by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Living on the streets is not easy. It is sick with danger. You can't trust anyone and you learn that really quickly. You also learn that there is a network, made up by other youth, that exists, and in some cases (that is, if you are accepted as being a part of it), that network can become your lifeline. But, here again, you will find the danger element because that network and the perception of some who operate within it is a dark one. What you 'need' some of the youth will tell you is narcotics. What you 'need' are weapons to protect yourself from anyone that wants to do you harm. And what you 'need' is to learn where to go to pick up a John so you can make what little money you can to spend it on drugs to forget about what you had to do to get the money in the first place. It's a sick cycle and it is one that plays out in every major city across this United States. And you can bet it plays out right here in our city because we know that on any given night, The King County Committee to End Homelessness estimates that 1,000 youth and young adults are homeless on any given night in King County, many of them, 40% at least, identify as LGBTQ.
I don't talk about it much because I know that I may get treated differently if somebody were to find out about it. I don't want to be looked at with pity or told that I am a success story or that I am 'one of the lucky ones.' Luck has nothing to do with it, nobody needs pity, and to me my success as a Gay man in his mid-30s has little to do with the fact that when I was 16-years-old I left home, under no protest, to free myself from having to live one more day in a racist, violent, anti-LGBTQ, one-parent home with an annual income well below the poverty line.
According to www.TeenFeed.org, family crisis is the most prevalent reason youth and young adults identify for becoming homeless.
I've always had a good sense of self preservation and I knew that I had to get away from home, otherwise the absolute ignorance of it all - the lessons in how to hate, who to hate and what to hate - might start to make sense to me and I wanted nothing to do with that. At age 13, I could already read better than my father and thus began a dynamic between the two of us that quite frankly presented the brutal truth that I, a boy, was academically smarter than he, my 43-year-old dad. I thought he was a fool, among other things, and none of them were positive. Hell, I knew he was angry and I knew he was abusive. One example of abuse happened when I was 12-years-old. Images of the Los Angeles riots, sparked by the not guilty verdict of the four officers accused of violating the civil rights of Rodney King, flashed across the TV screen. The year was 1992. My father was - as he always seemed to be - mad and was yelling racist things at the TV as if trying to reconcile somehow violence with more violence. This confused my young mind. I remember thinking, 'Why does he think that killing someone or hurting someone will fix this terrible thing that is happening.' So I asked him. And so I was beaten. Needless to say I stopped asking questions after that ... about anything.
Many homeless kids come from a broken home. I was no exception.
In the winter of 1995 my parents had, finally, called it quits. I don't really remember a time where they were happy. There's flashes of them smiling at each other from when I was so little I can't remember if those visions are real or just a projection of how I'd like to think of 'the way things were.' At any rate they did what many from that generation of post WWII babies did - stay together for way too long even when they knew their marriage was never going to work. My mother, a tall and slender German immigrant working at a pizzeria while going to school to become an interior designer fell for the bad boy - my father, a card-carrying biker with long black hair, blue eyes and a leather jacket. The year was 1972. After a few weeks of cheap dates and much to the detest of her father (who classically was standing on the porch with a shotgun threatening to shoot my dad if he took his daughter away on a motorcycle) my mother dropped out of college, disobeyed her father's wishes, hopped on the back of my dad's Harley and rode from Iowa to Nevada. Somewhere along the road, he threw a ring on the table at a diner and said, 'Are you going to marry me or what?' She said yes. They would have five kids together, two abortions, and one divorce. My mother became a bitter alcoholic whose moods shifted from being the victim to an angry and sometimes violent person who used to bake us cupcakes but now couldn't make dinner without it burning because she was too drunk to remember that something was in the oven. I heard that some kids, when their parents' divorce, think it was because of something they did. I could never understand that. When my parents split up (they were too broke to pay for a divorce because liquor, cigarettes and guns aren't cheap) the only thing I felt was relief. The war that would play out almost nightly in our two-bedroom trailer, shared by seven people, was finally over. She took the 'little ones,' my three youngest siblings, two brothers and a baby sister, and moved to Florida to stay with relatives.
