Throughout high school and college, Alicia slept in cars, tents, friends’ couches, benches, on the bus, on the train and in group homes. Almost anywhere but a shelter.
“My experience with shelters is that you’d go when it was raining. You’d go to San Francisco, wait in line and sleep on the floor, if you slept at all,” the serious, soft-spoken Oakland woman, who’s now 22, said last week. “It’s scary enough to be a young person there. But if you’re queer you just feel a lot more vulnerable. You definitely avoid them.”
Alicia is still homeless but lives at a youth shelter in Oakland. She asked that her real name not be used to protect her identity.
As the cost of housing continues to soar in California and elsewhere, an increasing number of young people have become homeless, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Among those homeless, one group has it especially tough: Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
“There’s a myth of San Francisco as the ‘gay mecca,’” said Jodi Schwartz, executive director of Lyric, a nonprofit community center in San Francisco that serves LGBT youth. “It can be. But just for some.”
The reality, she said, is that many LGBT young people end up on the street or in unstable housing. Many are there because they've been rejected by their parents, peers or society in general due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
One measure of how many are affected comes from Lyric. Of the 600 mostly LGBT young people enrolled in Lyric’s programs in San Francisco, 56 percent are homeless or have unstable housing situations and all are low-income.
Across California and the nation, thousands of LGBT young people can be found on the street, in shelters or couch surfing with friends or relatives, said Schwartz and other experts.
LGBT young people ages 13 to 25 are 120 percent more likely to become homeless than their straight peers, according to a national survey of 26,000 young people released in November by Chapin Hall, a University of Chicago research and policy center. And of the nation’s 1.6 million youth 18 and younger who were homeless at some point last year, 40 percent were LGBT, even though they represent only 7 percent of that youth population overall, according to True Colors Fund, a New York nonprofit that advocates on behalf of homeless LGBT youth.
In California, the number of homeless children in K-12 schools overall has jumped 20 percent from 2014-15 to 2016-17, according to data collected by the California Department of Education. Based on questionnaires filed by their families, more than 200,000 young people were living on the streets, in motels, in cars, in shelters or crowded into apartments with other families due to financial hardship.
While state data does not identify whether any of these students are LGBT, youth homeless experts said gay students are disproportionately represented.
What drives LGBT youth to homelessness “is complicated, nuanced and difficult to classify,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a youth homelessness policy nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
Sometimes LGBT youth are abandoned by their families, or they run away from home because they feel unwelcome or abused after telling their parents they’re gay. And sometimes their sexual identity makes them feel disconnected, which can lead to other contributing factors for homelessness, such as drug abuse, depression, family conflict or chronic absence from school.
According to a 2012 study by the True Colors Fund, Palette Fund and Williams Institute at UCLA, 46 percent of LGBT youth who were homeless or at risk of becoming homeless left home because of family rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Forty-three percent were forced out by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Thirty-two percent left because of physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home, and 17 percent aged out of the foster system. Neglect, substance abuse, mental illness and lack of affordable housing were among the other reasons LGBT young people became homeless.
Nationwide, 25 percent of LGBT teens are thrown out of their homes at some point after coming out to their parents, according to a 2015 True Colors Fund survey of 138 agencies that provide services to LGBT homeless young people. Although that’s less common in urban, gay-friendly areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, it still happens, Schwartz said.
But, she added, it’s not sexual or gender identity alone that leads young people to live on the street or in shelters. It’s a kaleidoscope of factors, she said.
“Every young person has a unique set of experiences and realities,” she said. “The more a young person has going on — if they’re poor, homeless, disconnected, feel oppressed because of their race or if they’re LGBT — you’re going to see increased barriers.”
Alicia was in the foster care system starting at age 6 months, when Child Protective Services took her from her mother due to neglect. She was in and out of foster care and group homes in the East Bay Area most of her childhood, running away periodically to avoid abusive living situations.
When she was about 12 years old she felt she might not be heterosexual, but kept it to herself.
“I had to be very calculated about everything, especially about how I presented myself. I wanted to present myself as super tough and not a burden on anyone,” she said. “I didn’t want to give people another reason not to like me. I felt like I could never really be myself…I had to keep my guard up constantly. I felt pretty alone.”
After graduating from an alternative high school, Alicia was awarded a scholarship to study at Mills College in Oakland. At the private women’s school, Alicia said she found a "supportive queer community” and thrived academically, with double majors in history and urban education.
But she kept her homelessness a secret. She couch-surfed, slept in cars and occasionally slept in a tent in nearby Emeryville. Because she never felt safe sleeping outdoors at night, she’d work graveyard shifts at stores and restaurants and sleep on park benches, buses or trains during the day — a much safer option, she said, considering that young homeless people, especially girls, are sometimes sexually assaulted or coerced into trading sex for food or money. Homeless people who are LGBT are especially vulnerable because they’re more likely to be victimized and engage in unsafe sex and have a harder time finding a supporting network of peers, according to the True Colors Fund.
Alicia studied in the college library and computer laboratory, showered at the school gym and generally took life one day at a time. But by last year, the street life began to wear on her health, both physically and emotionally. When a close friend died, she decided she needed a permanent solution. Living on the street would eventually kill her, she said.
She called Covenant House, a youth shelter in Oakland, and after three months on the waiting list was offered a bed. Covenant House is part of a national nonprofit system of youth shelters with several shelters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. At the Oakland facility, residents can stay up to two years and receive medical and mental health services, job training, help finding permanent housing, links to education, help with financial planning and other services intended to get young people off the streets permanently.
Ninety-four percent of Covenant House residents find stable housing and employment once they leave, said Noel Russell, Covenant House development officer.
“It works,” she said. “But we just need more beds. We have 100 people on our waiting list and there’s thousands of young people in the Bay Area sleeping on the street every night. … No child chooses that. No child deserves that.”
The first thing Covenant House offers new arrivals is sleep and regular meals — two things homeless young people are not in the habit of enjoying. Alicia said she was so accustomed to not sleeping or eating she could barely do either for the first few weeks she was there.
But after a while she settled in, and staff suggested that because she enjoyed studying, she should apply to graduate school. She did and was admitted to the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, where she is working toward a master’s degree in social work. Her goal: to become a social worker so she can help other homeless young people.
While she’s proud she survived and feels confident she’ll eventually find a well-paying job and permanent housing, she feels she missed out on a childhood and suffered unnecessarily for years. She can’t ride a bike, she never learned basic things like how to floss and she often can’t relate to her classmates. When they talk about their favorite Christmas rituals, for example, she remains silent.
“Absolutely nothing that happened to me is acceptable, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” she said. “It’s not OK to think a kid can sleep on the street and nothing will happen to them. … We all have a responsibility to do something about it.”
This story originally appeared on EdSource.org