Kicked out of home and misunderstood by social service providers, homeless LGBTQ youth often have nowhere to turn
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY MIKE DESOCIO
Author’s Note: The central character in this story, Liniște, asked that she be referred to by a pseudonym for safety reasons. I met Liniște in September and spent five months following her throughout various parts of her life, closely observing her experiences with homelessness and sexuality. This approach seemed most appropriate for documenting the unique struggles of LGBTQ youth homelessness beyond the statistics and stereotypes. -M.D.
Liniște fled a beating in the front seat of her ex-girlfriend’s car and made a break for the North Washington Street Bridge, a rusty Charles River crossing that stands in the shadow of the Zakim Bridge and TD Garden. It was 4 am.
“I’m never going to get out of this. I’m never going to escape,” she recalls thinking. Short and slim, her head shaved except for a thin Mohawk she often covers with a black baseball cap, Liniște has a lip piercing that sparkles at the edge of her easy smile.
She ran toward the bridge on an impulse to end her life. As Liniște began to maneuver herself over the metal railing, her ex-girlfriend caught up.
Liniște came to in the passenger seat of the car an hour later.
At 22, Liniște struggles daily with depression, anxiety, HIV-positive status, and other health issues. And on top of all these trials, homelessness.
Liniște and her LGBTQ peers are overrepresented among youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. One local expert says at least 25 percent of homeless youths in Boston — whose sexual and gender identity is not accounted for in an annual homeless census roundly criticized as yielding low estimates — identify as LGBTQ. That’s compared to fewer than 5 percent of adults in this country who identify as LGBTQ. Other social service providers and advocates in the city agree that a significant portion of the homeless youth they encounter identify as LGBTQ.
LGBTQ teens and young adults experiencing homelessness say prejudice excludes them from many services, while the dangers of being “out” keep others from even trying to access them in the first place. Beyond the difficulties they face due to their sexual or gender identity, Liniște and her peers — who each have greatly varying experiences — exist in the rift between youth and adult services. As a result, many resort to dangerous activities — including sex work, petty theft, and other criminal behavior — just to get money, food, or a place to sleep.
After gay marriage became the law of the land in 2015, weddings among same-sex couples surged. A 2016 Gallup poll showed that about half of cohabiting same-sex couples in the country are now married, compared to only 39 percent before the Supreme Court decision. Stats like that may make it seem as if the fight for LGBTQ rights is over — love is love, as some say. But for LGBTQ youth, love is risk — risk that revealing their sexuality or gender identity could leave them kicked out or abused, even in a city like Boston. And while the progressive movement as a whole is marching toward new horizons, many of these young adults are left on their own to navigate a patchwork of communities and social services that rarely understand their needs.
The scope of LGBTQ youth homelessness in Boston, or any place, is notoriously hard to pin down. Though the city conducts the aforementioned annual homeless census that captures data about unaccompanied youth — it recorded just 61 such individuals in 2016 — the survey does not report sexual or gender identity.
According to a 2015 national report on LGBTQ youth by researchers from the UCLA, the most commonly cited cause leading to homelessness is being forced out of the home by parents or running away for reasons related to sexual or gender identity. A significant percent also reported physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at home.
All of which runs counter to the traditional consensus among experts and social service providers that homelessness is fundamentally a function of economics. Indeed, a number of people end up homeless when they can’t afford a place to live.
“Homelessness, from my perspective, is a problem rooted in extreme poverty,” says Thomas Byrne, a Boston University professor whose research focuses on homelessness. “At its core, you can think of homelessness as a mismatch between economic resources and availability of housing.”
In terms of homeless adults or families, that assessment makes sense. In Boston, the median rent is $1,250 per month, according to a 2016 study done by researchers at NYU. This trend makes it impossible for many to find affordable housing. At the same time, money isn’t always the root of homelessness.
“A lot of things can trigger a housing crisis,” Byrne says.
Sometimes people have nowhere to go after being evicted from home or leaving an institution such as the criminal justice system. But this understanding of homelessness can still fail to capture the spectrum of experiences of LGBTQ youth. Grace Sterling, the executive director of the Boston Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, says the term “homeless” can often leave out a large population of youth who are marginally housed — not on the streets or in shelters, but still without a permanent home.
