LGBT Teen Homelessness in South Florida, Part 2
A sunburned kid seeking cool air for a few minutes. A teen using the computer to apply for jobs.
While the LGBT Visitor Center in Miami Beach is primarily the center of the city’s tourism, its rainbow flags have also become a signal to gay teens living on the street that it’s a safe haven.
Karen Brown, the executive director of the center, said she has about a dozen homeless teens, both straight and LGBT, come into the center on a regular basis to apply for jobs at the computer center, charge their cell phones, cool off, or get snacks. When she first started, she naively gave them some cash to take the bus. She quickly learned the kids weren’t using it for that.
"I can’t be mad at them for trying to survive," she said. "You still have to be compassionate."
Although numbers vary from study to study, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT - disproportionate from their representation in the general youth population. About 110,000 LGBT youth become homeless each year in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and once they are on the street, they are more likely to experience physical and sexual assault than their straight peers. They are also more than 30 percent more likely to attempt suicide once they’re homeless.
For Jamesly Louis, 22, it was a feeling of completely hopelessness that led him to become homeless at 16. Being gay was a part of him since he could remember, and his highly religious Haitian family would not acknowledge it. He was bullied at school, teachers ignored him, and he felt like he was the only person in the world who was homosexual.
"All I wanted was someone, some type of connection to make me feel like I was not alone. I really felt that deep down, well maybe I don’t belong here; if I’m the only one that’s like that then why am I here?"
After he confided in his high school’s TRUST counselor that he was "going to do something stupid" when he got home, she immediately called Pridelines Youth Services, who referred him to Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale. After he went home to pack his things, Louis took a two-hour bus ride from Miami to the shelter in the middle of the night.
"I was a bit scared. When I got there the paperwork took a lot of time to complete," Louis said. "When I woke up the next morning, my mind was at peace."
Louis got to work right away to start a new life. He found at job as a seasonal worker at J. Crew at the Aventura Mall - another two-hour bus ride - and signed up for program where staff would hold onto his money to help him save up for an apartment. Since he was only on a tourist visa - his mother brought him and his siblings to Miami from Haiti to marry a man who never filed for their permanent status - but an immigration lawyer helped him turn it into a special immigrant visa. On the anniversary of that day, he brings her a flower to say thank you.
For the two months living at the shelter, Louis’s biggest problem was dealing with homophobic kids. Some roommates would egg him on to tell them he was gay, and some other gay kids were bullied.
"I [saw] a lot of fights because gay kids just look at another guy, and then he doesn’t like the way he looked at him, and a fight," Louis remembers. "I kept to myself and I keep myself focused. I was like, I am here to seek some help and I’m not here for the rest of it. The minute I get enough money, I’m moving out. I had a plan and I did not want to be disoriented. I wanted to keep focus."
While there isn’t much that staff can do when it comes to homophobic clients at a shelter, LGBT advocates are working with shelters to train staff in how to handle LGBT people’s needs. Mandi Hawke, the director of youth services at SunServe in Fort Lauderdale, has done training at Covenant House, the Homeless Assistance Center, and other agencies. This includes the proper vocabulary and how to approach someone about their sexuality or gender identity.
"There’s always new youth coming in that may be homophobic and we can’t really do anything about that, but we definitely do everything we can to train the foster care system, the homeless care system, all therapists in the community," Hawke said.
An important lesson for staff at homeless shelters, or those working with LGBT youth, is to learn how to talk to someone about their sexuality and gender identity. In Hawke’s experience, many well-intentioned people avoid using pronouns when they encounter someone who is ambiguous in their gender for fear of offending, when in actuality it’s a sign of respect and alleviates anxiety to simply ask.
The biggest problem is youths admitting their sexuality to advocates, not because they’re ashamed, but they’ve been programmed to believe that they won’t receive help if they give up that information. Posted on the wall behind her desk is a poster she encourages all advocates to have: Equality is my Priority. When a youth is sitting across from her, she knows he or she is being informed that they’re in a safe environment.