Ticket to Nowhere

For homeless LGBT teens, life on the streets is especially difficult and dangerous

Long after sundown, a largely unseen world comes alive. It awakens outside downtown bars, where street kids linger for the knowing nod, the flash of fake intimacy, the cold cash of a transaction complete.

And it pulses across the Internet's bloodless connections, careening through pickup sites such as Adam4Adam.com, where the young and homeless offer the sole commodity they possess, and the takers are many.

But there's a side to this unseen world that's darker still—the taunts, the beatings and the deaths that come with being on the street and being different. In this world, the difference is over something that exists far beyond choice and sheer predilection. It is about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender. And if you don't think those folks have tough sledding in America's mainstream culture of institutionalized bigotry, welcome to the streets.

The pain out there is tremendous. When inflicted on youngsters—often by the very families these young people have a right to rely on—the damage is incalculable.

Hennessy Madrid knows both worlds. At age 25, she's among the survivors.

Madrid left an unwelcome home at age 14. With few friends and no money, she floated into the twilight. She worked as a prostitute, ricocheted among shelters and couches, and lived on drugs. The chaos ended after a weeklong drinking binge when she nearly died.

Today, Madrid, who is transgendered, is slight and well-spoken, with the sad eyes of a refugee. She helps manage the Youth Resource Center, a downtown sanctuary created by a local social-service agency called Open Inn. The center consists of a bright room with green and purple walls, metal racks of donated clothing, one grumbling refrigerator, and a number of inspirational snippets tacked all around. "There Is Help!" says one poster. Another shows sullen teens climbing a stairway, and smiling teens coming back down. "Build Your Future," it says, "Step By Step."

But what is that future? Here at the YRC, such questions are never taken for granted. Nor is the trust between any outreach group—no matter how noble-minded—and kids on the street. "They feel that organizations have failed them," Hennessy tells me, "and that they can do everything for themselves. But that usually ends up being worse later on."

Worse, indeed. Consider some raw numbers: According to data compiled by academics and the federal government, between 1.6 million and 2.8 million juveniles run away each year. Among them, 47 percent leave home because of conflicts with a parent or guardian. The recession has only made this worse among tense, cash-strapped families; more than half of homeless youths are reportedly booted out by their parents or leave home with their parents' acquiescence.

Nearly 75 percent of the time, parents don't report their runaway children missing, either because of recent conflicts or because the kid was no longer welcome. Among homeless youth, 34 percent reported being sexually abused at home.

Within that population of homeless youngsters, up to 24 percent identified themselves as LGBT, according to a 2010 study by the University of Chicago and the Urban Institute. Their estimated numbers nationally veer between 320,000 and 400,000, and that is considered low by many.

In another study, this time by the UA's Southwest Institute for Research on Women, nearly 90 percent of LGBT adolescents and young adults report having been attacked or abused. Of them, 31.4 percent had experienced assaults within the last three months. Nearly half said they had been harassed in school because of their sexuality.

Within the study group, 21.6 percent said they did not always have frank and open discussions with their parents, although more than three-quarters had revealed their sexual orientation to their families.

All of these numbers collide in the fact that LGBT kids are far more likely to become homeless than other youths, and may account for some 40 percent of youngsters on the streets—a stunningly disproportionate statistic, considering that gay and transgender youths comprise 10 percent or less of American's underage population.

Some of the reasons seem obvious. Stress found in any home plays a part. So does the fact that many of these youths are simply kicked out, by parents or other family members who refuse to accept their identity.

That can be a ticket to nowhere. Data show that LGBT juveniles who face family rejection were almost nine times as likely to attempt suicide as their non-LGBT peers—but far less likely to obtain a decent education. They face discrimination and neglect in juvenile-detention centers, in foster care and in shelters for the homeless. Transgender youths in particular suffer discrimination in shelters, where they're housed according to their birth gender rather than the one with which they identify. That puts them at risk of sexual harassment and violence.

Forty-four percent of gay homeless youth receive offers for sex in exchange for food or shelter, nearly double the rate for straight homeless teens.

Given that national snapshot, it's no surprise that Arizona's record is particularly dismal. The Division of Children, Youth and Families, within the state Department of Economic Security, has not a single group home geared specifically toward LGBT kids. They are provided nothing in terms of extra support or specialized counseling.

"Arizona has not begun to address the needs of LGBT youth," says a report by Lambda Legal, a national advocacy group for gay and transgender people. "The Division of Children, Youth and Families ... has no statewide policies, training or programs addressing discrimination against LGBT foster-care youth."

There are nascent national efforts to address this issue. Among them is the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which funds educational programs and some services for homeless youths. But it makes no specific mention of LGBT youngsters or their unique challenges and problems.