I did not grow up in Seattle. I moved here in 2009 after receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Navy after nearly 10 years of service. If I really had to say it, even though I was forced to serve in silence under the now defunct 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy barring Gays and Lesbians from openly Gay service, I would say that it was the Navy that saved my life. Or, at least, gave me some time to breathe so I could build one. I grew up in the desert. Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada. Even as I write this I have a twinkle in my eye as Vegas will always have a place in my heart. It represents the absolute worst of our society and the absolute best. Las Vegas is every damn bit as bad as you have heard it is. But it can also be the poor man's paradise. Cheap eats, cheap entertainment, plenty of work if you are willing and you can be down in the gutter one day and back on top the next. Rarely does anything survive in the desert. I am one among the cactus, the lizards, and the red dirt. I survived the desert and I am proud of that. But on March 26, 1996, just one day after my 16th birthday, I did not yet know or fully understand what it would take to survive when nobody else thinks you could and everyone expects you to fall into the pit of crime and drugs and eventually - death. I will never forget that year. And I will never forget how I got away so I could live.
According to recent data, up to 60% of homeless youth have experienced physical abuse in their homes before ending up on the streets.
I told my dad I was Gay. I did it on purpose knowing he would throw me out. Surprisingly, he did not hit me. To this day that confuses me. I used to catch a beating for letting the phone ring past three rings or accidentally spilling milk at the dinner table when I was 5 years old. But not on the day that I said those three words: I AM GAY. He said, 'You know what this means, don't you?' And I said, 'Yes.' He would not allow me to get my things so my older sister said she would look after them (sometimes delivering to me clothes as I slept in the back of a partly demolished car in a junkyard for months) and my dad's girlfriend at the time, pretending to say goodbye, slipped $40 into my pocket, having felt sorry for me. I walked out the door, having to tell myself the whole time to not cry or run, and I never looked back.
According to a 2002 study, Seattle's LGBTQ homeless youth experience more frequent departure from home, greater vulnerability to victimization, and greater use of highly addictive substances when compared with their heterosexual counterparts (American Journal of Public Health, May 2002). In addition, 20-40% of homeless youth experience sexual abuse, compared to 1-3% of the general youth population.
In Vegas, on Tropicana Avenue, just past the famous Las Vegas Strip and right before you reach The Orleans Casino and Hotel is the Adult Super Store - that all of us homeless kids referred to as ASS. Simply hang out in the parking lot and sometimes in as little as 5 minutes, you could pick up a guy and make some money. I never liked it so I did not hustle for very long. A lot of the youth I knew through this part of the ugly reality that is homelessness at a young age were terribly addicted to drugs like heroin or crack and had several STDs and over half were infected with HIV/AIDS. I never stuck a needle in my arm and I didn't have an affinity for crack, but I was no angel either. I got high. On what exactly, is not important. What is important is for you to understand that this is a reality for many kids from the streets. And you know what? They know, just like I knew, that the straights and the squares of the world look at them as dirty, drug addicted, pariahs of society and that does not help the situation in the least. The divide that exists between society and homeless youth is one that is deep.
Studies have found high rates of mental health problems among homeless youth; mental health issues manifest both as a cause and a consequence of homelessness. Nobody wants those 'bad kids' around because they steal, rape and rob people. Well, let me tell you a good piece of reality. It is the homeless youth who are robbed, raped and their lives are literally stolen from them. If more people would change their perspective on the issue, we could raise the millions of dollars it will take to build homes for them, staffed with rehabilitation professionals and counselors. Instead, what it seems like we have now is a collective understanding that 40% of all homeless youth are LGBTQ and we shake our heads and say, 'This is unacceptable' while doing nothing about it.
