Remembering Shay, My Homeless Friend

Remembering Shay

Nowhere Safe to Go for Homeless LGBTQ Youth

This weekend I decided to organize my closet and drawers, as it’s something I’ve neglected to do throughout most of COVID. I’m the kind of person who holds on to every card, every gift receipt and keeps mementos close. I tape pictures, postcards, and letters to the wall to remind myself of who I am, where I’ve been, and the people who helped and loved me along the way. It’s a habit I’ve picked up due to being homeless. Homelessness caused me to lose everything, so now, every new item that falls into my possession is somewhat precious.

Every once in a while, when I’m cleaning my apartment, I run into items I picked up while I was homeless. I have a gift receipt from a stranger on the internet who bought me snow boots while I was homeless. I have letters from pen pals across the states, formerly homeless youth like myself. Sometimes I re-read the letters and cards I received from my mother when I was homeless.

But the souvenirs I revisit most often and the person I think about the most often are from Shay.

I’ve been thinking about Shay a lot these days. She was my best friend at a time when I needed one. It’s also Pride Month, and she was one of many homeless youths who were LGBTQ and became homeless at a very young age.

She was barely an adult and already experiencing so much instability in her life, having moved from shelter to shelter. Rejected by family members, she clung closely to her girlfriend to survive. Most of that instability resulted from not having any family or community support. Although I could, in no way, fully understand what it must be like to be rejected by everyone around you for simply being who you are, I also felt abandoned, lonely, and scared at the time. So, we leaned on each other for community and a sense of family. I thought of her as a sister.

One night, she and her girlfriend missed curfew and were kicked out of the shelter. I never saw her again. Her backpack is in the back of my closet, which I’ve held on to for years.

According to the National Network for Youth, “Youth face even more barriers because the majority of the homelessness response system was designed for adults. The lack of social services and community outreach compounded with a lack of legislative attention serve only to perpetuate homelessness among this vulnerable population.”

I knew how true this was. In fact, I often felt like Shay was severely more at risk than I was and still seemed to be neglected by the on-site social workers.

Furthermore, there are massive barriers for the BIPOC LGBTQ+ community regarding homeless services. This is terrifying when considering the statistics:

“BIPOC youth have an 83% higher risk of experiencing homelessness when compared to their non-BIPOC counterparts, with BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth at even higher risk of homelessness. Anti-black racism, white supremacy, and housing discrimination put Black LGBTQ+ youth at significant risk of experiencing homelessness and create many roadblocks to exit homelessness.”

I think about Shay often and wonder how she’s doing.

I’ve been housed for a few years now. Having experienced homelessness and so much housing instability in my 20s has impacted my life – even as I now enter my 30s. Even though homeless trauma had severely impacted my mental health, I know I had several privileges, even while homeless, that probably played a huge role in my ability to survive. Being a white female with a college education helped me hide the homelessness. It eventually helped me secure housing, leaving me mostly intact, with the ability to rebuild my life and even be here to write this little piece for Invisible People.

Shay was a black lesbian. By the time she was 18, she had experienced housing instability and various types of homelessness for several years. I was heartbroken at the idea of her entering adulthood already struggling and hurting this much. And worse, it was killing her, and I could tell. I saw how the antidepressants and quiet talks in the hallway in the middle of the night kept her alive. We were indeed keeping each other alive.

I hope she’s still alive. And I hope, somehow, healing and relief have found her in a really big way. She was strong and reminded me I could still spit fire. Even today, when I feel weak, I think of her. If she could do it, I could do it, I thought. Even as the boulders piled upon her shoulders, she woke up and lived another day. Even when she really didn’t want to, when she felt unloved and rejected and abandoned, she still woke up and lived another day.

Now that Pride Month is ending, I wish I could see her again so badly.

I wish I could tell her how strong and beautiful she is. I wish I could hug her, hold her hand. If she feels forgotten, I could remind her how much fight and fire she has inside her. I wish I could take her to a Muna concert and sing the song I Know a Place at the top of our lungs:

Right now, it’s like you’re carrying all the weight of your past

I could see all your bruises – yellow, dark blue, and black

But baby, a bruise is only your body trying to keep you intact

So right now, I think we should go get drunk on cheap wine

I think we should hop on the purple line

Because maybe our purpose is to never give up when we’re on the right track

And I can tell when you get nervous

You think being yourself means being unworthy

And it’s hard to love with a heart that’s hurting

But if you want to go out dancing, I know a place

I know a place we can go (yeah) where everyone going to lay down their weapon

Just give me trust and watch what’ll happen


Jocelyn Figueroa

     

Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing.

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