Of course, numbers are just numbers. Over at Wingspan, a local power-point for Southern Arizona's LGBT community, those cold stats boil down to the real faces Kevin Jackson sees every day in his job as coordinator for the organization's homeless-youth project.

Jackson has a big beard and a forthright style. But his words hint at melancholy when we get to the rejection these kids face at home. "To me," he says, "they are the most-vulnerable youths. Even if they're not out to their families or peers, any gender variance in their self-expression can get them pushed out the door."

Pinning down just how many have been forced onto on the streets of Tucson can be dicey. In 2005, for instance, Jackson helped on a local survey by the Tucson Pima Collaboration to End Homelessness. The results were mixed. While he found that roughly 17 percent of the youths who identified themselves as LGBT cited their sexuality as a reason for running away, it was impossible to tell how many more kids just kept quiet.

That is frustrating, but logical. "We don't seem to be able to get those numbers," he says. "These youth are such survivors, because they are so good at hiding themselves. And thank goodness, because it probably saves their lives. But it makes counting them so hard." Without solid stats, it's even more difficult to justify the need to federal and state bean-counters doling out the funds.

Nonetheless, the very vulnerability of LGBT youth has also made them quite resourceful and street-smart. In that, Wingspan is an unapologetic participant. "When you have young people starting to feel empowered and comfortable in a public way, along with it comes the added risk of visibility," Jackson says. "We do a lot of work around that. I'll say, 'OK, so you've dyed that third color in your hair, and you're wearing clothing that's more effeminate than your average guy. What does that mean to the haters out there who can spot you now?

"'Don't curtail your expression—be who you are,'" he tells them. "'But do it safely. Be aware of your surroundings. Walk with friends.'"

Jackson concedes that the constant drumbeat of caution "can be oppressive. But being aware of how (kids) present themselves in public can be very beneficial toward their safety."

The tricky part, he says, is making sure "they hear that as a message of empowerment and love and compassion, and not one of, 'Ooh, you'd better not wear that if you're going to go out.'"

But the message remains, for in an urban jungle, they can even be targeted by other homeless people. "If you're a man, and your gender expression is too effeminate for who you walk up on, they'll beat the crap out of you because you're a fag," Jackson says. "If you're a girl, and your expression is a little too masculine, same thing."

Apparently, such beatings or rapes are rarely reported—which means assailants don't much worry about facing justice.

"No one in our office could recall a case in which the victim was a homeless LGBT teen," says Tucson city prosecutor Baird Greene. "But that doesn't mean it's not happening. Regardless of whether they're LGBT or not, from my experience with the homeless population, all sorts of horrible, nasty things happen to them and between them. And they're very hesitant to be involved in the system, which may be one of the reasons they're homeless in the first place."

But should that call ever come, justice could be gnarly. "If we did have an act of discrimination against someone belonging to one of those groups, not only would we prosecute it, but we'd also ask for increased sentencing provisions if there were a conviction," Greene says.

Those increased provisions come straight from hate-crime guidelines.

A prosecutor with the Pima County Attorney's Office, which handles felony assaults, said he hadn't recently seen any reported assaults involving LGBT teens.

For shelters, meanwhile, reducing the risk of violence often means erring on the side of caution. "We do work with gay and lesbian clients," says Pastor Roy Tullgren, executive director of Tucson's Gospel Rescue Mission.

He adds that the mission does not take in minors. Nor does it accommodate people who've undergone sex changes. "The problem with transgendered folks is that we don't have private rooms for them," Tullgren says. "If it was just a partial transgender, we would have a difficult time, because we have group showers and group sleeping areas."

Exposing themselves that way "would be dangerous to the person themselves, as well as to others," he says. "Some of the men we get in don't have a real good tolerance. Our staff does, but that doesn't mean our clients do."

The mission serves up to 120 men a night, he says, "some of whom have pretty tough backgrounds."

In a country with a chronic shortage of beds, it's reportedly routine that transgendered women are forced to bunk in the men's quarters, and transgendered men must bunk in women's quarters.

Since few young, transgender people can afford the high cost of legally changing their identities, they still tote around IDs from their earlier lives. In a special form of torture, that's the ID they must reveal at the shelter doors, and the one dictating where they'll be placed.

It's no wonder that according to some studies, transgender folks often just prefer to sleep on the streets.

Homeless LGBT teens need not look far to glimpse the brutal abyss.

Last year, at about 8 p.m. on Valentine's Day, George Soto was walking down Stone Avenue when he was attacked, stabbed repeatedly and left to die.

At 23, Soto had been a fixture at Wingspan. "He was on and off the streets for many years," Kevin Jackson says, "and he was as unthreatening as can be. He'd recently become involved in a transitional-housing program and was walking the half-mile to his boyfriend's place when he was jumped."