“How do you reach a population that might not even define themselves as homeless?” Sterling says.
According to Joe Finn, who runs the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, assessing homelessness relies on a broader understanding of people in crisis.
“Homelessness is not a single condition; it’s a convergence of factors,” he says. “If there’s a common denominator at all, it’s that in a time of crisis and difficulty a person really has no place to go and they wind up on the streets or in a shelter.”
For Liniște, many of these situations ring true.
She tells of leaving her native Romania at a young age because her mother suspected Liniște would face discrimination due to her sexuality. After rotating through a number of group homes, foster programs, and unstable apartments in the US and Mexico, Liniște moved more permanently to Boston three years ago. Still, she struggles to find stable housing.
“Money is a huge, huge factor for me, and it always has been, but things like that make [housing] so much harder to attain,” she says.
In some communities, for example, dangerous past relationships meant Liniște was “outed” as gay and therefore at risk for further abuse.
She continues, “There’s so many [factors]. I wouldn’t say small, but overlooked things that are big that get in the way.”
“Being gay here is harder in a lot of ways,” Liniște says of living in the liberal heart of New England. “Passive-aggressive stuff happens here.”
Being homeless, Liniște is nearly always in public, which means it’s hard to escape stares, sarcasm, and even downright aggression. The fear of sexual or physical assault is not so much rooted in “if” but rather “when,” she says. “If you don’t have some sort of secure shelter, or some place that has a lock, even if that doesn’t happen to you, you constantly live with that fear that it could.”
For many LGBTQ young adults, there is a constant fear of harassment in the shelter system. “Showers are not safe,” Liniște says. “People will catcall at you, people will try and ‘fix’ you and turn you straight. Assaults, physical assaults, sexual assaults, it’s such a problem.”
These dangers underpin a stark reality for Liniște: Often, there is nowhere she can go to feel safe. She contracted HIV after an assault in 2014, and without a home she is still left to choose between predatory shelters and unguarded public spaces.
Only a few hours after Liniște nearly ended it all on a bridge in Boston, she was a special guest at Wakefield High School, where health teachers invited her to share her “comeback story.” Even as she wades through challenge after challenge, Liniște is involved in organizations like the NAN Project, which tries to prevent youth suicide, and the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Dressed sharply in a shirt and tie, she pinballed between topics ranging from domestic violence to suicide.
In groups like these, Liniște is lauded for “beating the odds,” for surviving against all adversity. Yet her survival remains a work in progress.
For a two-week stretch in October, Liniște stays at a friend’s apartment in Roxbury. A sign on the door asks visitors to take off their shoes before going inside. Liniște glances at a pile of footwear, pokes her head inside and, with no one around, scurries into her room with her boots still on.
Liniște is excited about her new boots, a pair of insulated Timberlands that promised to stave off another bout of frostbite this winter. Last year, Liniște says, she suffered the pain and nerve damage of her frostbitten toes warming up on the Red Line. In hindsight, she concedes, she should have gotten off at the Charles/MGH station and checked herself into the hospital.
Though her stay in Roxbury is only a brief sanctuary from the streets, Liniște says she rarely spends so much time inside and isn’t always comfortable despite the relative warmth. Her space is a sparse room with a bike in one corner and a mattress in the other.
“It’s so weird to be inside. Isn’t it like semi-suffocating?”
She wonders what people do to occupy themselves indoors. She begins flossing her teeth, a habit she’s kept up even when it means pulling strings out of pieces of clothing.
“It’s hard to fall asleep; it feels like the walls are falling in on you,” she says toward the end of her stay.
As a stream of airplanes rumbles in the sky above, Liniște is noticeably uncomfortable.
“I can’t even anxiously pace properly,” she says.
The unique experiences of LGBTQ youth — spanning abuse, family conflict, and unstable housing situations — make it hard to even generalize, nevermind quantify, the extent of their homelessness. Some advocates find the Boston homeless census, conducted each year by the city using volunteers, to be unrealistic in its attempt to locate individuals experiencing homelessness in general. With that baseline criticism, it’s even harder to parse out who among them are LGBTQ youth.
