LGBT Teen Homelessness in South Florida, Part 1
Jamesly Louis didn’t know what he was going to do, but bottled up with frustration, anger and sadness, he knew if he went home after school the way he was feeling, he was "going to do something stupid."
He knew that his assigned counselor didn’t care. The other students who bullied him didn’t care. The teachers who pretended over and over again that it was a harmless scuffle between boys didn’t care. Somehow, the gay 16-year-old boy found his way to his TRUST counselor at Miami Beach Senior high School. Normally there to help students dealing with drugs, she went into action and by midnight that evening, Louis called Covenant House in Fort Lauderdale his new home.
"I wrote a letter and gave it to the TRUST counselor and then she managed to talk to me," Louis remembers. "All I wanted was someone, some type of connection to make me feel like I was not alone. I really felt that deep down, well maybe I don’t belong here; if I’m the only one that’s like that, then why am I here?"
Louis, now 22, lived in the shelter for homeless teens for two months when he was 16 years old after he couldn’t handle living in a home where he was ignored, his homosexuality an unspoken issue, and being bullied at school. Unfortunately, Louis was a part of up to 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBT, even though they represent only about 10 percent of the population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Data has always shown that LGBT youth have more worries than their straight counterparts. According to a study by the Human Rights Campaign, of more than 10,000 LGBT youth ages 13 to 17 who were surveyed, their top three concerns were their non-accepting families, bullying in school, and fear of being outed. Their straight counterparts said it was class/exams/grades, college/their future career, and financial pressures.
"School is just not even an issue if you’re trying to survive," Mandi Hawke said. "You shouldn’t be concerned about who you are and being accepted and fitting in and bullying and being afraid."
Hawke serves as the director of youth services at SunServe in Fort Lauderdale, where she runs a teen-friendly space where participants are free to be themselves and voice their concerns. However, it’s not unheard of to receive multiple calls a week from homeless gay teens who were kicked out of their homes or ran away. Unfortunately, SunServe currently does not have a full-fledged homeless program and can only refer homeless teens to Covenant House, where Louis went, or give them provisions.
Louis was born and raised in Haiti, a country highly influenced by its Catholic roots, until he moved to the United States at 14 with his mother and four brothers when she married a Haitian man in South Florida. He never discussed being gay with his family, although he knows they knew. Back home, fellow congregants told church leaders that they feared he was gay and priests had tried to "pray the gay away." But from a young age, Louis knew it was a part of him, even if he didn’t know what being gay meant.
When his family moved to Florida, life got tougher as his family life became a place of emotional abuse by his stepfather, who they discovered had never filed for their visas. The five boys were shuffled around to foster families.
"At that time I was 14 or 15. I really needed my parents for a lot of things and I [didn’t have them], so that was emotional for me, it was what really drained me," Louis said.
Carla Silva, the executive director of the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, a collaboration of organizations that work to nurture LGBT youth, including services, counseling and advocacy.
"Of all the young people that engage in our services, on average, 20 percent of them tell us that they’re not safe at home, that they need a safe place to live, or that they have been thrown out or run away - and that is youth that comes for service for any reason whatsoever," Silva explained.
However, for many organizations such as SunServe and The Alliance, the biggest problem they are facing is a government who is too afraid to take on the issue of LGBT homelessness. Due to anti-discrimination laws, organizations who receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development are not allowed to ask for one’s sexual orientation at intake. Plus, agencies wanting to change their intake forms would have to undergo a massive administration and legislative overhaul for permission.