RESOURCES FOR LGBTQ HOMELESS YOUTH
Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea), the organization of which I am founder and president, has committed to reaching out to LGBTQ homeless youth throughout the year. We do this by supporting the organizations who already have resources in place but could use some relief or donations. My approach with the SOSea Board of Directors is to remind them that our FROM THE HEART LGBTQ Homeless Youth/Adult Outreach Program must have the fundamental understanding that homeless people - regardless of age or sexual orientation - need three things: 1) they need to be fed; 2) they need to be dry and warm in the fall and winter and hydrated and cool in the spring and summer; and 3) they need shelter. At the basic level it equates to food, water, clothing and shelter. We can help out with the food and water and clothing. The shelter part is a beast.
Whether it be red tape of bureaucracy saying you can't feed homeless people or you can't have a tiny home in your backyard or to the fact that many of the youth (and even more so in the adult population) do suffer from mental illness, PTSD, and drug or alcohol addiction. They can be dangerous, violent or commit crimes to feed their addictions. However, we as a community, seem to have given up on them. We raised crazy amounts of money - over $10 million - for marriage equality in this state. Yet, I can't find any evidence anywhere to support the claim that we, as an LGBTQ community, have even raised $1 million for homeless youth.
While SOSea has helped to call attention to the issue we cannot be the ones driving the conversation because we are not a fully funded organization with a paid staff and furthermore, there are organizations working on the problem who need more resources to really make a dent. That's a great start if you ask me. We should not keep reinventing the wheel or launching new nonprofits when the existing ones struggle for money and support. When you sit down to write a check or make a cash donation, please consider the following organizations that are doing some tremendous work:
Peace for the Streets
by Kids from the Streets (PSKS)
1609 19th Ave #100, Seattle, WA 98122
PSKS provides support and services to Seattle area homeless youth and young adults - many of whom are LGBTQ. Their efforts are targeted at providing stepping-stones to transition youths from the streets to self-sufficiency and productive roles in community. You can support the PSKS community by either volunteering, donating or by increasing awareness of these important issues.
'Many of our clients are squatters, have animal companions and/or children, are suffering from addiction or have other circumstances that make it tough to find indoor shelter. Most of our youth don't follow the linear flow of shelter to transitional housing to secure housing. Often they are living under bridges, in cars or tents in the woods until they can secure their own housing. Our approach to basic needs is one of harm reduction - making human safety, health and security a priority whether they are living in an abandoned building or still struggling with substance abuse,' say PSKS officials.
PSKS is a 501(c)(3) organization. Donations can be made at www.psks.org.
1818 15th Ave
on Capitol Hill in Seattle
(between E Howell & E Denny Way)
Lambert House is a center for LGBTQ youth that empowers youth through the development of leadership, social and life skills. Lambert House is not a shelter.
'Every day, approximately 25 youth visit us,' say Lambert House officials. 'The drop-in center has a full kitchen, living room with a pool table, a stereo for tunes, a library with queer books, TV, games, and people to talk with about anything.'
Youth can join a support group, join an activity, talk to a counselor, use the computer lab, get dinner, shoot pool, play games and many other activities. You do not have to be homeless to utilize Lambert House. All LGBTQ youth are welcome.
Lambert house is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization registered with the Washington Secretary of State. Contributions are tax deductible and their Federal Tax ID number is 94-3036815.
YouthCare Administrative Offices
2500 NE 54th Street
Seattle, WA 98105
YouthCare's James W. Ray Orion Center
1828 Yale Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101
YouthCare's ISIS House is a unique transitional living program specifically designed to meet the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth and straight allies. It's one of a few housing programs like it in the nation, and the only one in Washington state. At ISIS, young people find, sometimes for the first time, a place where their identity isn't merely tolerated, it's celebrated.
'At YouthCare, we meet many young people who have faced rejection for their identities or have been kicked out for coming out as Gay or Transgender to their parents or guardians,' say YouthCare officials. 'All of YouthCare's programs offer supportive environments for youth to be who they are, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.'
KING COUNTY HOMELESS YOUTH & YOUNG ADULT INITIATIVE
The Homeless Youth and Young Adult (YYA) Initiative is King County's community-wide response to prevent and end homelessness among young people. The Initiative is led by the King County Committee to End Homelessness, advised by agency and government leaders, supported by private philanthropy and the public sector, and grounded in the voices and input of homeless and formerly homeless young people.
