SAN DIEGO — Hope is a simple, yet powerful word. It means life is worth living. It means tomorrow might be better than today. Most of all, it means there is something worth believing in.
Many LGBT homeless youths have eliminated “hope” from their vocabularies. It is difficult to feel hopeful when one is fighting for survival.
It is difficult to feel hopeful when dealing with hunger, fear and isolation on the streets of San Diego.
Ask Josh, a gay teenager living on the streets of Hillcrest, what he thinks of hope and he sums it up in a few words. “Hope?” he asks, perplexed. “I just wanna survive.”
Josh spoke to the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News on the condition of anonymity. Like so many of the LGBT homeless youths, he ferociously guards his identity.
At 17, Josh looks much younger than his years. Malnourishment has prevented him from physically blooming into a man. Once a healthy and vibrant teenager, he now has frail arms and tired eyes.
Josh’s story begins two and a half years ago. He was living in his own form of suburban hell with emotionally and verbally abusive parents. Even before he came out to them, they knew he was different. He was sensitive, and slightly shy. He didn’t play sports, and didn’t like to roughhouse with his brothers.
His parents focused on those differences, and gave him an emotional beating several times a week. According to his parents, he was a sissy and a baby. He should have been a girl. He was not good enough, smart enough or masculine enough. He was the family’s pariah and scapegoat.
Josh knew he was “different” too. He was gay, and that isolated him even further.
Thinking he had nothing else to lose, Josh came out to his parents. His parents kicked him out the same day.
It is common for parents to kick LGBT kids out of their homes after they come out. In a Needs Assessment conducted for the LGBTQ Sheltering Project, 39 percent of those surveyed were kicked out of their homes or placements because of their sexual orientation.
This is very traumatic for kids. In Josh’s case, he felt he needed the support of his family more than ever. Even though his family had let him down in the past, he thought they would be there for him when he really needed them. The packed duffle bag and cold streets proved him wrong. They disowned him, all because he was brave enough to be honest with them.
A day in the life
Once Josh was put out on the streets, he quickly learned how to survive. He goes through the same survival ritual every day.
Josh gets up early every morning so he can avoid the police. He feels hunger pangs as soon as he gets up. They aren’t the type of pangs that occur when someone misses a meal. They are the sick aches that only happen when someone has missed too many meals to count.
He tries to ignore those pangs so he can focus on the task at hand. His first task is deciding what he will do for the day. Unlike other teens who take a shower, grab their books, get lunch money from their parents and head off to school, kids like Josh have to decide how they will get money for food.
Panhandling, or spanging, is Josh’s preferred method for making money on the streets. He is not alone, as 97 percent of the kids surveyed in the Needs Assessment engaged in panhandling. Even though this is Josh’s preferred method of getting money, he rarely makes enough for a decent meal.
When he strikes out with spanging, he engages in Dumpster diving. This is very common for LGBT homeless youth. In fact, 80 percent of those surveyed in the Needs Assessment participated in Dumpster diving. Josh speaks of the humiliation he feels when he looks for food in trash bins. He says it makes him feel like he is less of a person. To cope with this, he steps outside of himself. This disassociation allows him to do what it takes to make it on the streets.
The dangers of survival sex
Survival sex is another method of survival on the streets. While Josh has not had survival sex, many of his counterparts have.
Out of the youths surveyed in the Needs Assessment, 35 percent admitted to using survival sex as a way to get food and shelter. Each time a youth engages in this practice, he runs the risk of being robbed, beaten or infected with a sexually transmitted disease. Even the ones who are not harmed physically have to deal with the emotional scars that come with prostitution. They try to shut down as they trade sexual favors for food and shelter, but the actions leave them broken. They exchange their innocence for a meal and a roof over their head.
Josh and the other youths on the streets are forced to sacrifice their dignity. Dignity keeps people from surviving on the streets. Thus, they have to let it go so they can move forward and try to live another day.
At the end of the day, Josh spends some time searching for cardboard. If he finds some, he will have a makeshift mattress. Josh does not have any blankets, and uses the cardboard to separate his body from the cold concrete.
Most nights, his search for cardboard comes up empty. He goes to bed and the cold concrete seeps through his clothes and makes it to his bones.
Trying to find help
Josh’s daily ritual does not include a visit to any of the social services that are available. The reason is simple. Josh believes that the services are dangerous for LGBT youths. Homophobia is a plague among many homeless people, as well as some of the staff members at the different services that include faith-based charities.
Many of the LGBT homeless youths share Josh’s fear. Of the youths surveyed for the Needs Assessment, 74 percent said they faced some sort of harassment or prejudicial treatment when they disclosed their orientation at a social service organization. In addition, 100 percent of the youths surveyed said they often did not admit their sexual orientation when obtaining services so they would not have to deal with the prejudicial treatment or harassment.
There is help available to LGBT youths
While some of the social services are not equipped to deal with the unique issues faced by LGBT homeless youths, there are LGBT-friendly resources available. One such option is San Diego Youth Services.
San Diego homeless youths can turn to this resource in their time of crisis. The organization works to stabilize lives and help youths plan for their future.
San Diego Youth Services is located at 3255 Wing St. and can be reached by calling (619) 221-8600.
Those who need shelter can turn to the Storefront, which is affiliated with San Diego Youth Services.
The San Diego Gay & Lesbian News spoke with Jan Stankus-Nakano of the Storefront. According to Stankus-Nakano, the shelter has resources for LGBT and heterosexual youths. From unisex bathrooms to the zero tolerance on hateful or homophobic comments, the shelter provides an environment that is comfortable for everyone.
Those who use the shelter also receive access to a variety of resources. Teens are assigned to a caseworker upon arrival. The caseworker talks to them about their needs and helps them plan for the future.
Those who go to the Storefront will also have access to mental health services. They do not need insurance for this resource, as it is free of charge.
The Storefront can be reached 24 hours a day toll-free at (866) 715-6405.
The Sunburst Youth Housing Project is another option for LGBT homeless youths. This project provides permanent housing for homeless young adults. In addition, those who take advantage of the housing can use resources including case management, mental health, life skills development and education completion.
The Sunburst Youth Housing Project is located at 1640 Broadway and can be reached at (619) 255-7854.
Youths can also use the San Diego LGBT Community Center. The Center provides safe housing for LGBT youths ages 18-24, along with other important resources. LGBT homeless youths are encouraged to go to The Center and take advantage of the wealth of resources offered.
The center has several locations, including 3909 Centre St. It can be reached at (619) 692-2077.
LGBT youths are encouraged to turn to these resources. The men and women who work at the San Diego Youth Project, the Storefront, the Sunburst Youth Housing Project and The Center are all adept at dealing with the unique issues the LGBT community faces. Because of that, the youths can disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity without fear of retaliation.
Right now, “hope” is a word the LGBT homeless youths don’t understand. Tomorrow, with the help of LGBT friendly resources, that can change. The young men and women are encouraged to take advantage of the resources and begin to move toward the future. While the past has been unkind, the future can hold much more promise for these youths.