Cassie Hurd, who helps lead the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee, casts doubt on the census, which she says undercounts people who are experiencing homelessness. Volunteers who sign up to help conduct the census venture out in groups and comb the streets to survey and count individuals who are sleeping outside, but they avoid going down some streets and alleys that they deem unsafe, Hurd says. While the volunteers do visit shelters as well to gather data, Hurd says they avoid counting individuals who sleep in MBTA stations, because formally including them in the count could heighten security and force them out of their sleeping spots.
Furthermore, the advocate says Boston has a motivation to keep the numbers in the count low.
“They don’t want to have this huge number of people who are sleeping out and therefore technically they’re not taking care of them,” Hurd says.
At the very least, the census describes the Boston homeless population in broad strokes, which is necessary to acquire federal funding to support shelters and other programs. Beyond that, Hurd and others argue that there isn’t enough action taken in response to the numbers they do collect, let alone the invisible part of the problem. If Boston is to make the census a useful part of its homelessness response, Hurd says it needs to offer “things that will help people meet their immediate and long-term needs aside from being counted.”
Repeated calls and emails to the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission, which conducts the census, and its director went unanswered. Requests for comment from the Boston Public Health Commission and Office of Housing Stability also were unsuccessful.
When Liniște learned about her HIV status in 2015, her doctors put her on antiretroviral meds, but she couldn’t stomach them. She says the longest she ever held them down before throwing them back up was seven minutes — her doctor asked her to keep track.
Young adults experiencing homelessness often worry about where they might sleep on any given night or where they might find their next meal. The latter is especially relevant to Liniște, whose malnourishment precluded her from standard medical treatment for HIV.
Liniște says she contracted the virus in 2014 through a sexual assault and didn’t learn about her status until the following year. In the time since, she says that meds prescribed dehydrated her and caused her to lose critical nutrients — that it was slowly killing her. Without seeing much choice, she says she stopped the treatment.
The virus progressed to AIDS last April. Liniște says when she is feeling especially bad, she visits the emergency room for temporary care. “I just don’t want to die out in the hospital,” she says.
All of which has contributed to significant emotional trauma and instability. Liniște says the relationship with her current girlfriend, Tay, has been the single hopeful thing steering her away from suicide. They met up one evening after trading notes on social media and then lay out on a field outside the city and talked for hours. They stayed up all night, pointed at the stars, and soaked in each other’s silence. After that night, Liniște says she went a whole month — one of her longest stretches — without a single suicidal thought because Tay made her so happy.
Liniște’s relationship with Tay has helped her navigate a tumultuous mix of homelessness and depression. She still has flashbacks, though, which she describes as a visceral recurrence of memories that overwhelm her. And that can often lead her to depressive or even suicidal episodes.
“I refeel things, and I can’t handle that, I go crazy,” she says.
In one flashback during the reporting of this story, she was overcome by the memory of witnessing a violent episode that harmed one of her closest friends.
These types of flashbacks and resulting suicidal thoughts are common for Liniște, but that Friday was different. It was the first time she reached out for help — she talked to her girlfriend Tay after an unsuccessful call to a suicide hotline.
What Tay said to Liniște stood out from anything she had ever heard before — and it saved her life.
“Just like, I don’t want you to go, just like period,” Tay said as she described the conversation a few nights later.
“That’s exactly what I needed to hear and that saved me,” Liniște says. “I’ve been the only one telling myself that.”
For LGBTQ young adults, especially those who are between the ages 18 and 24, there are few options when they are kicked out by family, they age out of foster care, or they wear out their welcome staying with friends.
The traditional response to homelessness over the past few decades has been emergency shelter — taking people off the streets and providing a temporary housing arrangement. Often shelters are problematic even for the adults they were designed to serve, making them dangerous for young adults who identity as LGBTQ.
“I start from a basic premise that the shelters are unfit for everybody,” says Joe Finn, the director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, a nonprofit public policy advocacy organization. When many people staying in shelters have experience in the criminal justice system and are struggling with substance abuse, it can be unsafe for anyone — especially an LGBTQ young adult.
“There’s a real danger component, being there,” Finn says. “Secondly, most of those shelters have no idea how to deal with you.”
In Finn’s eyes, fixing shelters isn’t the solution — even if many youth and young adults are seeking to build better ones.
“We’re of the opinion that there’s better interventions. There are better things that we can do to help people experiencing these difficulties or situations.”
