It was a bright summer day in Cambridge when I first walked into the shelter run by Youth on Fire (YOF) near Harvard Square. A program of the AIDS Committee of Massachusetts, YOF provides necessary services to homeless youth ages 14 to 24. As my eyes adjusted to the dimmed light, I was greeted with warm smiles from members who were doing their laundry and watching TV. Though homeless themselves, they made me feel instantly at home.
Three members of the program shared their experiences living on the street as openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ)—and of finding hope in unexpected places.
Nathan Anthony, 23, left Ohio and came to Boston a year ago to start a new job, but things didn’t go the way he had planned and he has been on the streets since then. “I graduated college, found a job and the week that I was supposed to start, they decided to give it to someone else,” he said. The Miami University alumnus, who majored in athletic training, was experiencing for the first time what a lot of teens and young adults experience in Massachusetts: youth homelessness.
Whether because of being aged out of foster care, living in an unstable household or feeling rejection from their parents, a population of young adults decide to leave their homes and sometimes even find hope on the streets and in people who are always willing to help. Their decision to leave is scary and heartbreaking for some, but a relief to others.
“I know some people that are out here because they have no choice but to be out here. Because their parents kicked them out and don’t let them come back,” Anthony said about the causes of youth homelessness. When asked about returning home to his mother, he said that “I could try to go back but my living situation would probably push me over the edge.”
A year and a half ago, he was stationed in Iraq where he served for two years with the U.S. Army. Now, he’s a college graduate veteran who roams around the streets of Boston struggling to find a job.
Anthony came to YOF for the first time about four months ago and has no plans of leaving until finding a stable job and therefore finding somewhere to live. “There’s a bunch of places that say they are LGBTQ, but you’ll get banned. I have had people from my friends that get kicked out because they don’t know what side to put them on or what to do with them or they’re afraid something’s gonna happen or they don’t call them the right pronoun,” he said.
Iresha McKenzie, 20, also a member of the program appreciates everything she has benefitted from the people of YOF. “They’re willing to help and I like that,” she said. Although identifying herself as “an independent boat,” she decided to give this program a try for the first time more than a month ago and although she has a place that she can call home now, she still comes back for the people.
McKenzie, a junior at Bunker Hill Community College, has not had a stable home since she was a little girl. She has moved back and forth from houses of family members and decided to leave for good last year. At the time, she was living with her aunt with whom she had a rocky relationship. Although finding a place to sleep and what to eat is hard when you’re own your own, she felt relieved. “I felt relieved because my mentality is that I basically raised myself.”
Almost half of the teens who are homeless are considered LGBTQ and find themselves being even more discriminated than those who are straight. “We get picked on and sprayed. Sometimes they’re trying to pay us for sexual stuff,” Anthony said about the difference between straight and gay homeless.
For Diamond McMillion, 28, who was homeless for nine years and is now a Staff Member of Youth on Fire, it was harder being homeless because of being gay. “Me and my partner at the time were staying in shelters and once that people found out that we were together it was horrible. We would get kicked out constantly,” she said. “The shelters that didn’t discriminate were so far from being safe. Either your’re safe or you’re comfortable.”
However, McKenzie feels like her sexual preference doesn’t change her experience of being homeless. “People are gonna look down, not because we’re homeless, not because we’re gay, but because people in their minds only think for themselves,” she said.