Homeless LGBTQ youth find love, acceptance
Eric and Lurissa Overby were each other's first crush when they were kids. Lurissa came from a strict Pentecostal household, and was never allowed to date Eric. "I was a heathen Catholic," Eric said. They reconnected years later as Lurissa was getting divorced, and fell in love.
Just weeks after Eric and Lurissa got married, Lurissa's child from her first marriage, Karis, wanted to talk to Lurissa — alone.
Eric was afraid Karis didn't approve of the marriage, and anxiously awaited word of their conversation.
"Lurissa came and sat down next to me, and says 'Karis believes she's transgender,' " Eric recalled.
Lurissa told Eric he could leave her if he wanted, because he hadn't known he would have a transgender daughter.
"I said 'no, I'm here,' " Eric said. "It was time to roll up our sleeves and be an advocate, because she was going to be my daughter."
As chronicled Tuesday in part one of this series, an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer, though some say the number likely is higher. That compares to 7 percent of overall youth who identify as LGBTQ. In part two, we explore how some people and organizations in Portland are addressing this problem.
LBGTQ youths who wind up homeless often run away or are kicked out of their home when their family doesn't accept them. Many come from strict, religious households that don't accept their sexual preference or identity.
Advocating for their daughter caused friction for Eric and Lurissa within their church. They sought out a more supportive congregation when they moved to the Portland area from Klamath Falls, and wound up at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Gresham. The pastor wanted that church to become more open and affirming, and asked Eric to give a sermon on LGBTQ issues.
Eric and Lurissa also discovered the Portland chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, (PFLAG), where they now serve as program managers, helping educate and provide support for other parents.
Eric said it can be hard for parents to accept their child after they come out to them, especially when it's a traditional conservative household. "But you've gotta remember Jesus himself said, 'Love everyone as I have loved you,' " Eric said.
He advises parents to just give it time, and to educate themselves and figure out if it's something they can handle.
"And if it comes to the point where they have to get out of the house, don't send them out all alone," he advises. "Help them out with an apartment or something. Get them a place where they can stay and be safe."
He also suggests they call PFLAG, a free family support group.
It's difficult for Portland PFLAG's president, Dawn Holt, to understand anyone throwing their child out of the home. Parents who do this are not typically the ones who come to PFLAG looking for help, she said, but a big number of the LGBTQ kids on the street come from those types of families.
"It's possible you don't have to choose your religion over your child, or vice versa," Holt said. She knows plenty of folks who came from conservative Christian backgrounds and were still able to accept their child when they came out, and says there are a lot of welcoming congregations in Portland where people can worship with a supportive community.
"It comes down to changing hearts and minds," Holt said, "and paving the way for other parents so we can try to combat those problems. Having family that's accepting goes a long way."
Two Spirit people
Some Native American tribes have a more welcoming spiritual approach to sexual minorities, including a designated ceremonial role for "two spirit" people, those whose gender identity is non-binary, or other than male or female.
North Portland's Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) serves any homeless youth, though they approach it with an indigenous-culture lens. They offer the Two Spirit Safe Space Alliance, which meets every Friday and is meant to give LGBTQ youth positive connections in the community.
"We see youth that have become homeless for all different sorts of reasons," said Riley Fishburn, NAYA homeless youth advocate. "I think generational homelessness and generational poverty is a pretty huge factor, but mixed in with that you have domestic violence issues."
Many times, it's a combination of these risk factors that result in a child without a stable home.
Fishburn said many of the youth that come through NAYA are in unstable housing, not necessarily out on the streets. That can mean couch surfing, staying with a friend one night and a family member the next, or sleeping in a two-bedroom house with 10 other people.
"While we don't ask youth how they identify when we screen them in, we do ask if they've ever become homeless due to religious differences with their caregivers, so that's something that's very much on our radar," Fishburn said. "I think it's safe to say that's part of the reason LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the homeless population."
Some of the most vulnerable youth Fishburn has seen had negative experiences with foster care. A parent or foster parent trying to "fix" a kid isn't doing anything to help them, he said.
Kanoe Egleston, NAYA direct services manager, said it's difficult to find fitting foster homes for Native American youth, especially for kids who identify as two spirit.
Holt said she's never had a foster parent come to PFLAG meetings, though her group is an obvious resource.
Elaina Medina, LGBTQ program manager of the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC), said many foster parents have a religious affiliation that isn't sympathetic to youths identifying as queer, or are older and don't see the need to educate themselves on LGBTQ issues.
