Atlanta’s homeless LGBT youth organization Lost-N-Found Youth is featured in the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine. It’s a healthy bit of publicity for the group and the issue of LGBT youth homelessness as the national publication has become an institution covering music, politics, social issues and pop culture for nearly 50 years.
The article, called “The Forsaken,” profiles two Lost-N-Found clients, James (not his real name) and Hannah, and includes insight from the organization’s executive director Rick Westbrook, who reporter Alex Morris describes as “a kindly 51-year-old with a serious Southern drawl.” Morris is familiar with covering LGBT youth, as she wrote an excellent article last fall on “The Hidden War Against Gay Teens.”
The issue hits newsstands today and the story will be online early the week of Sept. 1, but we have excerpts from the article below courtesy of Lost-N-Found.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town, the son of a divorced Latina who worked three jobs, James would have felt like an outsider even if it weren’t for his sexuality. His hometown was the kind of all-American, cornfed place where “on every street corner you’d find a church” and where “the football players, if they knew you were gay, would call you a fag and tell you to suck their dick, or try to get you to bend over.” Already sidelined for being a minority, James, 20, says he “was terrified of being branded the gay kid.” In fact, he was so afraid that he suppressed an effervescent personality and kept to himself. When an openly gay classmate gave him a love letter, James was too scared to act on the impulses he’d felt for as long as he could remember. “So I just flipped out on him. I wasn’t ready for that.”
The same kind of fear kept James silent at home, where his mom cycled through religions: first Catholic, then Pentecostal (“die-hard Pentecostal”),then Jehovah’s Witness, and then back to Catholic once she met James’ stepfather. Though James never told his mom he liked other boys, her views on the matter were abundantly clear – “It was disgusting, sick, adding to the end of the world” – and she must have suspected. “At one point, and I was right there,” he says, “my mom actually told this lady that she loved all of her children besides me.”
Nevertheless, he worked up the courage to secretly start dating someone he’d met while waiting tables, and when he accidentally left his phone at home one day, his mom searched through it and found a picture of them kissing. “That was the day it really got serious,” James says of the fallout with his family. “When I came home, she accused me of being a whore and told me I’d die of STDs. She made my brother move out of the room that we shared. I guess she thought it was a disease or something, that I would give him the gay. Like, I’d touch him and he’d automatically be gay.”
Shortly after James graduated from high school, his mom told him that her home was not open to “people like you.” He grabbed a bag and followed her orders. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I don’t know where I’m going,’ ” he says. “ ‘But at some point, it has to get better.’ ” He decided to get as far from home as he could. “I hitchhiked – 18-wheelers, anybody who would give me a ride. I knew it was dangerous.” He was in Florida before he felt like he’d gone far enough to stay put, though the only place he could find to sleep was an abandoned lot. “It used to be an old bus station,” he says, shrugging. He lasted three penniless weeks alone there, collecting rainwater to drink and going hungry. “For the first week, you’ll be like, ‘I’m dying of hunger,’ but after a while you don’t feel it anymore.” He finally got in touch with a friend who lived in Atlanta, and ended up staying in the friend’s car until they heard about a shelter called Lost-n-Found Youth, which had been started specifically for the large influx of homeless LGBT kids who travel from the surrounding red states to one of the South’s most liberal cities.
As James (who has asked me to change his name so he would not be identifiable to his family) is telling me this, he’s covered in dust and plaster particles from renovation work on the rambling old Victorian that Lost-n-Found has been able to lease for $1 a year. One day, the house will be able to give shelter to 18 homeless youths – a day that cannot come nearly soon enough for Rick Westbrook, a kindly 51-year-old with a serious Southern drawl. Along with two friends, Westbrook started Lost-n-Found in a small but cozy home he rented using donated funds, after learning that LGBT youth were frequently being turned away at local shelters.
Westbrook, known to his charges as “Mama Rick,” says this has been due to discrimination: In one survey, approximately one in five LGBT youth were unable to secure short- term shelter, and 16 percent could not get assistance with longer-term housing – figures that were almost double those of their non-LGBT peers. However, it’s clear that funding is also a problem. The U.S. government spends more than $5 billion annually on homeless-assistance programs, yet federal laws allocate less than five percent to homeless children and youth specifically (though some money also makes its way to them through more generalized programs under agencies like HUD and the Department of Labor). Most of the dedicated funds are allocated through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA), which expired last September. “This is the first time it has not been reauthorized on time since 1988,” says Gregory Lewis, executive director of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, who is working with Congress to ensure that RHYA will include a nondiscrimination clause. Currently, Lewis tells me, “there are no legal federal protections in place to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in RHYA programs.” At one residential placement facility in Michigan, LGBT teens were made to wear orange jumpsuits to “warn” other residents about their sexuality.
