Homeless LGBTQ youth search for haven
"I was all alone."
Jess had just run away from her home in Texas and set out for Portland.
"My online friends started telling me mom wasn't normal," Jess said. "I didn't realize she was abusive."
Jess, 19, whose real name is not being used so her mother can't locate her, said her mom manipulated her, blamed her for things she had no control over, and forced her to go to church. Her mom also made nasty comments about LGBTQ people, she said.
Currently transitioning from male to female, Jess is from a predominantly religious town of about 900 people near Tyler, Texas, where you need a car to get anywhere.
She needed to get somewhere: out.
But once in Portland, she would become yet another LGBTQ youth who wound up homeless.
Roughly 40 percent of homeless youth in the U.S. are estimated to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or queer, though only 7 percent of overall youth identify as LGBTQ, according to a survey by the Williams Institute, an affiliate of UCLA School of Law specializing in such research and policy work.
Jess had just graduated high school and decided to leave home to be with a boyfriend in Oregon she met online, and to get away from her mother. She began walking miles upon miles in the blistering heat on the flat asphalt roads of her tiny Texas town to train for her 20-mile walk to Tyler. During one of her training walks, though, a stranger offered to drive Jess to Tyler.
"I was less scared of being a hitchhiker than I was being around my mom," Jess said. From Tyler, Jess could catch a Greyhound bus to Dallas, then grab a one-way flight to PDX.
Once Jess arrived in Portland, she knocked on her boyfriend's door. They had never met in person before.
"He opens up and gives me the biggest hug ever," Jess said. "It was so adorable. I was like 'Oh my God, I am finally so happy to be alive.' "
But Jess couldn't stay with him, because he was living with his grandparents. She stayed in a hotel for a few nights, spending a lot of her saved cash.
"I found an unlocked maintenance room in a church," Jess said, "so I basically squatted there for a few days until the door locked on me."
Her boyfriend's grandparents gave her directions to the Safeplace shelter in Hillsboro, but Jess says she didn't feel safe mentally or emotionally there.
Jess was feeling suicidal one day. She went to a hospital to be watched, but was told the hospital didn't offer mental health services. They got Jess a cab to take to a hotel, where she spent the little cash she had left.
The next day, she went to Providence St. Vincent, which she says didn't address her problems properly.
"That was the first night I really slept outside," Jess said. "Right next to the multi-story parking block. Every night I was just thinking about jumping off of it."
Portland is viewed nationally as a progressive, LGBTQ-friendly city, so many kids like Jess come here to escape an unaccepting environment — even if it means losing the security of a roof over their head.
Jess found a supportive environment at the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center, connected to New Avenues for Youth in downtown Portland. There, she's surrounded by young adults and teenagers who, like Jess, are queer — meaning someone who identifies as LGBTQ. Some, like Jess, are also homeless.
The Williams Institute found family rejection stemming from a child's sexual orientation or gender identity was the main reason for LGBTQ youth homelessness. Others were forced out by parents or guardians due to their sexual or gender identity. Many suffered from sexual and physical abuse at home, emotional neglect, or became homeless after they passed the age limit for staying with a foster family.
Kathy Oliver, executive director of Outside In, a Portland youth service provider, said the number of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness has been around 40 percent for a while.
"I would have thought it would have (changed); the world has changed," Oliver said. "But being gay, being lesbian, being trans, is still a reason for getting kicked out of the homes from families."
A continuum of LGBTQ youth services
That's why Outside In started LGBTQ-specific programming in 1992, Oliver said. They've had support groups, created a trans resource center, and now have "Queer Zone" outings and movie nights for LGBTQ kids to have fun and just be kids together.
Outside In is one of four organizations that collaborate to provide a continuum of services for homeless youth, along with Janus Youth, New Avenues for Youth, and the NAYA Family Center.
New Avenues operates a shelter connected to the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC), which is a place for youth ages 13-23 to connect with other LGBTQ kids and resources.
"Most young folks are looking for community after maybe being pushed out of homes, because you have caregivers or family members that don't understand, or don't accept them or their identity," said Elaina Medina, a program manager at SMYRC.
"So, you have these young people who don't feel safe at home, or maybe they've stayed at home as long as they can and then they just can't do it anymore. So, they'd prefer to camp out on the streets of Portland, which is extremely, extremely dangerous, or to stay in one of our shelters."
Medina has worked in other cities around the U.S., but said Portland by far has the most bountiful resources for homeless youth than other places she's seen.
"A lot of the kids that get kicked out of their homes come from rural areas that are staunchly traditional, staunchly conservative, and more of the salt-of-the-earth evangelical type background," said Eric Overby, program manager for PFLAG Portland (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
"They just can't see the difference between what they were taught about the Bible and what the Bible really says."
Religion and rejection
Joey Whiting (who uses they/them pronouns) was sitting across from Joey's mom in a Pizza Hut in Clackamas when the waiter came up to take their order. Joey's mom looked up and said loudly, "So I know you're gay."
Other diners at the suburban Pizza Hut stared at Joey, then 17 and horrified. Only Joey's closest friends knew Joey was gay.
