Youth Homelessness: No House to Call My Home
Although GLBT people are more accepted and less stigmatized as a whole, more than a million youth in the United States are homeless; almost 40 percent of them are GLBT, and a disproportionally high number of those youth are youth of color. In an excerpt from his new book, No House to Call My Home, youth worker Ryan Berg highlights the struggles for one youth rejected by her family for being gay. Berg currently manages the Minneapolis and Suburban Host Home Programs of Avenues for Homeless Youth where volunteers open their homes and share resources with young people experiencing homelessness.
I’m surprised when Barbara walks into my office, sits down, and acts like nothing’s new. She’s been AWOL from the group home for a month now. I think she’s living with her girlfriend’s family but there’s no way to be sure. Things were going well until her father and stepmother showed up at court for her permanency planning hearing, where the judge must determine the appropriateness of the agency’s long-term plan for the youth and the reasonableness of the agency’s efforts to execute the plan. Before entering the courtroom they cornered Barbara, berated her, and disowned her for acting like a boy. If she put on a dress, he’d consider supporting her, her father said, but as she is, she is an abomination. I tried to separate them, to shield Barbara from his words, but by the time we were ushered in to see the judge, she was trembling.
I was there to tell the court that Barbara had improved since coming to the program. She was placed with the agency after her stepmother filed a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) petition — a request for the court to intervene when a child becomes out of control. Barbara’s stepmother said that she was wild and disrespectful. She’d leave the house for days at a time, was truant from school. The stepmother alleged physical threats and drug abuse. Barbara claims her stepmother just wanted her out of their lives. She says her father was given an ultimatum and chose his wife.
When Barbara came into our care in mid-2004, she began attending school regularly for the first time in nearly two years. Her teachers said she was smart and that she participated in class. She hadn’t run away from the group home or stayed out past curfew like she did while living with her father. She never tried to hide her marijuana use, and the agency was working with her on issues of chemical dependency.
On the day of the planning hearing, her father got her so worked up outside the courtroom that when the judge addressed her, she snapped at him.
“See how she acts, Your Honor?” her father said.
Crying, she cursed at him, and had to be escorted out.
When we left court that day, her placement with the agency was extended for another six months. Barbara was silent on the train ride home and studied the advertisements for facial citrus peels in order to avoid conversation. Her face didn’t betray any emotion. I told her to forget what her father had said. She was making strides and needed to continue in that direction. The subway car rattled and shook, the lights flickered as we screeched to a halt at her station. “Stay strong,” I said. “I’m here for you.” She smiled dimly and promised she’d continue to try hard, then turned to exit the subway car.
She went AWOL that night from Keap Street and stopped attending school. She calls occasionally to tell me she’s OK but never discloses her location. I hadn’t seen her since that day in court, nearly a month ago.
Barbara absently punches the keyboard of my computer with one finger. Pinned up on the wall behind her, along with a list of caseworker telephone extensions and GED test locations, is the large photograph of Barbara standing with her father and brother at the zoo. In the picture there’s a youthful innocence about her. That joy, that free expression on her face, is missing from the person I know.
Barbara pulls her camouflage Yankees cap down on her face. She looks frail, like she’s stopped eating. The sports jersey she’s wearing hangs from her slight frame; she swims in her jeans. Her dark skin is ashen and her eyes look heavy and somber. I don’t know how long I’ll have her here so I pull out my wallet, drop a twenty into her hand, and tell her to use it for food. She thanks me, smiles, then her eyes fall to her sneakers. When I ask how she’s doing she becomes motionless, seems to be holding her breath. She has a sweet disposition. Normally she’s good-natured but out of nowhere she can erupt, lashing out for the tiniest transgression. That’s a side of her we didn’t see much. Typically, when still at the group home, she would be found watching B.E.T. with the other residents, her bright smile exposing a line of perfect, white teeth.
When Barbara arrived at Keap Street the staff loved her right away. Gladyce gushed about her acclimating to the home. “She made her bed in the morning and left for school right on time. This child does her chores and don’t need to be told twice about curfew. How on earth did we get this one?” Gladyce said, and then let out a sharp laugh. The honeymoon period ended when Barbara flew into a rage at Dia, another resident, whom she accused of stealing her Nike Air Jordans. Gladyce said it was impossible to de-escalate Barbara’s behavior, that it took three counselors to defuse the situation. When Gladyce tried to intervene Barbara bristled and told her to go back to her box of cookies in the office and mind her business. She persisted and Barbara grabbed a candy bar off of the counter, dangled it in front of Gladyce like bait, calling her a hippo. She was unfazed by Barbara’s outburst; most of the residents were prone to lashing out. Later Barbara went to Gladyce in her office and apologized, said she didn’t know what happened, didn’t know why she was so angry.
Barbara is “A.G.,” or an “aggressive,” a label used in the gay urban community for butch lesbians. She binds her breasts, dresses in baggy jeans and sports jerseys; her hair is set in tight cornrows; occasionally a gold-plated grill covers her front teeth. On the street she’s always mistaken for a boy. She has a tough, callous veneer when on the street. She hides her hurt, or at least she used to.