For instance, there are organizations in Boston that seek to help LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness by focusing on areas other than emergency shelter. Finn’s organization is working with Youth on Fire, a local drop-in space, to provide scattered-site housing. Boston Healthcare for the Homeless serves a large population of transgender individuals. Organizations like Boston GLASS focus on youth leadership development, health promotion, and community advocacy.
Despite criticism by Finn and others about the role of shelters in homelessness response, a recently opened youth homeless shelter has become a nexus for the most marginalized segments of the youth population. Y2Y, a Harvard Square-based shelter that is run by and for youth, has emerged as a saving grace, especially for those identifying as LGBTQ. The shelter occupies a modest space in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church that towers over the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Church Street, and it boasts private sleeping pods, computers, video games, and a full-service kitchen.
Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz are the recent graduates of Harvard University who opened the shelter in 2015. As students, the duo volunteered at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, which serves adults, and noticed an increasing number of young people showing up at a time when the city had only 12 youth shelter beds. They started Y2Y to fill that need. They recognize that emergency shelter is not the ultimate solution to homelessness, but see it as a necessary step to keep youth off the street as they navigate to more permanent housing.
“We know that when people sleep on the street, especially young people, they’re exposed to extreme trauma, which can only deepen the cycle of homelessness,” Rosenkrantz says.
“There needs to be more safe spaces. We turn away young people every night,” Greenberg adds.
Liniște tried to get into Y2Y last winter when it opened, but the lottery system did not play out in her favor. She spends some time at Youth on Fire, Boston GLASS, and similar drop-in centers, but even so she finds these spaces increasingly difficult to be in. Among other problems, Liniște says she often feels obligated to share her personal history with others in these programs, for the sake of putting them at ease with an unfamiliar face. But because her story spans difficult topics of abuse, violence, and depression, Liniște says she receives negative judgment.
“I have done questionable things, but I am a really good person,” she said. “My story is not considered beautiful anymore, and that makes me really sad.”
These compounding factors — obligatory openness and fear of others — make it hard for Liniște to be in spaces like that, even when they cater to LGBTQ youth. Being on the sidewalk is easier — you can choose who to be around and don’t owe your comfort to anyone else.
“People will be homeless,” Liniște says. “I don’t say that out of lack of hope, but right now, people will be homeless.”
With that perspective, how do activists and city officials begin to think about relieving the hardships of LGBTQ youth homelessness?
The answer is as complex as the population itself. Advocates and researchers such as Byrne, Finn, Sterling, and others agree that homelessness signifies a failing of a whole system of community supports. Fixing that problem involves awareness, prevention, and emergency response in varying doses.
Finn sometimes finds it useless to even use the term “homelessness.” As he understands it, he is working to create a broader understanding of people in crisis.
“The emergency shelter system became the acceptable housing niche for some of the poorest and most disabled people in the world,” he says. “Can we end that? That’s what motivates me every day: I believe we can.”
Finn talks about creating short-term safe houses for youth as one possible solution, while Sterling emphasizes the importance of providing job training and other resources that can help them get back on their feet.
Liniște’s work with local advocacy groups such as the NAN Project and the Sex Workers Outreach Project not only supplies her with some of the cash she needs to get by but allows her to make a positive difference in the lives of others.
Sterling also favors prevention, especially for a population of LGBTQ youth who recoil at the emergency shelter system that has been set up almost exclusively for heterosexual, cisgender men and women.
“It’s about education of families and schools and communities where they’re supporting young people from the beginning,” she says.
Liniște says public and social service providers alike need to pitch in to relieve some of the stresses of LGBTQ youth homelessness. What might that look like to her?
“Acknowledging that [youth homelessness is] a problem right here, right now, and then trying to make the situation itself safer, better, easier to get out of if you want to,” Liniște says.
When things get to be too much, Liniște thinks back to a moment from her middle school days.
She was preparing for a presentation in front of her class and went to her teacher to express how nervous she was. Liniște remembers her teacher looking at her with soft yet firm eyes and giving her a simple piece of advice: Go up there, take a few deep breaths, and start your presentation.
That advice today is the last line of the suicide prevention comeback story Liniște shares at high schools with the NAN Project.
“I take deep breaths often, and above all, I just be.”