My coming out story was painful in more ways than one. Mom saw me with my first queer haircut; I was proud of it. Buzzed on the side and overflowing on top. She hit me in the chest and stomach saying I’ll never be a man, then held my hair down, cutting it to be more feminine and haphazardly getting rid of the carefully designed sideburns. I left that house, and my brother-by-choice let me into his home to sleep on his couch. I at least had a roof over my head; many other LGBT people do not (around 42% of homeless youth are LGBT). I saw a homeless man just the other day with a sign held up, saying “This is what invisible looks like.” As an LGBT person who’s been homeless twice in the last two years, I know what it’s like to feel invisible within the homeless community itself.
There are several reasons why LGBT people become homeless, especially youth. The NTDS, a survey of LGBT people, found that common causes of homelessness are family rejection and family strain in general. 8% of transgender youth are kicked out of their house, and 10% leave home due to pervasive harassment like denial of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Poverty is another factor, gay or not. One person I spoke to about homelessness said that she often could not flush the toilet, had heating problems and was overall very poor financially. Another person got illegally evicted and ran away from abuse, while another ran away from a group home. As for me, I became homeless/precariously housed the second time due to my bipolar disorder catching up with me. Being trans made things more complicated, as I needed to find a way to get hormones again. In all, the homeless community consists of a diverse group of people all requiring different types of services. There are some services, like the ones that the Recovery Café and PSKS offer, but they are not enough.
When I had my first bout with homelessness, I had some friends, but I could not trust anyone with the details of what I was facing. I felt I was alone. Further, I was still in so much pain from leaving mom that I kept deep cleaning various areas of my brother’s home in the fear that he’d kick me out if I didn’t (he would never do that in actuality). The second bout is where I found the Recovery Cafe, and it has made such a difference. The Café is very keen on developing a sense of community. Before lunch and dinner, you share acts of kindness that you gave or received, as you’re sat at a table with a sign saying that this is a place where those of any race, gender, and sexual orientation are welcome. I am able to go get lunch and dinner five days a week and chat over coffee with volunteers and staff members. I’m part of one of two LGBT circles as well as two writing circles where each member talks (or writes) for a few minutes and receives feedback if wanted. They are open to hearing stories of my transition in all of my groups. The Recovery Cafe is not a strictly LGBT center, but it is wholeheartedly welcoming.
The great thing about the Recovery Café is that you don’t feel invisible. When I was coming in as a volunteer for the first time, I sat down with a guy who was heading a dice game. After talking and playing for a while, I realized he was just like me – thoughtful, calm, and kind. He welcomed me in without judgment when the volunteer coordinator decided with me that I’d be a lot better off as a member. Also, at the open mic last month, there were three beautiful drag queens that presented. They made me feel at home. Every time I go into that place, the volunteers (and other members) call me by name and some even give me a hug. It’s wonderful. While the Café succeeds in many ways, a couple of the issues that it does face is the fact that it does not serve those under the age of 18 and has a lack of queer-specific support aside from the support groups. For those of you who want to help, and I encourage you to help, donations are definitely encouraged, and volunteers are always welcome, because each volunteer brings a new mindset to the (literal) table. Most of all, it is vital to work to remove the stigma of homelessness and act with compassion and kindness when out and about. A smile may be the one thing they need that day to keep going.
Another thing that people need to keep going is a good night’s sleep. It is so important to have shelter, and a shelter that feels safe. When I stayed at a shelter for a night to be eligible for transitional housing, I was deeply uncomfortable. It was a co-ed shelter, but people were split between male and female. I was too nervous to sleep, as many people were walking around. There were no showers and grooming oneself was forbidden. Thankfully nobody realized I was trans. When I spoke with one person, she described being sexually assaulted several times and said she preferred being anywhere but the shelter. A Seattle-based survey revealed that 82% of people prefer to be on the streets, with friends, or in another situation (where they have to “sell sex for currency,” in one case) than to be in a shelter. Some shelters are known to have difficulty with gang activity and homophobic and transphobic slurs as the staff just stand by. Also, more than half (52%) of those who stayed at a shelter in the past year were verbally harassed, physically attacked, and/or sexually assaulted because of being transgender, according to the NTDS. Even now, while I’m on the waitlist for transitional housing, I’m nervous about living with a cis-gender roommate and need constant reassurance that I will not be physically or verbally harassed if they find out. It seems that trans or genderqueer people are forced to be more invisible than the average homeless population, as “one-quarter (25%) decided to dress or present as the wrong gender in order to feel safe in a shelter, and 14% said that the shelter staff forced them to dress or present as the wrong gender in order to stay at the shelter.” In other words, invisible.
That’s where PSKS comes in. PSKS stands for Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets. They are a primarily service-based organization and serve lunch from 12 to 2pm and then open up as a shelter at night. There are 25 beds, the majority of which are taken by regulars, and their intake process is short. Some people may like that it is a “wet” shelter, or a shelter that doesn’t require sobriety. Pets are allowed, another plus. They let youth borrow everything from interview clothes to bras and underwear, and also have a computer room. They are not religious and have gender neutral bathrooms with a shower and toilet in each of them, with a sign of affirmation similar to what I saw at the Cafe hanging up on each door. The social worker I spoke to was very clear on the fact that a sense of community was fostered in her shelter, which is good, as, according to SurveyMonkey, 67% did not feel that sense in the shelters they stayed at. There used to be a group there called Queer Youth Community Organizing, but as of last year they got rid of it in a massive overhaul of their program. She said that not many LGBT people needed their services at this time, and it would be interesting to find out why that is. It may well be due to the gentrification of Capitol Hill over the recent years. Further, while PSKS does serve youth lunch and provides other services like helping them get IDs, only those 18-24 can sleep there. Getting IDs issued can be quite the…well, issue, especially for trans people like myself, so something like that is very much appreciated. In terms of help, what PSKS always needs is volunteers that can commit to a longer time than just one or two months, as people sleeping there can get to know them.
It seems like daytime services such as what PSKS and Recovery Cafe offer are few and far between after aging out of their programs – like me at 27. The ones that do exist, Recovery Café and PSKS aside, are silent when homophobic/transphobic violence occurs and that is simply unacceptable. People are asking for more LGBT-specific services in particular. There also needs to be research done as to how to deploy those resources effectively and in a way that people are aware of. Further, safe shelters for LGBT people under 18 and over 24 are almost unheard of. This is even more important as climate change brings forth snow and cold weather that has led to recent deaths in the homeless community. In Chicago during the -40 degree weather, when asked to open their doors as shelters to the community, only 13 churches out of 100 obliged. How many of those 13 were even safe? We need to be supportive and visible so they can be safe. As students, faculty and staff, it is vital to make a difference within this marginalized community, for as MLK Jr. said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,”. Institutions of higher education -and their students- are known for grassroots movements and making change happen. Let’s start now.