Joey's sister had found out by reading Joey's MySpace page and outed Joey to their mom.
"All right, what now?" Joey asked. Joey's mom said she was going to throw Joey out of the house the two shared. She couldn't have that kind of sin living under her roof.
"I come from a very conservative family," Joey said. "When I was a teenager, probably around 15, I started moving away from religion. I didn't really have a concept of queer identity at all growing up."
"Either you fit and you believe in Jesus and this, and you go to heaven, or you're a heathen," Joey said, "It was very, very strict. Like, homosexuality was like the ultimate sin, like the ultimate wrong you could do."
Joey's mom spoke to some family friends from church, who convinced her she could love Joey, despite Joey's sexual orientation.
"You shouldn't have to be convinced that you can love me," Joey recalled feeling. "You're supposed to be my family, you should love me because I'm your family and I'm decent."
Joey was about to turn 18 and started dressing across gender boundaries.
One day, Joey's mom walked in the room to the clicking of Joey's flashy manicured nails hitting the keyboard. About to ask Joey to do the dishes, she looked down and saw the nails.
"Why would you do that?" she asked. "You're a man."
She asked why Joey couldn't wait until being out of the house to do this kind of thing. Three weeks later, Joey moved into an apartment.
But after losing a job, Joey was evicted and became homeless for the first time, at age 18.
Without a safety net or any emotional support, and developing a drug habit, Joey was to fall back into homelessness several times.
"I knew that if I called my mother or family they might be willing to let me come back, but I couldn't do that," Joey said. "I felt like I was finally starting to figure myself out and I couldn't step back into that because there was no way I would have been able to live my life under that roof."
Now 29, Joey is homeless again.
"This is the eleventh time," Joey said, with a frustrated smile.
Church says love your kids
Tim Nashif, CEO of Gateway Communications and a founder of the Oregon Family Council, said the number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ both surprises and saddens him. Nashif is also an ordained minister at City Bible Church and helped lead a ballot measure campaign opposing gay marriage in 2004 in Oregon.
Despite his religious convictions, Nashif says his church would never tell parents to boot their kid out of their home just for being gay.
"People have their opinions on the gay lifestyle, and there definitely is a religious viewpoint," Nashif said. "But that doesn't constitute, 'Well, if you can't change, we're going to kick you out of the house.' That's unacceptable."
Nashif said that can happen because of divorce or other family issues, too. He sees the breakup of families as a huge cultural problem.
"The parents' biggest responsibility is to figure out how to mitigate that," Nashif said, "and it's difficult."
If a child is creating danger and violence in the home, there may be cause for a parent to not want the child there, Nashif said. But if the only issue is that the child is LGBTQ, he says parents should love their kid unconditionally.
"You can do that without agreeing with them," Nashif said.
Jess leaving Portland
It's been a year since Jess ran away from her home in rural Texas. She's no longer with the boy she came to Portland to meet, and is staying at Porchlight, a shelter operated by Janus Youth.
She's figured out how to utilize many of Portland's LGBTQ and youth services. She began eating meals at Outside In and got food stamps. In January, Jess legally changed her name. She's getting hormones for her transition through Prism Health, which specializes in health care for gender and sexual minorities.
Instead of training on the flat roads of Texas, Jess is now pedaling around the hills of Portland, riding about 30 miles a day to prepare for a bike trip to California.
"I might go to San Francisco and start earning minimum wage. Over there it's $15 an hour, which is a lot if you're not paying rent," Jess said.
Eventually, Jess hopes to go to Ohio, parlaying her Bay-area earnings to buy a cheap house.
Numbers behind LGBTQ homeless youth problem
• Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth comprised 40 percent of the people served by homeless youth organizations in a 2011-12 survey.
• Thirty percent of those youth identified as gay or lesbian, 9 percent as bisexual, and 1 percent as "other gender."
• Running away due to family rejection was the top reason LGBTQ youth cited for why they were homeless.
• The second-leading reason was being forced out of their home by parents or guardians due to their sexual identity.
• Sixty-eight percent of homeless LGBTQ youth said they had experienced family rejection, and over half had experienced abuse in their family.
• Other contributing factors were sexual and physical abuse at home, aging out of the foster system and financial or emotional neglect from family.
• Lack of funding was the main challenge service providers faced when working to reduce LGBTQ homelessness.
- Source: "Serving our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or at Risk of Becoming Homeless," a report by The Williams Institute, Palette Fund, and TrueColorsFund: bit.ly/UorjWv
• Youth who are LGBTQ have a 120 percent greater chance of being homeless.
• Youth without a high school diploma have a 346 percent more likely chance of being homeless, and unmarried young parents had a 200 percent greater chance.
- Source: "Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America," a study by Chapin Hall, University of Chicago: bit.ly/2mlXx7B
• 11,645 Oregon children spent at least one day in foster care in 2017, according to a state report released in March.
• The main reason kids entered foster care in Oregon was neglect; the second-biggest reason was parent drug abuse and the third was inadequate housing.
• Oregon had 4,262 certified foster homes in 2017; Multnomah County had 759.
Source: 2017 Child Welfare Data Book, Oregon Department of Human Services; bit.ly/2KQuctP