Special Report: Rescuing Chicago's homeless LGBT youth

Thu. March 22, 2012 8:58 AM by Anthony Morgano

el rescate in humboldt park

photo credit // ed negron
Chicago, IL - Recent news is filled with victories for LGBT rights. The federal government repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell allowed a nation of men and women to begin serving their country openly and proudly; Washington and Maryland passed legislation to join the other six states (plus Washington DC) that validate loving same-sex relationships with marriage equality; and this month in Chicago, Vida/SIDA opened the Midwest's first homeless shelter targeting LGBT youth, El Rescate.

While gay men and women can now fight for their homes and same-sex couples are gaining acceptance and building homes together, LGBT youth across the nation are struggling to find a home. This issue is as old as the Gay Rights Movement itself. Reports from New York in 1969 identify many of the famous Stonewall Inn's patrons as teenage runaways. These homeless youth joined together with the transvestites that also populated the bar that night some 43 years ago to take a stand that many gay men and lesbians of the time would have been afraid to take.

In the subsequent years, however, homeless LGBT youth were marginalized by the mainstream fight for gay rights. Today, they make up a large proportion of the homeless youth, but until recently there was nowhere in Chicago that specifically catered to their needs.

"The problem was that there wasn't an institution providing culturally competent services," said Juan Calderon, the Director of Vida/SIDA and one of the men behind El Rescate. "We had to take it on."

Meaning "the rescue" in Spanish, El Rescate opened its doors in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on March 3. Six days later the White House Office of Public Engagement, the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development and the Ruth Ellis Center held the White House LGBT Conference on Housing and Homelessness at Wayne State University in Detroit. The conference gave everyone from community leaders and activists to students and citizens the chance to hear from and engage with administrative officials on issues of housing discrimination and homeless amongst queer youth.

"At a time in life when most young people are worried about which college they're going to go to, what their first job might look like, or what opportunities might exist once they graduate from high school, thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teenagers are worried about something far more basic," said HUD Secretary Shuan Donovan in the conference's opening remarks. "Where they might be able to sleep that night -- and whether they'll be safe once they get there."

Donovon cited statistics from a 2007 report by the Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. According to the same study, only three to five percent of the whole U.S. population self-identify as LGBT, so what accounts for the disproportionately high number of homeless LGBT youth?

According to Joe Hollendoner, Senior Vice President of Programs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the research on homeless LGBT youth underrepresents what he has seen in his career, especially in the cases of transgendered individuals.

"There are lots of contributing factors that put LGBT young people at a higher risk for homelessness," Hollendoner told GoPride.com. "They include everything from being kicked out by parents or guardians to a lack of support or safety in their home communities, so young people choose to run away and leave those home communities."

Before joining AFC, Hollendoner spent 11 years working for the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago and oversaw the opening of the Broadway Youth Center in October of 2004. The BYC offers drop-in case management, medical care, HIV testing and mental health services for queer youth, many of whom are homeless.

LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and studies show that homeless youth who identify as LGBT are also more likely to become depressed, use drugs and participate in the street economy for survival.

"LGBT young people are more likely to be on the streets because our systems to respond to homelessness are not always affirming or sensitive to sexual minority individuals," said Holldendoner.

His sentiments are echoed by HUD Secretary Donovon, who told audiences at the LGBT Conference on Housing and Homelessness that a majority of young people surveyed reported harassment, discrimination and even assault when trying to access homeless shelters. This is especially true for transgendered individuals, whose unique gender identity complicates the traditional policy of separating residents based on sex.

According to The Night Ministry, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless youth in Chicago, but the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated that in in 2000 42 percent of homeless youth seeking shelter from state-funded programs were turned away due to lack of resources.

"On a nightly basis there's over 100 people experiencing homelessness in the city of Chicago and there are less than 50 emergency shelter beds available," Hollendoner said. "That's a problem that affects all young people regardless of sexual orientation."