The YYA Comprehensive Plan Refresh, endorsed by the YYA Advisory Group and Youth Advocates Ending Homelessness in May 2015, outlines a community strategy in the areas of (1) making homelessness rare and brief, (2) making homelessness one-time, (3) supporting YYA of color, (4) supporting LGBTQ YYA and (5) improving access to housing and matching housing with YYA needs.
The Comprehensive Plan Refresh outlines priority activities, system activities, and measures of success for the next two years.
King County launched a system of 'Coordinated Engagement' for homeless youth and young adults in 2013. Coordinated Engagement directs young people's access to housing by coordinating their applications, applying a common strengths-based assessment, and placing them in programs that have worked for other young people like them.
Young adults ages 17.5-24 (without children) who are homeless or about to lose their housing can receive an assessment at locations throughout King County. For information regarding Youth Housing Connection, call (206) 328-5796 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of April 2015, YHC transitioned from being operated by Catholic Community Services to management by the Seattle-King County Continuum of Care.
For information regarding the Youth and Young Adult Initiative contact Megan Gibbard, Homeless YYA Initiative Project Manager at email@example.com or call (206) 263-2974 and Carrie Whitaker Hennen, Homeless YYA Initiative Project Planner, firstname.lastname@example.org or call (206) 263-1230.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Each organization has a specific list of items they are looking for by way of in-kind donations (not cash, but items like clothing or household goods). You can easily find each list on the websites of YouthCare, PSKS and Lambert House. However there are some items that continually come up that Seattle Gay News would like you to know about so you can help out:
o Men's and women's underwear: It's something simple that you don't really think too much about but the fact of the matter is, for homeless youth, it is a big deal. Buying a pack of new underwear and donating it to one of the organizations that serve the LGBTQ homeless youth population makes a difference.
o Warm clothing: Seattle can have some brutal, wet winter days and nights. Imagine having no place to live and no jacket to keep you warm. Service organizations ask that you consider donating sleeping bags, blankets, coats, thermal/wool socks, hats, gloves and scarves.
o Food: Grocery store gift cards, canned food, dried pasta/rice, cereal, granola bars, peanut butter and jelly.
o Hygiene products: Service organizations are always in need of personal hygiene products. Consider, especially tampons because many organizations report that they are in need of them but they are rarely donated.
o Kitchen utensils: Every day, young people who have made it off the streets work hard to achieve stability and self-sufficiency. Whether they are learning independent living skills or moving into their first apartment, it is important to ensure they have the essential supplies they need to make a house a home. Donate small kitchen appliances, utensils, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.
You can also continue to put pressure on elected officials to make sure that organizations that help homeless youth and adults are fully funded. Mayor Ed Murray has said he is committed to helping to end homelessness and the City Council has voted on several initiatives that aid the homeless population. But there is still a lot more to be done and so it is important to hold officials accountable to ensure that what is left to do actually gets done. Ending homelessness, especially youth homelessness, should be a priority. Asking LGBTQ youth to take a back seat to the host of many issues we still face as a community is wrong. Any society or community worth a damn takes care of its young people. We can do a better job. Get involved by volunteering at an organization, make a cash or in kind donation when you can, and continue to show support for the organizations that work so hard on this complex and systemic problem.
My story is still being written. I closed the chapter on my life as a homeless youth years ago. I managed to avoid drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, and being killed by adapting to the streets and taking friends up on the offer to sleep on the floor in their room, looked for legitimate work and no matter how difficult it may have been, I never dropped out of school and graduated on time in 1998. I know, and you should know, that my story is not the norm. Many of the kids I was on the streets with became LGBTQ homeless adults. Many of the kids I was on the streets with desperately needed mental health professionals and never got to meet with them. The fact of the matter is many of the kids I was on the streets with are dead. The LGBTQ community knows the numbers, the statistics and the problem. Now it is up to all of us to refocus our attention and work together to end this terrible epidemic.
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