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For the first time in a decade, homeless youth are surveyed about HIV prevalence and risk
By Amanda Waldroupe
A young woman in her early twenties going by the name “Sabrina” for this story was hopeful and surprised at the support she received from her mother and stepfather when she came out to them as a lesbian last summer. But as Sabrina shared with her mother more about her sexuality, her mother began to think “it was all right for me to have friends in the GLBT community, but not be a part of it,” Sabrina says.
Sitting in a conference room in New Avenues for Youth, a homeless-youth agency, Sabrina’s clasped hands begin to clench. Her eyes almost water as she continues thinking back to her parents’ reactions to her sexual orientation and the fact that she was dating another girl.
Unbeknownst to her stepfather, Sabrina’s partner was living with them that summer. Sabrina has never liked her stepfather and never confided personal information to him. She was in her room one night when, through a shared vent, she heard her mother and stepfather talking in their room.
“‘I just want you to know that [Sabrina’s partner] is staying here,’” Sabrina remembers her saying.
Then Sabrina heard the sounds of her stepfather “stomping” down the hall, where he yelled from the top of the stairs:
“You need to find a different place to live. Pack your stuff up in 15 minutes.”
Sabrina and her partner found themselves in a situation faced by an alarming number of youth who come out to their families as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender: homeless.
The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force refers to gay youth homelessness as an “epidemic,” and estimates that 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as GLBT. Portland has a disproportionately high number of gay youth, with 40 percent of the 2,000 homeless youth in Portland identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. “That’s quite large,” says Kathy Oliver, executive director of Outside In, an agency serving homeless youth.
Favor Ellis, program director of the Sexual Minorities Youth Resource Center, says that 30 to 50 percent of the youth SMYRC serves are homeless.
Sabrina and her partner found themselves sleeping in the fields and underneath the bridges of the Willamette Valley town they lived in before coming to Portland. She recalls being rained on twice, and having her possessions stolen.
After one month, Sabrina and her partner came to Portland, where there were more services, and more accepting of the gay community. They spent one night on Portland’s streets. The next day they were admitted into a shelter operated by Janus Youth, another homeless youth agency.
While she was on the street, Sabrina says that she sometimes had “mean things” said to her by others who knew she was a lesbian.
“If you’re different, you tend to be targeted” on the streets, says Dennis Lundberg, an associate director at Janus Youth. “GLBTQ youth are in that really tricky dynamic.”
“I was broken anyway for being criticized for being gay and coming out,” says Sabrina, who felt like a “smashed piece of glass” during that time. “But I’m not going to change the way I am. I chose to be gay, because I’m happy.”
To be homeless and gay and young in Portland, say the sources and youth interviewed for this story, is to live through a triple whammy of emotionally trying experiences that test a youth’s indefinite sense of self. It is also to live a life more likely involving being targeted, exploited, discriminated against, and exposed to experiences and behaviors threatening one’s health and safety.
Serving a population difficult to reach out to and engage, homeless and sexual-minority agencies in Portland are currently working to survey homeless youth and gather an unprecedented amount of information to better understand and assist that community.
The project is called the Homeless Youth HIV Prevalence and Risk Behavior Study. Cascade Aids Project (CAP) and Outside In are partnering with consultation from Dr. Todd Korthuis, the research director of Oregon Health & Science University’s HIV Clinic, to administer a survey to homeless youth about their sexual activity and knowledge of HIV/AIDS, as well as administer rapid HIV tests.
It is the first time in 10 years that such information has been gathered about Portland’s homeless youth. Data collection began on January 11 and will continue for six weeks, with results tentatively scheduled to be released in March.
“The question we have not been able to answer is how many people in the homeless youth population are HIV positive or at risk of becoming HIV positive,” says Kristin Kane, CAP’s director of support services. “No agency knows about the HIV component of homeless youth in our metropolitan area.”
Homeless youth, according to Kane and others, are perhaps the population in Portland at the highest risk of becoming infected with HIV.
The reason, says New Avenues for Youth Associate Director Sean Suib, is that “they’re engaging in a lot of survival behaviors that put them at risk of lots of different health-related issues.”
Those high-risk behaviors include alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, unsafe sex, and sex with multiple partners, as well as problems associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
High-risk behavior is something fairly common among homeless youth, “[but] sexual and gender minority youth are at higher risk for all at-risk behaviors,” says SMYRC’s Ellis.
“Adolescence is a really difficult time for any youth,” Lundberg says. “If your emerging sense of gender orientation is such that it is alienating you from your peer group and society, and you’re being fed a message of non-acceptance, [and] of self-loathing, you start to see really high-risk behavior.
“There’s a lot of internalized self hatred that manifests itself in self-harming, self-cutting, [and] suicide idealization,” he continues.
Ellis and others stop short of saying the main reason homeless gay youth more readily engage in high-risk behaviors is simply because they are gay.
“I think when you’re homeless, you do a lot of things to forget about why you’re homeless,” Kane says.
But being a gay homeless youth is different from simply being young and homeless. Gay youth not only face the challenges of being on the street, but also feel the added emotional weight of exploring and determining their sexual and gender identities. Homelessness compounds the difficulty of those experiences.
“When you’re homeless, you have to be constantly thinking about your survival needs,” Ellis says. “You can’t spend it figuring out your identity or what’s happening with your body.”
But they find a way.
“Am I a lesbian?” Sabrina asks. She wonders this often. “Am I bi? Do I feel comfortable being bio-female? It sounds like a soap opera.”
Sitting on a couch watching cartoons at Janus Youth’s day center on a Wednesday afternoon, 24-year-old Christopher Bolland, who has been homeless on-and-off for seven years, says he considers himself “bi-curious”—not bisexual, but simply curious about same-sex relationships. “I try not to put a label on it, to tell you the truth,” he says.
Bolland is lounging in a bright, airy room much like a living room. Windows along one wall reveal painted murals done in the past by homeless youth. Washing machines and dryers hum in one corner. Boxes of tampons, razors, toothbrushes, hotel-issued looking soap and shampoo sit at the check-in desk. By the end of the day, it will all be taken. Some youth sit at round tables at the far end of the room eating lunch, while others chill out on a couch and watch The Princess Bride.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Janus Youth opens as a day space for youth to drop in. Twenty people signed up that day to take the HIV survey. “We thought five would have been successful,” Lundberg shares. Many of those 20 were motivated to take the survey not necessarily because they thought it was important, but because of the $10 gift card to Safeway or Fred Meyer they would receive for doing so.
The five youth Just Out spoke to at Janus Youth all said they were not worried about being HIV-positive. “I pretty much practice abstinence,” says Jessie, 24.
Jessie says he knows many gay homeless youth, and has not observed discrimination. As he folds his dried laundry into his backpack, he explains that homeless people are more tolerant than many think. “If you’re homeless, you’re pretty damn well used to other lifestyles,” he says.
CAP’s Kane expects to find a large number of youth engaging in high-risk behaviors surrounding drug use, needle exchanging and unprotected sex. Korthuis says he will be “surprised” if no youth unexpectedly find out they are HIV-positive.
CAP and the other agencies involved in the survey will use the information to tailor education and prevention services and create programs to serve particular needs of homeless youth not already being met. “A second goal that is no less important is identifying youth who are HIV-positive and engaging them in treatment,” Korthuis says. “That’s critical.”