Since 2002, when President George W. Bush issued an executive order that permitted faith-based organizations to receive federal support for social services, an increased amount of federal funding has gone to churches and religion-affiliated organizations where LGBT youth may not feel welcome. The biggest provider for homeless youth in the country is Covenant House, an organization based in New York and a shelter where LGBT teens have historically faced harassment. “The gay kids would routinely get bashed there,” Siciliano tells me. “In the Nineties, one of the first kids I had go there came back and said he would never go back. When I asked why, he said they put him in a dorm with 14 kids, and when they went to bed, they gathered around and urinated on him to show how much they hated having a gay kid there.”
Yet to have even landed a bed at Covenant would have taken some luck. In New York, a city with nearly 4,000 homeless youth, there are only around 350 spots in youth shelters, and less than a third of those spots are designated for LGBT kids, despite their disproportionate share of the homeless-youth population. (And considering that many homeless youth may not seeking services, many providers believe that the estimate of 40 percent may be far too low.) Across the country, there are only 4,000 youth-shelter beds overall, while an estimate derived from the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children put the number of homeless minors at 1.7 million.
“We’ve actually thought about creating a handbook: This is what to look for in a decent, abandoned building to stay in,” says Westbrook ruefully. “If we don’t have the space for them, as an activist, it’s the next logical step: Give them information.”
While reserving beds for LGBT youth might at first seem like segregation, providers have often found that it can be difficult to ensure a safe space otherwise – and that creating a safe space can have a very discernible effect. James’ roommate Hannah (unlike most shelters, Lost-n-Found does not separate rooms by sex, making it much easier for trans kids to assimilate) was in and out of shelters all over the Atlanta area for more than three years after she was kicked out by a mother who had per-adopted her at age two because she’d always wanted a girl, and then rejected her when Hannah proved not girlie enough. “She read me Scripture about how people who have sexual sin would not enter the gates of heaven,” Hannah, a zaftig African- American, says, frowning. When that didn’t seem to have an effect, “she takes a knife and puts it right here”– Hannah points to her neck – “and says she will kill me, that she hates me and regrets adopting me.”Hannah was 20 and just back from a Job Corps training pro-gram when she found a policeman at her bedroom door telling her she had to leave, that her mom no longer wanted Hannah under her roof. Her stepfather gave her $20 on the way out. While driving her to a bus stop, the cop told her how sorry he was.
Over the next three years, Hannah cycled through shelter after shelter. The weeks, and sometimes months, when she couldn’t find a bed, she slept on the street, often outside the Day Shelter for Women, where she could at least get warm meals and a shower, even if she also found maggots in her hair. Living like that, it was impossible to imagine going to a job inter-view, especially after she lost her birth certificate and high school diploma when a worker at a shelter accidentally cleaned out her locker. She sold pot to make money and considered prostitution, a way many homeless women she knew got by. “I was very tempted,” she tells me. “Like, I had a guy say, ‘I’ll give you $100 if you do what I tell you to do.’ ” Hannah knew $100 was enough money to put herself up in a hotel for a couple of nights, but she says, “I could never see myself doing it.”
It wasn’t until she finally got off the wait-list at Lost-n-Found that Hannah began to see there might be a future for herself as a non-straight woman – a revelation that Westbrook assures me is not uncommon. “Just in the two years we’ve been up and running,” he says, “there’ve been several kids we’ve run into who have been through every single system in town, but for some reason, they did not thrive. Other case-workers had told us, ‘Good luck with him or her. We did all we could.’ These kids are now either in college or in an apartment of their own. The minute you bring them into a program like ours, where they’re with people like themselves, they don’t feel like they’re outnumbered, they don’t feel oppressed. They blossom.” Hannah still sometimes feels like she’s “burning in hell.” She still wonders if “my life’s always been horrible because I like girls.” But since she started staying at Lost- n-Found, things have definitely shifted. She no longer sleeps with a knife under her pillow or worries about being kicked out of a shelter for her sexuality. She has a steady job with UPS, LGBT friends who accept her and a small safety net of savings to get her own apartment one day soon.“I’m not scared no more,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about people beating on me. It has been 100 percent better.”