According to news reports, a patrolling Tucson cop saw men running from Soto, who soon died in a hospital. A day later, detectives arrested a reputed gang-banger named Gabriel Soliz. One report said that Soliz, then 18, grinned at his buddies during an early court hearing.

As for Soto, "he was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Jackson says. "He came across thugs who stabbed him eight times and killed him. That's the type of random, lethal street violence our kids are coming across."

I got kicked out of my home when I was really young," says Hennessy Madrid, now sitting behind a black laptop computer at the Youth Resource Center. "You feel all alone. Your family is who you're supposed to be able to count on."

In Madrid's case, young was a mere 14. Two years later, she flunked out of Sunnyside High School. "I wasn't able to study. I wasn't passing any of my classes, because I was constantly being ridiculed and threatened." A few teachers tried to help, "but the majority didn't want to get involved."

She believes the school failed her.

That was nearly a decade ago. To find out if the Sunnyside Unified School District has since beefed up its policies to stop the bullying of LGBT teens, I called its administration office. After getting bounced around a bit, I was referred to Eugenia Favela, assistant superintendent for student services.

The response was not encouraging. Instead of hearing back from Favela, I got a call from an assistant who was curiously preoccupied with discovering who had put her boss on the spot. When I called again a few days later, Favela had already decamped to a conference in Oregon.

Back to Hennessy Madrid's experience. She had been booted from her home, was neglected at school—and had landed in the street. Even the hardened homeless were better off: At least they could score a shelter cot.

"I'm transgender," Madrid says. "So for me to be admitted to a women's shelter ... that really won't happen. Depending on what shelter you go to, they want to put you in with your birth sex, and that's not safe."

Back on the streets, she survived in a chemically laced half-light that included everything short of heroin. "I was prostituting at the time," she says. "It was really hard, but at the same time, I was on drugs, so it didn't faze me."

Clients came from Internet hookups, and even Facebook.

Today, Madrid can spot kids hustling from a mile away. "Fourth Avenue is the main place for that kind of thing," she says, "because of all the bars."

According to Jackson, Madrid's story is hardly rare. "Sex work, prostitution, petty criminal activity—those are survival stratagems," he says. "That's how they make sure they have food and a place to stay."

This topic arises regularly at Wingspan's youth center, called Eon. "On Thursdays, we have very frank and candid conversations about health and well-being," Jackson says. "If they find themselves in a situation where they're using survival sex, we talk about how to negotiate condom usage and how to utilize resources other than survival sex to make sure they have a place to stay. Those are things we talk about very openly."

But even this gritty topic requires treading lightly. "We don't have a lot of youth that come to us and say outright, 'This is what I'm doing,'" he explains. "Some of them are underage, and they know the minute they say they're having (sexual) contact with an adult, that's something we have to report."

If you get preachy, he says, "then you risk losing them."

Numbers compiled by the Center for American Progress show that the federal government spends about $4.2 billion each year on homeless-assistance programs. Of that, less than 5 percent goes to programs specifically for homeless children and youth. While the government annually dispenses $44 billion for rental assistance, affordable-housing programs and public housing, less than 1 percent of that is devoted to housing for homeless youth.

In the meantime, groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign are pushing for more congressional funding, not only to better gauge the depth of need, but also to establish shelters attuned to homeless LGBT youths and adults.

While the problem has received more attention under President Barack Obama, meager funding "has definitely been an issue for years and years," says Robin Maril, legislative counsel for the HRC. Throughout Congress, and particularly within the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, "there is definitely lack of support," she says. "This vulnerable population has just been neglected."

That leaves local agencies scrambling to fill the gaps. Among them is Open Inn, which provides transitional housing for LGBT youth with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency also operates a crisis shelter for homeless youngsters.

But if capturing needed funds is the first hurdle, reassuring a traumatized population is the second. "For LGBT youth, shelters can be a dangerous and threatening place," says John Orr, a program director for Open Inn. "A lot of our youth have reported being targeted for their sexuality in shelters."

Open Inn "provides an avenue where they don't have to be subjected to that sort of thing to get emergency housing. And often, they move on to our transitional program, which can last up to two years."

The Youth Resource Center is the soft touch that gets them there. "Often, when they get comfortable at the drop-in center, they'll want to engage in case management, though they don't have to," Orr says. "They can just come and hang out there, get some food and get out of the sun."

Greg Strom leads me past a clutch of teenage boys eating lunch and back into a narrow hallway painted light blue. A small poster is tacked to one side. "Bullying Is Whack," it says. This is the Valor Group Home in midtown, one of two Tucson homes operated by an agency called Devereux Arizona.

