By Noelle Swan
Spare Change News
At 16 years old, Diamond McMillion was too young to check into a shelter. As a lesbian, she felt unwelcome at home and frequently slept in an elevator shaft with three friends.
“We would ring every buzzer in the building until somebody got tired of listening to it ringing and would let us in. We’d disconnect the elevator for the night and reconnect it before we left in the morning,” said McMillion.
Echoes of McMillion’s story can be heard across the country. Kids rejected by their family for their sexual orientation and turned out into the street are left to fend for themselves.
Sassafras Lowrey was kicked out of her home at 17 while she was in her senior year of high school in rural Oregon. Her mother pled guilty to assaulting her for coming out of the closet. At the time, she says that she felt isolated and alone. Ten years later, she published Kicked Out—a compilation of stories told by current and past lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) homeless youth. She believes this is a national epidemic.
“It’s happening in every community, every urban center, every suburban neighborhood, every small town,” said Lowrey.
A recent study from Children’s Hospital Boston published online by the American Journal of Public Health reports that 1 in 4 gay and lesbian high school students are homeless, compared with just 3 percent of heterosexual teens.
In general, young people have few options if they are unable to stay at home. Other than going through a lengthy emancipation process in the courts, young people under the age of 18 are expected to be in the care of adult family members or the foster care system.
“At the age of 16 in Massachusetts, you can consent to sex, you can emancipate yourself, you can drop out of high school, but you can’t check into a shelter,” McMillion said. “The only thing you can do is latch onto an older person, who may or may not take advantage of you.”
For McMillion and many others in similar situations, her 18th birthday did not come with a place to belong.
Ayala Livny, director of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center in Cambridge for young people experiencing homelessness, stated that although anyone over 18 can stay in a shelter, young people are not safe in this environment and become easy targets. “Young people in general don’t really go into the shelters,” Livny. “They stay outside. They couch surf. They try to blend in and find creative ways of housing themselves. That’s even more true for our queer identified youth.”
Quianna Sarjeant, a member of Youth on Fire, addressed a gathering of advocates at the Massachusetts State House for the Leap into Action to End Homelessness, Legislative Action Day on February 29. She explained some of the reasons that general population shelters are inappropriate for young people. “When I was 18 staying at the shelters, I found myself witnessing things that an 18-year-old should not have to witness,” said Sarjeant. “I saw men masturbating and people being rushed away in ambulances after overdosing on drugs.”
Following Sarjeant’s speech, she, McMillion, Livny and others from Youth on Fire walked the halls of the State House making the case for the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act currently being considered by the House Ways and Means Committee.
Donna LoConte, budget director and scheduler for Senator Anthony Petruccelli (D), listened intently as the group shared snippets of their lives on the streets.
“So how long can one stay at Youth on Fire?” LoConte asked.
Livny has been asked this question before. Quietly she explained that Youth on Fire is a drop-in space, open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. “When we close, folks go wherever it is they are going to go,” said Livny.
Slowly, the point that Livny, McMillion, and Sarjeant have come to make began to sink in. “I would have thought that folks at Youth on Fire could connect them to the services that they need,” LoConte said.
“Currently in Boston there is only one emergency shelter dedicated for young people,” said Livny. “It has twelve beds.”
LoConte’s face fell as she realized the implications of Livny’s words. She looked at the paperwork that Livny passed her, a fact sheet detailing several bills currently being weighed by the state Senate regarding housing and homelessness. She said Petruccelli was familiar with (and in support of) all of them she said, except the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act, the one that Livny, Sarjeant, and McMillion came to highlight. She looked around the room at the faces of Youth on Fire, and said: “But now. Definitely. We’ll be talking about this one.”
The bill holds potential to improve services for all homeless young people, but there are still special challenges facing homeless LGBT youth.
Grace Sterling Stowell, executive director of Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) says that she has heard numerous reports of LGBT youth becoming targets for violence inside shelters. “We have heard stories of young men who become victims to adults in the shelter. Either they are found out to be gay and become targets of violence and harassment, and/or they become set up for sexual violence.” She says that she also heard significant reports of young people being victimized by staff.
McMillion says that she and her partner experienced discrimination from staff members at some area shelters. She says that she and her partner were forbidden from hugging, sitting too close together, or using the multi-stall bathroom at the same time. She recalls attempting to study with her partner for a course they both were taking at Bunker Hill Community College. The two could only afford one copy of the textbook and read together. A staff member at the shelter approached them and told them they had to take turns reading the book because they were sitting to close together. McMillion said that upon refusing, she and her partner were barred from the shelter for three days.
Stowell says that BAGLY and other organizations have been focusing on trying to connect shelter staff with cultural competency trainings, but has found it to be an uphill battle.
“Training’s not going to do anything. There needs to be more homosexual and transgender staff. There need to be workshops with clients on how to report mistreatment without fearing repercussions from other staff members,” said McMillion.
Today, McMillion has her own apartment in Quincy. Out of those four kids that slept in the elevator shafts of apartment buildings, she is the only one still alive. One of them, her girlfriend at the time, died in her arms of an asthma attack. McMillion said that she counts herself lucky. She said she feels compelled to become a leader and a voice of change. Right now, that looks like that might be through social work, but she’s open to possibilities. For now, she said, she can take a deep breath, let it out, and say, “I’m okay.”
Noelle Swan is a freelance writer.