Hiding in plain sight: Homeless LBGT teens —- our hidden minority

Basheba wants a career in genetic engineering. But even though he reads constantly and exudes a confident intelligence when he talks, it’s difficult to study if your nights are spent living in the Market East train station — one reason Basheba keeps dropping out of school.

As grim as his life on the street is, he insists it’s still preferable to where he really lives — an abandoned house at 29th and Girard. There, Basheba, 20, his ailing alcoholic mother, an older brother just released from prison and back to dealing drugs and another older brother who desperately wants to leave their dark surroundings but is the only one in the house with a job, are the constant targets of neighborhood gangs.

“It’s just so terrible there,” Basheba says, looking away as he tells his story. “We have no windows — they’re all broken out, you know, like an abandoned house. We have no heat. We have no water. We live on hot dogs and Ramen. It’s not a normal household. We don’t have the basic necessities you need to live.”

It’s a chilly November day and as we talk, snow flurries come in bursts from a gray and foreboding sky. It’s windy and the cold damp cuts to the bone.

“I have to sleep in all my clothes. I can never get warm. I hate it there. It’s dirty, it smells so bad. There’s black mold everywhere. It makes me sick to be there, so I choose to stay outside.”

Another reason Basheba hates his neighborhood is because of the antigay threats from his neighbors.

“I’ve been gay since the beginning of time,” he laughs, his hand extending in a flourish. But when he goes home, the constant antigay harassment and violence make him feel “crazy” and “ persecuted.”

Basheba is tall and strongly built, but has an air of vulnerability, not toughness. His hair is cornrowed back and his tongue is pierced. He has a dreamy look, a ready laugh and mannerisms that are obviously gay. Any money he makes comes from turning tricks with older men, which led to his HIV-positive status.

Since he was 14, Basheba has been coming almost daily to the Youth Health Empowerment Program (Y-HEP), a project of Philadelphia Fight, one of the only programs in the city helping homeless and at-risk youth.

Y-HEP was founded in 1994 as a citywide pilot project to reduce the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases among adolescents and young adults in the Philadelphia area and has expanded to include a range of services for at-risk teens and young adults, giving them access to everything from a hot meal and a shower to peer counseling and educational access.

Y-HEP defines itself as a multi-faceted, community-based health and leadership development program for Philadelphia youth, which annually serves over 8,000 high-risk, hard-to-reach teens and young adults, ages 13-24, through a range of activities, including workshops, educational assistance, counseling, healthcare and basic necessities.

The offices, on the ninth floor of the JFK Building at 112 N. Broad St., are inviting and kid-friendly. The walls are painted in rainbow colors, which one young woman says was the idea of the clients themselves. A rainbow flag adorns one corner. A big-screen TV sits against one wall, but isn’t on. The kids in the program seem much more interested in each other and Y-HEP’s programs to be drawn to the escapism TV provides. Bowls of snacks sit on various small tables, available to anyone who is hungry, as so many of the program’s clients often are. Back in the kitchen, lunch is being prepared by Erika, one of the program’s long-time participants.

Robin Brennan is Y-HEP’s executive director. Small, wiry and energetic, she exudes an air of both confidence and competence. Everything she says invokes a tone of nurturing concern for Y-HEP’s clients. With degrees in sociology, psychology and social work, she’s also completing a Ph.D., yet looks youthful enough to have been a recent graduate of the program herself. It’s obvious the clients admire and respect her and, male or female, see her as their role model.

“There are so many kids out there who need us,” Brennan says, perched on the corner of a big, puffy sofa in Y-HEP’s Empowerment Center. The smell of pasta and meatballs fills the room. Within the hour, the handful of kids in the room will expand to 30 or more, waves of teens coming by after school for food, workshops or networking, to use the computer room or just hang out in a place that’s warm and safe before they have to go back to whatever hell awaits them on the other side of Y-HEP’s doors.

Brennan’s frustration with the breadth of the problems facing homeless and at-risk youth in Philadelphia is palpable. She pushes back her hair impatiently and talks fast and furious about all the things she’d like to provide — not just for the kids currently in the room, who seem to have created their own family at the project — but for all the kids she sees in Y-HEP’s outreach program or out on the streets. She uses the word “empowerment” a lot; it’s the project’s mantra and what she most wants to deliver to Y-HEP’s client base — kids who feel anything but empowered.

Brennan makes it clear she’d like to help them all: She’d like to employ every kid who graduates from the Peer Education Academy. She goes to conferences to spread the word. She treks to Harrisburg, as she had just the day before, to lobby for her kids and for the funding Y-HEP so desperately needs. But despite how much she and the other staff of Y-HEP provide, the need far exceeds the resources available because so many kids are thrown away in our society.

