Zack is one of thousands of LGBT youth who were born and grew up in and around Dane County. “Zack” is not his actual name, but unfortunately, his story is all too vivid and real. His tale outlines a sobering statistic: he’s one of the millions of homeless LGBT youth.
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 575,000 and 1.6 million youth experience homelessness in America. It’s estimated as high as 20 to 40 percent of those youth are LGBT, many experiencing homelessness because of the reaction of their family to their sexuality or gender identity.
The story of Zack’s life begins in Madison, where he was born and raised and where his family and friends have always been. Zack was cognizant early on that he was different from other boys. “I would have sleepovers with the neighbor boy, and we would hold each other. I think I knew then that I was gay; I just didn’t know what I was feeling. I think my mother knew that I was, shall we say, ‘different’.
Like many other LGBT teenagers, he endured challenges in high school, where he was the target of derision and, sometimes, of physical abuse. “One kid even threw a dictionary and a stapler at my forehead. Nobody did anything – not even the teacher, no joke.”
While still in his teens, Zack’s mother discovered a piece of the puzzle regarding his sexuality. Zack told several of his friends he was bisexual, and his mother found out. “Mothers do seem to find everything out in the end, don’t they?” She told Zack that as long as he liked “girls more than guys that it was normal”.
When he eventually identified as gay to his family, he was not prepared for the reaction. “I became the family joke, really. My brothers made fun of me for years, and had their friends make fun of me. My father refused to believe it.” The tension at home made living there untenable, and Zack struck out on his own to try and make a go of it.
Zack soon found being on his own a big challenge. “A lot of my friends already had roommates. Some thought that if I moved in I would turn everyone gay! I was also constantly being harassed about my sexuality at my job, and was pretty much forced to quit.” So with no job and no place to live, Zack became homeless. He was heartbroken when he had to ditch all of his belongings. “Everyone was finding a nest to snuggle into, and I had to throw all of my stuff away. All of my years of papers and knick-knacks – posters, clothes, music, my guitar. Everything I thought made me who I was.”
Zack has been homeless in Dane County for almost a year now. He found that some of the mainstream outlets for people to get assistance were, in his words, “a big joke”. Although there are several existing shelter options for women and children, the main men’s homeless shelter in a downtown church proved to be a scary place where one could “get scabies and have all of your stuff stolen.” Bureaucratic red tape ensnarled several attempts that Zack made to get help. “The Porchlight program, which is supposed to help people find housing would tell me you have to call on a certain day at a certain time once a week. Then I find out you have to have a job in order to qualify for help with housing. Well, if I had a job, why would I be asking them for help in the first place? Hello!”
As Craig Adamski knows, these are commonplace challenges for LGBT homeless youth. Adamski is the facilitator for Teens Like Us, an LGBT youth support group, and Top TEN (Teen Education Network). These two groups offer a number of services, including crisis support for LGBT youth, under the “umbrella” of Briarpatch, the program for homeless and runaway youth in Dane County.
Adamski works with a range of youth, generally ranging from ages 12 to 19. The Teens Like Us group will work with these youth as a result of referrals from the crisis hotline or from other social service agencies. The group setting served over 100 youth last year. Coordinating services for LGBT youth can be an enormous challenge, however. Adamski recalled that “we had a transgendered youth come into the program. They were kicked out at 18, and we can’t place youth who are 18 and up in host homes, since they’re considered an adult. Because there was so many challenges in just dealing with family, this client had no job skills or people skills – they’d lived their life as a ‘hidden person’, because the family insisted that they not go public. For them, sleeping in their ‘bio’ gender shelter was not safe. Eventually, we worked with our outreach program and were able to help.”
In addition to the focus with the TLU group, case management services are also available for youth under age 24, where they can get assistance finding employment and health care. Adamski says that “the needs of youth that are 19 to 24 tend to slip off the radar” at an important developmental time, where individuals are expected to transition into higher education or a traditional job environment.
The Top TEN group often speaks at schools. The presentations are made more powerful by the fact that it’s the group members themselves – LGBT youth and allies – that are telling their own stories. As Adamski observes, “sometimes, the staff will be proactive. And sometimes, we’re called by a teacher or school staff in response to an issue.” The groups also coordinate social events, including quarterly dances, a statewide LGBT prom, and overnight “lock-ins”, as well as a weekly social group “drop in”.
Adamski sees Teens Like Us as a powerful empowerent tool for these youth. Many are so busy dealing with simple issues of survival in a hostile living situation that they aren’t able to experience traditional teen life and community. “The group becomes community, and provides an open and safe space to talk.” It also allows the teens to process what’s happened to them. “When parents are abusive, and children are not accepted in the home, it impacts every area of that child’s life – particularly schooling and work.”
Zack’s education and career have been impacted by his homelessness. With limited job skills and no fixed address, it’s a challenge for Zack to find a job. And although he had every intention of attending MATC, his financial aid was denied. “The counselors told me I would be getting a lot of financial aid this year. Well, they were wrong. My dreams were crushed. I had really high hopes for my future. And believe it or not, I’m a pretty bright guy. I might have gotten somewhere.”
Zack’s desolation over having no job and no educational future led him to revert to basic survival skills. For Zack, that included drugs and alcohol and, eventually, sex work. Zack recalls being offered drugs and alcohol, and “waking up at some random guy’s house. I got up to leave and noticed I was walking funny. It may be a funny joke in high school, but it was an awful feeling to not know who took advantage of you. Eventually, I lost my inhibitions and just wanted to stay drunk, keep warm, to feel something – anything, really.”
Zack is unhappy with the person he’s become in order to get through the day. “I’m incredibly lucky that I haven’t gotten any non-curable STD’s or STI’s. I wonder if I would do such a crazy thing if I wasn’t homeless. I’d sell myself out for a few drinks, or a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes, I’d find guys who would buy me drinks all night and then I’d bail out on them. This made me feel bad afterwards. I was taking advantage of them now. But I was cold some nights, and the alcohol made me forget about that.”
At a low point, Zack’s pain and anger about his situation culminated in thoughts of suicide. “After a night of heavy drinking I really reached a low point. I didn’t find anyone to take me home that night, and I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the people that were in their homes and their beds – and wondering, what have I done to deserve this? So I went to a bridge I was familiar with. I sat at the cliff by that bridge, thinking about the best angle to jump at. I started to think of which way would be more painful or less painful – and which way did I deserve?” Luckily, the next thing Zack remembered was waking up to daylight the next morning.
Zack appreciates the help he’s gotten from programs that have been able to help him, but says that for LGBT youth, “emergency cash assistance or grants would be helpful. Some kind of transitional housing, or a homeless shelter specifically for gay men under 30, would also be a grand thing. I know I am not the only one on the streets in this city. I’ve met a few other kids with similar stories, some a lot worse than mine.”
Adamski hopes that awareness of the TLU and Top TEN groups, and the Briarpatch center, will encourage any youth in crisis to contact them for assistance. For all of us who have already experienced our own challenges as youth, he hopes that we’ll make a contribution to help youth like Zack. Adamski urges people interested in supporting these programs to “make financial donations – either via United Way, or through personal donations.” There are also volunteer opportunities. People can volunteer for administrative duties, sign up to answer the crisis hotline, or assist with special events and weekly group meetings. (The organization does request a background check from any potential volunteer.)