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A home without walls

by by A. Skye

Youth make up approximately 20 percent of the homeless population in San Francisco, about 1,400 unaccompanied children and transition-age youth (18-24 years old). Nearly half (49 percent) are LGBTQ, higher than the national average for homeless youth (40 percent) and significantly higher than San Francisco's homeless adult population (25 percent).

The Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center has seen a dramatic increase in the percentage of youth who are homeless/unstably housed at initial engagement - now at 68 percent of youth served - almost two times what it was seeing just six years ago. Seventy-five percent of these youth are youth of color and 49 percent are trans/gender nonconforming; 86 percent have a special need, disability, or mental health challenge. These high numbers have been part of, and failed by, social systems (special education-15 percent; foster care-25 percent, justice-75 percent).

I believe youth homelessness can be healed if we know the root causes of it. When I arrived in San Francisco three years ago, I didn't know anyone. I wanted to improve my life personally and socially. I didn't have any connection with anyone trans and gender nonconforming like me. I always wanted to be social with people like me or at least with people who respected me, but that wasn't happening in my Florida town. I had a falling out with my family and my college pursuits faltered. I was desperate and living in an unsafe place.

I knew that connection with people would help me. I arrived at the SF Transbay Terminal on a Greyhound bus. A woman on the bus told me how Larkin Street Youth Services helped her out and that they had emergency beds. I ended up walking up and down Larkin Street because I didn't know where it was. Two people beckoned me into a building. I didn't want to be outside, so I went inside. Luckily, one of these people became key to me getting first connected to services.

It was scary and overwhelming to realize I wouldn't have a physical place to be in San Francisco and that I wouldn't have a roof over my head. I thought, "What should I do!?" I would sleep outside for a few weeks and then get a bed in a shelter, and repeat this cycle. There are only so many beds in shelters and you have to line up early to get a bed. People line up outside and sleep during the day while waiting to get a place to sleep for the night. I slept in all sorts of places from Lands End to the front of City Hall.

Homelessness is a sense of loss. It's very heartbreaking to be a youth in an adult shelter. I want people to know an adult shelter is no place for a youth. The adult shelter is one big room with florescent lighting and no privacy. It's sad to see adults in the same situation and they take it out on you as a youth. It's critical that youth are housed off the streets, but there are only a few shelters for youth. There need to be more youth shelters, emergency beds, and specifically, an LGBTQ youth shelter.

In many ways homelessness in America is a part of our social structure. As individuals and as communities, we need to recognize this as an everyday reality. Knowing our homeless youth populations better will help end youth homelessness. This can happen through continuous and dynamic surveys and community partners who want to help. According to the 2017 San Francisco Homeless Unique Youth Count Comprehensive Survey findings, 49 percent of homeless youth identified as LGBTQQ. This statistic shows how many LGBTQQ youth are homeless and provides data to help better and more accurately distribute resources to LGBTQQ youth.

I was fortunate enough to meet trans people and allies of the LGBTQ community in the shelter who took me under their wing and I got connected to services. LYRIC was a vital piece in my toolbox when dealing with homelessness. I received therapy services at LYRIC to help me cope with what I've gone through, I became part of a community building group, I was part of a leadership conference, and now I'm a LYRIC Fellow. The LYRIC Fellowship is a two-year paid position for trans and gender-nonconforming youth, 18-24 years of age. I am fun and outgoing and invested in internal and external change. I have a commitment to learn and grow despite challenges in a cis-normative society. LYRIC invests in youth who are trans and gender nonconforming like me. LYRIC focuses on lifting up LGBTQQ youth and encouraging us to embrace our life experiences and use them to step into leadership. LYRIC provides youth with positive ways to build resilience.

By connecting with my LGBTQ community, I slowly started to rebuild my sense of home. Even though I didn't have a place to stay in San Francisco, I had a home within the people who I met. A home without walls.

Street kids know a lot about gay rights and the movement. In my experience being homeless, I've had people who connected me with housing and school and I've had the support of people still on the streets, still going through it. Because of them, I found self-determination even when things were looking bleak. Even though I'm not homeless anymore, they know where I came from and that I'm improving my life. When I'm feeling down, they propel me to keep going. My homeless friends provide me with something special because they know what it means to strive for something better. People discount other people who look homeless, but they are helping me build my home.

I have learned you can have a house, but you might not have a home. I am a survivor. Life isn't perfect and neither am I. Life is imperfect, but you can always make it better. Even if you've had everything and then lose it all, it's about how you get back up and try again.

A. Skye lives in San Francisco. For more information about the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, or LYRIC, visit http://www.lyric.org.

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