Out on the street | A quarter of Milwaukee’s homeless youth are LGBT

Louis Weisberg, Staff Writer

As a student at Nicolet High School, Kevin never fit in. An African-American who likes to wear a little make-up, he endured constant teasing and bullying. Eventually he transferred to The Alliance School, which helps students who are not succeeding in traditional schools due to harassment.

But when Kevin’s mother discovered he’s gay, she threw him out of the house. Determined to earn a diploma, he camped out on the streets near the Alliance campus and continued attending classes until he graduated. Last fall, an older gay man gave him a place to live in exchange for sex.

Andrea was banished from home because she’s a lesbian. She was placed in foster care with a fundamentalist Christian family and ran away. Most of her teenage years were spent on the streets, sleeping under porches and bridges, dodging the police and street violence.

“Kevin” and “Andrea” aren’t their real names, but their stories are true. They are also surprisingly common, as reported in a groundbreaking new study compiled by Cream City Foundation.

Titled “State of Youth Homelessness,” the study found that 23 percent of the estimated 400 youth (ages 24 and under) living on Milwaukee’s streets on any given night are LGBT. The report’s findings were based on a yearlong research project by the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at UW-Milwaukee, which collected data from several area agencies serving homeless youth.

The report’s findings are consistent with those of a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study released three years ago, which found that 20-40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

This problem appears to be growing. As societal acceptance of LGBT people has increased, people are coming out at younger ages and encountering rejection from their families, according to experts from the local agencies involved in the report. The problem, they say, is particularly acute in evangelical-dominated cultures, such as the African-American community, and it has been exacerbated by the culture of violence that has overspread the nation’s streets.

Mean streets

Life on the streets is harsh for any homeless youth. “The shocking statistic is that within 72 hours of a young person being homeless, they are more likely to engage in survival sex as a means of getting their basic needs met,” says Lisa Gumm, youth shelter program manager at Pathfinders, which provides outreach and support services to homeless youth.

For LGBT youth, the outlook is particularly grim.

“They face even greater risks, due to the isolation they experience,” Gumm says. “They don’t feel that they’re accepted and they have fewer options.”

In fact, homeless gay and lesbian youth experience an average of 7.4 more acts of sexual violence than their heterosexual peers and twice the rates of sexual victimization, according to data compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Lambda Legal, National Network for Youth and the National Lesbian Rights Center. These agencies also found that transgender youth are frequently harassed, assaulted and arrested by police because of their gender presentation.

Tess Gallun, who teaches documentary filmmaking for UW-Milwaukee’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, has witnessed the problem up close, through the lens of her camera. She and her students are creating a documentary – the working title is “Out of Respect” – about the lives of homeless LGBT youth in Milwaukee. They’ve followed the stories of Kevin, Andrea and others who’ve been abandoned by their families because of their sexual orientation.

While their sexual orientation is the cause of their homelessness, it’s the last thing on their minds when Gallun meets them. They’re focused simply on staying alive, she says – “trying to find a warm bed for the night and something to eat.”

Despite the rejection they’ve endured, “all the youth we’ve worked with just want to be reunited with their families,” Gallun says.

Tears swell in her eyes as Gallun shows a picture of the 16-month-old boy she and her partner Mary adopted at birth. He was born addicted to cocaine, but now he’s healthy and thriving.

“What’s going on in our society that people lose their ability to love and care for their own child?” she asks.

Homeless lgbt

Repairing the system

Despite the magnitude of LGBT youth homelessness, the problem was hardly a blip on the radar screen of local social service agencies when Cream City Foundation began coordinating the study. There was no dedicated housing, no advocacy, no mentorship program and no funding. Nor was there LGBT sensitivity training for shelter staff workers.

“People who are licensed to work in group homes are not required to take a course that teaches them how to treat LGBT youth in a culturally sensitive manner,” says Cream City Foundation executive director Maria Cadenas. “A lot of time there’s verbal and physical abuse from the other youth and the staff. There’s no enforcement of fair and equal treatment for our youth. That’s a broken system.”

Last year, Cadenas began convening regular meetings of local agencies, including Lad Lake, Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, Pathfinders and St. Aemilian-Lakeside. Together these agencies created Q-Blok, the first program in the city to work specifically on LGBT youth homelessness. Cream City Foundation and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation stepped forward with three years of funding.

The first order of business was to provide shelter. This required a creative approach. Due to the abuse LGBT homeless youth experience in foster care and emergency shelters – as well as the sexual predation they encounter on the streets – they’re wary of being placed with adults or in group settings. Q-Blok adopted a plan used successfully in Minnesota that provides temporary independent housing along with attachment to a sponsor family that lends emotional support and celebrates milestones with them.

Since its inception in December 2009, 22 young people have enrolled in the program, nearly filling its capacity of 25, says Karie Lowe, program coordinator at Lad Lake. Five sponsor families are in training.

“The kids are coming in and they’re very excited about (the program) and they’re doing good,” Lowe says. “With funding for 25 youth per year for the next three years, we’re going to be able to help 75 youth. That’s huge.”

In addition to housing and a sponsor family, the youth receive case management services. Q-Blok also has street outreach, mentorship and advocacy components. And it provides LGBT training to shelter workers.

New hope

While Q-Blok is an important step forward, everyone agrees there’s much more work to be done. Inevitably, many youth will have to be turned away due to limited space, as well as legal complications that prevent the program from serving youth under 18. Some will survive, others will fall victim to the streets.

Still, Gallun is heartened by the progress she’s seen since beginning her documentary.

“Now there are (LGBT) questions being asked when a youth enters a shelter,” she says. “There’s more sensitivity. They’re being careful not to put (these youth) with a foster family or case worker who’s homophobic.”

Among the youth Gallun and her crew have followed are a young gay couple, Jim and John (not their real names). John left home after his mother, a religious zealot, painted his bedroom red one day, telling him the color was the blood of the devil. He and Jim survived the streets by sticking closely together, Gallun says.

Since getting an apartment through Q-Blok, their lives have turned around, she says. They check in regularly with their case workers. They cook meals together. They’re both enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

“It’s been hopeful to see them creating a family together,” Gallun says. “They empower each other.”

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