El Rescate opened less than a month ago, but it is already feeling the pressure of how much need exists in Chicago. The LGBT-targeted youth shelter has the capacity to house up to 12 LGBT and HIV+ youth, ages 18-24, and 45 people are already on the waiting list, Vida/SIDA Director Juan Calderon told GoPride.com.

Calderon has a special connection to LGBT homeless youth: less than 10 years ago, at the age of 16, he was homeless himself. While going through the process of coming out, Calderon couch surfed from family to family. Now 25, he understands the need for a stable environment in a young queer person's life and stresses the importance not waiting for someone else to solve your problems, but tackling them hands-on.

"Homelessness continued to be a dismissive problem in our community due a fundamental lack of services," he said. "We needed to challenge the discourse of the problem itself in order to create change."

For three years Vida/SIDA fought for funding, revised plans and called on the community to care for its young people. Donations from Latino state representatives and a special initiative grant from the Chicago Community Trust finally allowed El Rescate to open its doors on the fourth floor of Vida/SIDA located at 2703 W. Divison in Humboldt Park.

El Rescate is designed to be a transitional housing facility and an independent living program rolled into one. The shelter currently occupies four floors and includes a kitchen, dining area and lounge in addition to bedrooms. Brightly colored and airy, the space is reminiscent of a college dormitory, something that Calderon says is not an accident.

"We want them to feel like they're roommates," he said. "They are responsible for cooking, cleaning and creating their own rules for living together."

Those staying at El Rescate are also provided with a sort of resident advisor, a peer who can act as a role model and confidante as these youth work on rebuilding their lives. Emphasizing the shelter's role as a transitional facility, residents are required to work and volunteer with programs through Vida/SIDA in order to gain training and employment experience for the future. Borrowing from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, El Rescate teaches the values of self-determination, self-actualization and self-reliance.

"The difference [between other shelters and El Rescate] is that we know people don't change if they don't want to," said Calderon. "We provide them with the tools necessary to help them become successful."

Calderon attributes the success of El Rescate to the supportive Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park, which he calls a safe space for the queer Latino community, citing a number of contributions to LGBT causes in the past. The neighborhood is home to Vida/SIDA, the last community-based AIDS organization in Chicago, routinely supports a gay float and transgendered performers in the Puerto Rican Parade and allows the residents of El Rescate to attend a nearby alternative school to finish their high school diplomas.

These and other intersecting programs provide the support and community so sorely lacking in mainstream facilities and exemplify the diversity of Chicago that Calderon prizes. While he values the support LGBT youth may receive by traveling to Boystown, he emphasizes the importance of providing services for youths throughout Chicago, not just in the gayborhood.

"LGBTQ is citywide," Calderon told GoPride.com. "We need to reach out and support initiatives that affirm space for community residents in their respective communities so that no one is left behind."

Calderon hopes to eventually expand El Rescate and occupy the entire building in which it currently resides, allowing the shelter to house 30-40 homeless LGBT youth. Even this, however, only scratches the surface of the issue.

Joe Hollendoner emphasizes a need to focus additional resources on queer homelessness prevention. By lessening the number of LGBT youth who experience homelessness, the burden on the system will be lightened.

There is no silver bullet that will solve the issue of LGBT homelessness; the demand on the system is huge and the capacity to deal with the problem is minimal. Hollendoner praises recent efforts to address the problem from a variety of angles, including drop-in programs like the BYC, overnight services like The Crib and now long-term housing available through El Rescate.

"The spectrum approach to programming for youth homelessness...allows young people to have multi-threshold options that they haven't had in the past," said Hollendoner. "The more creative, the more nuanced, the more deeply rich our service sector becomes, the better woven our safety net."

To learn more about how you can help Vida/SIDA and El Rescate, visit http://prcc-chgo.org/vidasida/?page_id=81

Special feature written by: Anthony Morgano, ChicagoPride.com local news editor. Read Anthony's monthly column in Grab Magazine.