friends. Basically he was my pimp and would collect off of me. He would beat me up all the time to make me do what he wanted. I had black-and-blues all over my body. After a year of hell. I finally got out of there by threatening to show his family my hospital records.
I figured being with these guys and doing what they wanted was the price I had to pay to keep off the streets. I figured I would go through the same stuff on the streets. But at least I had a warm place to stay.
Don't throw your kids out. Let them stay there and choose their own path. Whether they are queer, lesbian, gay, bisexual, whatever, it doesn't give you the right to throw them out, because what happened to me will probably happen to your kid. I just don't want people to be in my situation.
My mom always told me to accept myself, to be true to myself. She always had my back. My mom died of cancer when I was 16. My relatives wouldn't accept me. They took in my brother, but to me they said, "Fuck you, faggot!"
I was in Ocala, a town in Florida. I would sleep in a community center in a park. It was open all night. About 20 of us homeless kids would sneak in and sleep on the floor. I used my duffel bag as a pillow. There was no kind of shelter for youths in Ocala.
I kept going to high school. I graduated on time when I was 18. My mom always said the most important thing was an education, so I kept going to honor her. I didn't want her to kick my butt in the afterlife.
I kept my schoolbooks in my big, green duffel bag, along with soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and a few clothes.
The worst nights were when the cops chased us out of the community center. We would scatter and run. On those nights I would hide in an empty wooded lot in the trees and weeds. That was the worst, especially in the summer. I have bad allergies; my eyes would swell up and fill with tears. That was hell.
Now I work as a game advisor in a video store. I get to play all the games! It is the best job. I want to go to college in the next year.
I was born in Trinidad. When I was 5 we moved to Norfolk, Va.
By the time I was 9 I knew I was a girl. When I was 14 I started growing my hair out and would go to a friend's house to change into girls' clothes. My mother was very strict and conservative. When she would find out what I was doing, she would throw me out of our house, for weeks at a time, to teach me a lesson.
I had nowhere to go. There were no shelters in Norfolk. So I would hook up with guys hoping for a place to stay, or find a house party to go to. On nights when I didn't find anyone, I would just walk around town all night. The next day I would fall asleep in class.
For a few months I stayed with a guy. He was 25. He had me stay in his basement. Since I was too young to get a job, the only way I could stay there, the only way I could contribute to the house, was to have sex with him and his friends. They would take turns. In the mornings he would drop me off at school. I was still focused on school.
That was one of the worst things I've been through. I was only 14. I didn't know anything about sex. I knew schoolwork, home, video games, chores.
Then my mom sent me to North Carolina to live with my aunt, who was in the Marines. I didn't want to get on my aunt's bad side. She was very strict, a military girl. I felt I had to close off being trans. It made me feel dead inside, in the core of my soul. It was bad.
All this time I felt that I was the only trans person in the world. I was totally isolated. I didn't know anything about trans. When I was 18 I came to New York City. That was when I met other trans people. That was when my life really started. For 18 years of my life, I felt like everything was a struggle. When I met other trans people, my life really began. That is why I call myself Eighteen.
I grew up in Long Island, with my grandmother. She was very religious. When she found out I was gay, she tried to do an exorcism. Then she disowned me.
I tried to start my life over by moving in with my aunt. She lived in the outskirts of Atlanta. But she kept calling me a faggot, and then she threw me out.
I only had $20 and a few clothes in a duffel bag. I had nowhere to go, and no way to get anywhere. So I went into the woods near her house and stayed there for three days, surrounded by snakes, raccoons, mosquitos. I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink. I was so scared and depressed. I didn't think I was going to make it. And I felt like my life wasn't worth living.
Finally I walked out of the woods and collapsed in the street. I was hospitalized for dehydration.
When I got out of the hospital, they put me in a grown men's shelter, but I was only 16. I got into fights every single day I was there; the men kept harassing me and calling me a faggot.
Being homeless is very scary. Not knowing how to get your next meal, not knowing where to shower -- it's really rough. You can't wash your clothes. You don't want to be around people smelling like that. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know where to go. It was too much for me.