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Opening our homes and hearts to our homeless youth

Dr. Wilhemina Perry | 11/2/2011, 7:04 p.m.
Opening our homes and hearts to our homeless youth

One rainy autumn evening, a group of about 25 elders gathered in a small meeting room of Harlem's Riverside Church. Maranatha, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) ministry, was holding a forum on the needs of homeless gay youth. A young African-American man, no more than 18 years old, stood before us in tears. He slowly and carefully recounted his experience of coming out to his religious parents. .

Despite his mother's support, his father-a pastor at the church that they all had attended-threw the young man out of the only home he had ever known. He now slept in shelters when he was lucky enough to get a bed. At the end of his testimony, we embraced, his warm tears settling on my shoulder and forever in my memory. That was over 10 years ago.

In the beginning of my professional work, I had worked at a Black foster care agency in Philadelphia. It was there that I first encountered children who had been physically abused by a parent. These were babies whose bones had been broken, children who had been burned with cigarettes and others who had been abandoned. As I sat in Riverside Church that day, I knew I was embarking on a new journey working with disenfranchised youth and adults-one that focused on the too-often-overlooked LGBT homeless youth.

Most people have witnessed homelessness in New York City. We see homeless people on the corners or in parks or as we travel in the subways. However, we know less or nothing about our city's homeless youth. On most days, we don't recognize them because, like other young people, they like to "fit in." Often, like adults, they mask their homelessness because they feel ashamed.

Who exactly are these young people? They are youth and young adults between the ages of 13 to 24 years who lack family support and live in shelters, on the streets or other places not intended for human habitation such as cars or subways. Some have left their homes out of their own volition. Others are gay and have been thrown out by parents who do not accept them. Many have biological parents who are unable or unwilling to assume their care. There are those who have aged out of the foster care system. Finally, there are those who have come to the city from other locations throughout the United States and the world expecting to find an abundance of resources but instead find themselves with no place to go. Reports reveal that the majority of these young people are both Black and identify themselves as gay.

It was not only the stories of these youth that touched me. The statistics of how many lived on the streets shattered my own sense of well-being. In a 2007 study, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an advocacy group in New York, found that on any given night, roughly 3,800 homeless young people were on the streets in New York. In a 2008 City Council census of homeless youth in New York City, census takers found that every night almost 4,000 youth are without stable housing.