I owe much of my survival to Shay. She was spunky, sassy, and although severely depressed, a ray of sunshine in my life. She lived down the hall from me with her girlfriend Dominique. This was the third homeless shelter they had been to, and the second time being placed here, at Park View.
They were young. Shay hadn’t even turned 21. Despite being kicked out of their parents’ homes for being gay and experiencing their first few years of adulthood hopping from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, they were surprisingly hopeful.
We all celebrated a birthday at Park View, and it was far from a happy event. With Christmas fast approaching, it reminds me of how hard it was to spend a once happy event in a homeless shelter. For those who went to spend birthdays and holidays with family or friends, they still had no choice but to hurry back before the 10 o’clock curfew. And, each time, at the end of the night, as you catch your train back up to Harlem, walk through the metal detectors and sign in, it’s like – “Oh right, I almost forgot – I’m still homeless.”
In Shay’s case, it’s that constant reminder ringing truer and louder with time. It’s the pain of rejection by those who are supposed to love you the most – your parents, your family. It is a too-soon realization that you’re alone in the world. It’s learned hatred and cruelty when you’re supposed to be learning hope and limitless possibility.
And, you don’t get over that. Ever.
It keeps you up at night, forcing you to wander the halls, and run into … well me, who also wandered the halls late at night, unable to sleep. It’s a painful reminder of being left out in the cold – literally. And, for what? For being gay, for simply being, for existing, for something you cannot change. For something that is hard enough without the hatred and oftentimes, abandonment, from those closest to you.
In fact, according to The Trevor Project, family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity can have extreme effects on LGBTQ youth. One study compared LGB youths reporting family rejection during adolescence to peers who reported no levels of family rejection. The study found LGB youth were:
- 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide
- 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression
- 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs
- 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse
As a result of family rejection, discrimination, criminalization and a host of other factors, LGBTQ youth represent as much as 40% of the homeless youth population. Of that population, studies indicate that as many as 60% are likely to attempt suicide.
What’s worse? The danger doesn’t stop there.
Intersectionality also teaches us how dangerous the reality of overlapping discrimination is and the vulnerability it births.
For example, in “The Cost of Coming Out: LGBT Youth Homelessness” by Lesley University, we learn that, “in terms of LGBT demographics, the NAEH reports that homeless youth are disproportionately African-American or American Indian and are often from lower-income communities.”
That heightened vulnerability exists just as much in Shay’s childhood home as it does in these hallways. Homeless peers vocalize and spread prejudices. In addition, anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric is just as potent, and perhaps, even more dangerous in a situation such as this. Why? Because you are already existing in a state of heightened vulnerability. Your hands are tied, your voice softened, and your freedoms are not as flexible when you’re homeless.
Your life and safety are always at risk, and your survival is fragile. If I stand up for myself, when someone calls me a slut, I risk removal. I risk losing shelter. If my social worker doesn’t “agree with my lifestyle”, my life is now on the line because my life is essentially in the hands of my social worker.
I was once told by another homeless peer that Dominique was “unnatural” and “sinful” because she dressed like a boy. She behaved like a boy. She and Shay were “sick in the head”. And perhaps the reason why Shay was “so sad” was because of their lifestyle choices.
Now imagine sharing a space with someone who believes this about you. She shares her feelings with her roommate. The roommate tells another person. And now there are multiple people who also do not like you either.
Of course, Shay is not depressed because she’s gay.
Shay is depressed because she has been homeless since the age of 17. She is depressed because she has not gotten the advocacy and support she so desperately needed.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “LGBT youth are also disproportionately likely to become or remain homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing – widespread discrimination in federally funded institutions frequently contributes to the growing rates of homelessness among LGBT youth. Once homeless, these youth experience greater physical and sexual exploitation than their heterosexual counterparts. There are currently no federal programs specifically designed to meet the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth, and there are no protections in place to keep gay and transgender youth from being discriminated against while accessing federally funded homeless services.”
To live in such constant danger and distress, to be homeless, at a young age, really makes an impact on your mental health.
In fact, “for all youth, homelessness has a negative effect on normal development. The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines this demographic as ‘unaccompanied youth aged 12 to 24 years,’ and includes four major categories: runaway, transitory or episodic, unaccompanied homeless youth, and street dependent youth […] Homelessness can lead to mental, physical, and behavioral issues that last a lifetime.”
The good news? Like myself, Shay now has a home. She is safe.
But, as we’ve started to catch up and reconnect, as well as share stories of “life on the other side”, we’ve realized how much homelessness has left a mark on our lives.
Homeless trauma has followed us through our 20s and has severely impacted our daily life. The threat of homelessness looms overhead, and the world looks a lot different today.
Photo courtesy of Elyssa Fahndrich on Unsplash