Searching for inner Peace, Kassidy Suarez packed her belongings and left her Liberty City home hastily. At 16 she could no longer bear the torment of her family’s rejection. “It was very painful. The people who you thought from day one that were actually going to be there for you were the first ones to start calling you names and trashing you,” recalls Suarez. “You’d rather be on the streets.”
But no one on those tough streets offered the 24-year-old transgender woman consolation or hope. Like many in her situation, she was compelled to engage in sex work to meet her most basic needs. As feelings of worthlessness battered her already low self-esteem, three years floated past.
“You feel so lost, you just want to give up. You start abusing drugs and alcohol. You even get paid with drugs sometimes,” she says. “It is depressing because nobody cares for your well-being; nobody asks you for your opinion; nobody knows you exist.”
Experts agree that LGBTQ homeless youth in South Florida are invisible, which makes them a particularly vulnerable segment of the population. They aren’t standing on the side of the road with hand-painted signs, they rarely congregate among homeless adults, and they learn to stay off the streets during the day to avoid the authorities. Many simply spend most of their days securing a place to sleep in the evenings.
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The Trials of Life
Suarez’ situation is not uncommon. National studies estimate that up to 40 percent of all people under age 24 experiencing homelessness in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. Because this population is often undetectable, it has been difficult to count and to track the numbers in South Florida, making local statistics hard to come by.
According to a 2015 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, family rejection is the most common reason providers cite for homelessness among queer youth. Some are forced out of their homes, while others run away from the humiliation and emotional or physical abuse. Substance abuse and domestic violence are the second most frequently cited causes, followed by aging out of the foster care system with no proper support network.
In South Florida, the high cost of living is a significant factor. “For an 18-year-old with a minimum wage job, it is impossible to afford to live in a one-bedroom or studio apartment without assistance,” says Mandi Hawke, director of youth services at SunServe, a social services agency for Broward’s LGBTQ community. “Many LGBTQ young people — and especially our trans youth — often struggle to find affirming employment.”
Once on the streets or housed in emergency shelters, queer youth face myriad obstacles that further threaten their chances of becoming independent. According to a 2016 report by True Colors Fund, a leading organization working to end LGBTQ youth homelessness, these young people struggle with harsher realities in the foster care, school and juvenile justice systems. They are also disproportionately affected by HIV, sexual assault, violence and inadequate access to behavioral and mental health resources, especially if they are of color or come from low-income backgrounds.
Michael Alexander-Luz is the co-coordinator of an LBT support group at Lotus House in Miami, a women’s shelter for all ages, including those with children. Too often he sees the long-term impacts of these struggles. “There [are] a lot of mental health diagnoses present; a lot of substance use history and suicidal ideation. Oftentimes, when they are not here, they are getting hormones off the black market that aren’t safe.”
A Dearth of Resources
In spite of the high rates of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, there are few shelters in South Florida specifically designed with them in mind. Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services provides shelter for children and teens through age 17, but there is no shelter in Miami-Dade specifically for individuals ages 18-24. In Broward, Fort Lauderdale’s Covenant House is the only emergency shelter for youth through age 20.
David Raymond, former executive director of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, notes that local policies for addressing homelessness focus primarily on housing people who are chronically homeless first. But that’s part of the cycle, as he is quick to mention that the key to stopping someone from becoming chronically homeless is to get them out of homelessness within the first year. Even in the local adult shelter system, it can take weeks to find a bed, and there are no protections in place to keep young people from being targeted or discriminated when they attempt to access these services.
Many LGBTQ youth report having poor experiences in general population shelters, says Landon “LJ” Woolston, homeless youth programs and services manager at Pridelines. “Oftentimes, they don’t want to go back to shelters because they have been bullied by staff or other adult clients,” he says. “For trans and gender non-conforming youth, it is even harder, because they are more likely to encounter systemic violence in the shelter system and to be housed inappropriately based on the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity.”
An Oasis of Support
The 9,000-square-foot community center that opened in 2016 was built in part to expand services for this population. Free case management and advocacy, warm meals, snacks, showers, washer and dryer, and clothing and hygiene products are all available there. The organization also runs an array of programs for LGBTQ youth and adults, including HIV support groups, educational lectures, holistic therapies and a lending library.
This summer, the nonprofit celebrates 35 years of service improving lives through safety, guidance and unconditional acceptance.
Among them is La’Ruben Dixon, a 20-year-old gay student from a religious home, where homosexuality was considered sinful. At age 15, his mother kicked him out, so he spent the next several years on the streets, “couch-surfing” with friends or at emergency shelters, such as Camillus House.
“It’s stressful; it’s a hard adjustment. But it gave me motivation for wanting to improve my own life,” says Dixon, who is now studying dance at Santa Fe College in Gainesville.
It was only after a great deal of pain that Kassidy Suarez, too, obtained services when she received a referral to Lotus House. After she stabilized, she was offered a position there, too. When her mother became homeless, she was in a position to help, and with support and education, her mom began to accept her for who she is. They rebuilt their relationship and they now live together in permanent housing in Overtown.
Filled with gratitude, Suarez wants to share her story with vulnerable gay and transgender youth. “Stay focused, stay in school, just don’t let go of you,” she says. “There are so many speed bumps — and so many hurtful ones — but don’t let barriers bury you. A person can upgrade rather than self-deteriorate.”