Homeless youth: the next battle for gay equality
NEW YORK—Iro Uikka clutches his throat as he describes the violent clash that led to spending his nights sleeping in New York City subway cars.
"When I told my mother I was gay, she grabbed me by the neck and threw me out," he says. "Then she threw my coat on top of me and shut the door."
That was five years ago when he was 18, still living at home in Florida.
Uikka is among tens of thousands of homeless youths across America who are LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Most are on the streets because they have nowhere else to go -- outcasts who leave home after being rejected by family members or flee shelters because residents bully or beat them.
LGBT young people represent a dramatically high proportion of an estimated 600,000 or more homeless youths across the country -- between 20 percent and 40 percent, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. But only about 5 percent of youths identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We've won battles for gay marriage and gays in the military," says Carl Siciliano, founder and executive director of the New York-based Ali Forney Center, the nation's largest organization for LGBT youth. "This is the next frontier, the next battle: helping these youths."
The White House has taken notice. Members of the Obama Administration are hosting a national conference on housing and homelessness in America's LGBT communities on Friday in Detroit. They'll discuss these issues with advocates, community leaders and the public.
Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, who is openly gay, is one of the participants.
"I take this discussion personally because I know too many people who have been kicked out of their homes because of their orientation," he told The Associated Press. "To get this kind of attention from the White House is exactly what we need to raise conscientiousness and to help parents find a way to deal with their kids' orientation."
Detroit has the only nonprofit agency in the Midwest that focuses on LGBT youth -- the Ruth Ellis Center, co-host of the Friday conference. But the largely voiceless, powerless youth are fighting to survive from coast to coast.
They live on streets, in subways and train stations, on river piers, in parks and abandoned houses. They're robbed, raped and assaulted. Some are murdered.
And they're invisible to most Americans.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are about four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the CDC. And one in three is thrown out by their parents, according to data collected from youth across the country by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
Some youth use "survival sex" to land in a warm bed, or they move from home to home of friends and acquaintances.
In the past, Ryan Kennedy resorted to survival sex. He lists his education on Facebook as "Urban Survivalism at University of NYC Streets." He adopted a rebellious middle name for his page, calling himself "Ryan TransEquality Kennedy."
"I wouldn't be alive today if I didn't get some help," says Kennedy, a transgender youth whose Connecticut family threw him out at 15. He says he was a girl who felt like a boy. He's now transitioning to male.
After years living on the streets, Kennedy, now 22, has a bed thanks to The Door, a New York nonprofit that offers shelter, food, counseling and job training programs.
On any given day, there are almost 4,000 homeless youths in New York City, and at least 1,000 are LGBT, according to a 2008 census released by the City Council.
Meager government funds and private donations cover about 350 New York beds for homeless youth. Hundreds more are on waiting lists, providers say.
In recent years, the New York state Legislature has cut funding to support homeless youth programs in general by about 70 percent.
Somehow, these vulnerable Americans survive, without beds.
Each night, some fill tables at a fast-food shop off Manhattan's Union Square. One is a lively 19-year-old bisexual man from Virginia.
When he leaves in the late evening, Baresco Escobar goes to the far end of Brooklyn to sleep in an abandoned house with dozens of homeless kids, covering bare floors with blankets and cuddling for warmth.
"Home is where you're supposed to have stability, unconditional love, support, a foundation," he says. Instead, back in Virginia, "I was in a place of dysfunction, with expectations that didn't apply to me -- full of judgment, discrimination and hypocrisy."
Escobar goes to the Ali Forney drop-in center on Manhattan's West Side, which offers clothing, counseling, workshops in life skills, showers, laundry facilities and HIV testing. A nurse is available for quick checkups, sending clients for follow-ups with doctors.
Escobar does not live in Ali Forney's emergency housing units, which have a total of only 47 beds in Brooklyn and Queens assigned for a few months at a time. The center also has limited transitional housing where residents get coached on how to prepare for job or school interviews.
The Ali Forney Center opened in 2002. Siciliano named it after a transgender youth who was kicked out of his home at 13. He was found shot to death on a Harlem sidewalk in 1997, at 22. By then, he had become a counselor to his homeless friends.
Siciliano knows of five other LGBT youths who were killed in New York over the years.
Despite the hardships, the city is a magnet for young people who grew up with conservative traditions, whether among immigrants from Caribbean and Asian countries or parts of the United States where residents are less accepting of sexual diversity.
Gizmo Lopez, 19, comes from a staunchly Catholic family with Puerto Rican roots. She now sleeps on the subway.
"I'm bisexual, and my stepfather didn't approve; he said it's wrong," said the teenager, whose mother died two years ago.
Her stepfather moved to Puerto Rico with her two half-brothers, leaving her behind -- alone in the family's apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side. One afternoon, when she came home from school, "I found a pink slip on the door."
She was evicted.
"I took my stuff, cried and left," she says. "We're nomads."
In the Midwest, the only nonprofit agency for LGBT youth is Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center, which offers meals and other basic services and has 10 beds.
The support saved Demetrius Smith, an 18-year-old who left his great-grandmother's Michigan farm years ago because "she whipped me, and she beat me with an umbrella because she thought I acted like a girl."
He bought food and other necessities by working as an escort. That ended last August. An older friend is letting Smith stay with him and the teenager is finishing high school.
Siciliano believes there's a new reason for the rising number of LGBT youths seeking shelter. As some states legalize gay marriage and the military welcomes openly gay soldiers, "Many kids think, `Oh, I'm ready to come out,'" he says.
As a result, the average age of young people declaring their sexuality -- or at least sharing their doubts about it -- has dropped dramatically in recent years to as young as the early teens, according to the Family Acceptance Project.
Some families are not ready for them, nor are segments of society, he says. Each rejection turns into a homeless youth looking for a bed. And there aren't enough.
"These kids are the collateral damage of our cultural wars," Siciliano says.