Inside Valor's busy office, Strom shows me a small board charting which youngsters are doing good deeds—extra cleaning in the kitchen, helping another kid with homework—which earns them points toward small prizes.

The bedrooms appeal to the aesthetics of teenage boys, which means lots of sports logos, and even a poster of Tupac Shakur. Strom encourages the kids here to decorate, within reason.

Devereux has become known for its progressive approach to social work, which includes an aggressive program for recruitment and training of same-sex foster parents. This year, it was the first Arizona adoption agency to win the "All Children-All Families" seal of recognition from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Devereux also emphasizes making LGBT kids feel at home in group dwellings such as Valor. That's no small order.

Consider the former resident we'll call Andrew. "He came to us when he was 16 years old, and he had a lot of challenges," Strom says. "He not only identified with being gay, but he was also deaf. He was terrified coming into this environment, after being in a place where everybody did sign language.

"We were consciously optimistic, as we were making plans about adapting our environment to him. But he was also really afraid, coming in and not knowing how he was going to be accepted into the house."

The first step was simply addressing the special needs of a deaf young man by purchasing a vibrating alarm clock and an interactive computer. "And interestingly enough, his sexual identity wasn't really an issue to any of the kids," Strom says. "In his mannerisms and dress, you could kind of tell what his sexual preference was. He explained later that he was really concerned about how that was going to project to the other kids. But they were very accepting. That never became an issue."

Strom was once a Tucson police officer. ("I wanted to do good for society," he says.) Today, he leans against a door frame and watches young boys goof in the front room, like any teens would do. Still, these are not just any other kids. That's why, with few exceptions, they bonded with a gay, deaf youngster like Andrew.

"They may not be able to verbalize it," Strom says, "but I think there's an understanding from all of them that they've come through some pretty rough times. It's kind of like being in a club you don't want to be in."

Yvette Jackson is Devereux Arizona's director of operations and also sits on the Wingspan board of directors. She says creating a comfort zone for kids like Andrew, and others who are going into foster care, starts from the first contact.

"It comes from how we do our assessments and intakes—how we talk to the clients about their relationships." In this process, simple word choice looms large. "Do we say things like, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' Or do we say, 'Are you in a relationship?'

"Do we have things on our walls that show youth when they come in that it's OK for a male to say he's in a relationship and has a boyfriend and feel comfortable with that?" she asks. "It's the only way we're going to be able to identify these kids and help them with their issues."

The backdoor of Open Inn's downtown Youth Resource Center bangs shut, and two young women shuffle past. One pushes a stroller, and they chat while going through the racks of donated clothing.

From a bulletin board hangs a list of center rules. Among them: "No one under 18 can be in the YRC. ... Being at least the age of 18, we expect you to act your age." And this: "No illegal activities of any kind are to be conducted, consumed or discussed."

Across the room, Hennessy Madrid sits at her small desk. Inspirational posters are common in social-work settings, and the wall behind her bears another. "Think for Yourself!" it says. "'N' Do It Yourself."

Beside Madrid sit her co-managers at the YRC. There's Abel Torres, 23, a straight guy who made it here from California's Central Valley. Then there's Alexandria Escalante, a 20-year-old transgender woman who was raised on the Tohono O'odham reservation west of town. She left home after clashes with her stepfather, a Baptist minister. She lived with her brother for awhile, but she desperately wanted to leave the reservation, which she calls "so close-minded and backward."

But life isn't a breeze in Tucson, either. Escalante says it's tough getting jobs or an apartment when she has to use her legal name, which is that of a man. "It's so much easier to just pass you over for a regular person," she says.

Regular seems key, for a broad swath of society still bent on castigating LGBT people. While Madrid sees some attitudes changing, "there are a lot of people who just aren't going to budge for religious reasons," she says. "That's one of the main barriers we still haven't been able to break down."

Ignorance is another. Every day, she is harassed on the bus. "I ignore them, and that usually gets results," she says. "But sometimes, people can be really aggressive. They aren't comfortable with themselves, so they have to voice their opinions, whether they be good or bad."

Meanwhile, several blocks away, life on Fourth Avenue has changed little. Madrid monitors the action with a knowing eye; in a heartbeat, she can spot the kids buying drugs and the ones selling themselves.

"It's pretty obvious, once you've been there, to know what they're doing," she says. "Because I've been through that, a lot of times, they're coming to me, either to tell me what's going on or asking for help.

"It makes me upset. At the same time, it's not like I can go preaching to them, because I've done it, too. I do try to encourage them to come in and do what they have to do to get off the streets. But it's really up to them."

Others never ask for help, and simply slip away.

She knows how that works, too. "Once, I was up for 11 days," she says. "I lost it. I was going to kill myself. I ended up in ER because I cut myself, and I overdosed on alcohol. That was the tipping point for me."

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