"I think because the Department of Human Services (DHS) is spread so thin and in need of foster parents, they're willing to still hold on and put other youth into foster care homes of folks that have kicked kids out due to their identity," Medina said.
Queer folks have been told for ages that they aren't "fit" to be parents or foster parents, she said. But now people are seeing that was a mistake.
At the Pride Northwest festival put on each June in Portland to celebrate LGBTQ history and accomplishments, DHS set up a booth to recruit members of the community as foster parents.
Marilyn Jones, the state agency's child welfare director, said they make efforts to find kids a home where they can openly explore who they are, be accepted for who they are, where they can grow and feel good about who they are. They hope to find more affirming homes for LGBTQ youth, where caregivers and kids can relate to one another.
"We ask these questions in our home studies to really try to find out what these foster parents have to offer instead of just placing children with somebody who has an open bed," Jones said.
Jones also serves as executive sponsor of the agency's LGBTQ employee resource group, which helps educate caseworkers on how to work with such youth and provide resources to kids struggling with their identity.
After Tyler Rouse-Kaminski's dad committed suicide and Tyler's mom developed drug problems, Tyler (who uses they/them pronouns) spent 14 years in foster care.
According to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, aging out of the foster care system is the fourth-largest reason for LGBTQ youth homelessness.
Tyler had mostly good experiences with foster parents, and smiled when recalling the one in Salem that took the family camping a lot. Tyler first learned about Pokémon there.
Still, one of Tyler's foster families lost its license when Tyler's grandpa found the foster mother hotboxing a car with cigarette smoke, with Tyler still inside. Another one couldn't accept Tyler's identity when Tyler was a young teenager.
"They were some kind of Christian," Tyler said.
Tyler was caught telling one of their kids that it's OK to be gay, and after that was always sent to the corner and away from the kids.
"That was the only foster home I thought about running away from," Tyler said. "They would call me the f-word. They would say, 'Don't tell our kid that s—t's OK.' It was very stressful."
Tyler's diagnosis of ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, Asperger syndrome and bipolar disorder made childhood rough, and Tyler said being gay and having a lisp made it difficult to make friends.
Now 23, Tyler finally got an apartment last year through a voucher with Home Forward. For the first time in years, Tyler has a place to stay without fear of getting kicked out or having to return by evening.
Tyler's working on earning a GED, a certificate equivalent to a high school diploma, and getting a job.
In terms of acceptance, Portland is an exception, Tyler said, "and we're a hub for youth in other states that are not accepting at all."
Although research shows the number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ is around 40 percent, Tyler thinks the actual number is closer to 60 or 65 percent.
Many of them might not feel comfortable coming out, Tyler said. "They don't want to lose more."
Tyler sees a need for more queer-centric housing, so LGBTQ youth have lodgings where they'll be accepted and can congregate with other kids like them.
Many homeless advocates support a 'housing first' approach to serving people in need, whereby clients are given affordable shelter and then encouraged to address their alcohol or drug addictions and other issues. That needs to happen for homeless LBGTQ youth as well, said Joey Whiting, who uses they/them pronouns.
Whiting, 29, has been homeless off and on since age 18, leaving home after coming out to a mother who couldn't accept that. Now Whiting works as a peer mentor for Outside The Frame, a Portland nonprofit that teaches filmmaking to houseless or at-risk teens.
A lot of times, people ask, "Why don't the homeless just get jobs?" Whiting said. "So many people assume if a young person is homeless they must just be lazy, which is so often completely false. Some of the youth I work with are the most dedicated, smart, clever hardworking people, that if given the chance can do so much."
Whiting said there are all kinds of barriers that keep kids on the streets. But the main thing that leads to them being on the streets in the first place is abuse, "whether it's physical, sexual, emotional," Whiting said.
"I would consider emotional abuse due to homophobia as abuse."
Resources for homeless LGBTQ youth, families
• 24-Hour Youth and Family Help Line: 503-233-8111; toll free, 800-914-9706
• Child Abuse Hotline: 503-731-3100
• Suicide Prevention: 1-800-273-8255
• Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center, east side: 16570 S.E. Oak St.; open 3-7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
• New Avenues for Youth: 1220 S.W. Columbia St.; 503-224-4339; newavenues.org
• Outside In Medical Clinic: 503-535-3860
• Janus Youth: 503-233-6090, janusyouth.org/find-help
• NAYA Family Center: 5135 N.E Columbia Blvd., 503-288-8177; nayapdx.org/services/critical-services/homeless-youth-services/