“I can’t do it no more, yo,” she says with an exhale, and begins to tremble. She makes her hands into fists then opens them, the twenty dropping to her feet. “I can’t do it.” Her eyes roll toward the ceiling and her body tenses. She flinches so fully that I think for a moment she’s having a seizure. Then tears begin to fall. “I got nobody,” she says. I wish my office had a door to shut to give us some privacy.
“Come back to the house,” I say and roll my chair closer to her, leaning in. “We can make it work.” Her face becomes taut until she releases into sobs; her shoulders heave. She no longer hears me. She’s alone, deep inside someplace within herself.
“Why you leave me?”
“Leave?” I say. “Barbara, I never—”
She lets out a wail that shakes me.
“Grandma,” she calls out. Her head bows. She wipes her wet nose with the ball of her hand. “She the only one who really loved me.” I place my hand on her shoulder and feel how her body trembles. I search for some tissue to give her but only find a balled-up Kleenex with chewed gum buried in the center. I don’t have any words that seem appropriate. I know there’s nothing I can do to protect her; I’m helpless to provide even a glimmer of hope.
“Come back” is all I can say. We both know it’s not enough.
I pick the twenty off the floor and push it back into Barbara’s hand. Her cheeks are wet, her breathing stutters. I try to strategize the way a caseworker should: Barbara’s safety is paramount and she needs immediate housing, but she refuses to return to the group home, saying it’s too chaotic, that she can’t put up with the other residents’ lying and stealing. I could initiate an emergency respite placement at a different group home outside the LGBTQ program, but I know Barbara won’t go. She is stubborn, willing to consider only one option. She wants to be transferred to our apartment program, where residents pair up with one roommate. I’ve told her time and time again that the program is designed for youth who have shown potential for living independently. The rules are clear. All residents considered for the apartment program have to be functioning well in the group home, do their chores regularly, and follow regulations. They must demonstrate good relationships with other residents, attend school on a regular basis, and have a part-time job. Barbara currently fails to meet any of the criteria.
I plead with her again to return to Keap Street. I’ll call her school and see if they’ll take her back. Between classes and a part-time job she’ll rarely have to see the other residents, limiting the chance of any conflict that might arise. She could be eligible for the apartment program within a few months.
“No way I’m going back there,” Barbara says.
When I ask if she can stay with her brother she shakes her head. He just turned 18 and can’t take on the responsibility of his younger sister. I don’t even suggest her father as an option. After the court date he was impossible to talk with. He continued the name-calling, the blaming. When I tried to follow up after our meeting, I was met with icy derision. Barbara was my problem, I was told. They were done with her.
Even the youth who function well in foster care are likely to falter once they’re out on their own. One study suggests nearly half of homeless youth have gone through the foster care system at one time or another and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. After aging out of the system, over half of the youth remain unemployed. Debilitating depression, anxiety, and addiction affects one-third of this population. Unless there’s a visiting resource, an adult who can function as a role model, and a stable, caring presence in their lives, there’s little hope of a life off the streets or outside the system.
“What about Rochelle?” I ask. Barbara has been living with her girlfriend’s family off and on since leaving Keap Street. Rochelle is two years older than Barbara and seven months pregnant.
The family’s house is on the verge of collapse. Rochelle’s mother has ten children, all of whom still live with her. She collects Social Security checks and some of her older children are selling drugs. Other than that, there isn’t any income for the family. When Barbara’s there, she’s just another mouth to feed, which causes tension between Rochelle and her brothers. Barbara wants to get a job to help buy groceries, but because she’s only 16 and isn’t attending school she doesn’t have her working papers. No one will hire her for any legal work. She told me on the phone around the time she went AWOL that all she wanted was to help raise Rochelle’s baby with her, to give that baby a happy life.
“Rochelle told me her brothers don’t want me there no more,” she tells me now. “And fuck her anyway.”
I can tell by Barbara’s leaden, lifeless eyes that she’s had enough. She’s tired of searching for places to stay, of fighting with Rochelle and her brothers. I’m afraid she’ll have to resort to survival sex or drug-running in order to feed herself. I pull out a piece of paper and tell her to write down every person she knows. Maybe there’s a family member who she hasn’t thought about in a while, some distant relative. She holds the pen just above the surface of the paper, drawing circles in the air. She does this a while longer before dropping the pen to the desk.
“Ain’t nobody,” she says and rises up from the seat. I stand with her and lean against the doorway. I’m not ready for her to leave. I know that when she walks out of my office she’ll have no place to go.
“I don’t think we’re done here,” I say, but she’s had enough and pushes past me, down the corridor, vanishing into the staircase. For the first time since meeting her I fear I’ll never see Barbara again.
Ryan Berg’s new book, No House to Call My Home, is available for purchase at Magers & Quinn, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. For upcoming book readings and more information, go to www.nohousetocallmyhome.weebly.com.
For more information about the GLBT Host Home Program of Avenues for Homeless Youth, go to www.avenuesforyouth.org/programs-minneapolishosthome.html.