“We work with all different kind of youth,” Brennan explains, “LGBT youth, students, single parents, teens and young adults who are HIV-positive, youth who are homeless or who live in shelters.” It’s clear from her description as well as the number of youth flooding the center after 3 p.m. that Y-HEP is a safe space for many different kids with many different problems. For some, like Basheba, it is the closest thing to home they have.

Yet despite the overwhelming needs of the clients, the atmosphere at Y-HEP is anything but desperate. If you didn’t know who these kids were and why they were there, you’d think it was a student activity center, not, as it is for Basheba and so many others, the only safe, warm, nurturing place they know, with Brennan the favorite aunt they always dreamed of having.

Samantha was brought to Y-HEP several years ago by a friend she met at the shelter where she was living. For the past few months since she graduated from the Peer Education Academy, she’s been working at Y-HEP.

“We have a policy that our participants have to give back when they graduate from the Peer Education Academy,” explains Brennan. This helps instill a sense of responsibility in kids who have lived on the streets, in shelters and in foster care and whose adult role models have mostly been negative. The young women and men at the Empowerment Center insist that giving back isn’t something they feel forced to do, but something they want to do, are actually eager to do.

“We’re a family here,” Samantha, 20, explains. “Giving back helps me learn responsibility, but it also helps me help other kids who need help. One of the things I learned here was how to listen. I try to teach other kids how to do that, too.”

Samantha, who says she has always been bisexual, was forced out of her home by a verbally and physically abusive mother. Ill-equipped as a teenager for a life on the streets, she soon became involved in drugs and prostitution. She also got pregnant and has a 1-year-old daughter who lives with a relative, a situation that is a source of deep pain for her.

“I’ve been clean for 11 months,” she says of her former drug habit, which included alcohol, pills and wet (marijuana or tobacco cigarettes soaked in PCP and embalming fluid). She spends her days at Y-HEP, then returns to the shelter where she lives at night — a situation she dreads.

At the shelter, her sexuality is a constant issue with the five other young women with whom she shares a room. “They accuse me of presenting myself to them when I change [into nightclothes]. Like I’m an animal or something. They say stuff like, ‘Oh, you want me,’ and give me a hard time.” Pain is in her voice.

Looking at Samantha — a big, curvy young woman with hair braided in the front that fans out soft and fluffy around her face — it’s difficult to imagine that she’s been homeless off and on for four years, beaten and used by pimps, kicked in the stomach by her mother when she was pregnant, harassed by her shelter-mates. Nothing about her demeanor gives her history away. She looks like a college student.

Her strength and determination are palpable. She wants to finish college and work at Y-HEP full-time.

“It’s my testimony,” she says simply, her soft voice unwavering. “I hit rock bottom, I lost everything, including my daughter.” She takes responsibility for everything that has happened to her, even though it’s apparent little of it is her fault.

“It’s hard, but I’m optimistic and determined,” she asserts.

Erika is also optimistic and determined. Her story is depressingly similar to Samantha’s. Her long, straight blonde hair is pulled back and she proudly wears a Y-HEP apron over her bright pink shirt. Lunch is her creation.

Like Samantha, Erika has been homeless off and on for years, including a period when she lived along homeless row, on the Parkway outside the soon-to-be Barnes Foundation.

Erika was lured into prostitution by an unscrupulous madam who didn’t care how old she was, just focused on the baby face, blue eyes and blonde hair that would appeal to the customers in the brothel she ran.

Like Samantha, Erika was brought to Y-HEP by another homeless girl at the shelter where she was staying. “I was really inspired by the place,” she says.

In the time she has been at Y-HEP, Erika has graduated from several of the project’s programs, as well as finishing a degree in culinary arts from Community College. She credits her experiences at Y-HEP, as well as through Sister Mary Scullion’s Project H.O.M.E., for helping her get off the streets.

“I feel inspired by our family here, and by Robin,” Erika says, “and I think other kids will be inspired by it, too.” Now 21, Erika’s future looks promising after years of struggle just to survive.

Y-HEP leads homeless and at-risk youth like Erika, Samantha and Basheba toward self-sufficiency. The tools the program provides give these young adults a sense of hope that their futures will be far different from their past or even their present.

“My goal is to see our youth employable and able to achieve what they want for themselves,” explains Brennan. “Sometimes that’s finishing school, or getting a job. Sometimes it’s getting off drugs or just starting to feel safe.”

“If I didn’t have this place to come to every day, I think I would be completely lost sometimes,” says Basheba. “Sometimes I stay away for a while, but I always come back. I always know I can come back. It’s a relief to know that this place is here for me.”

For the thousands of homeless and at-risk teens and young adults in Philadelphia, Y-HEP provides an oasis of safety and stability in their otherwise unsafe and unstable lives. Y-HEP’s outreach and programs offer youth who feel lost and hopeless the opportunity to turn a corner and move toward security and optimism, the way Samantha and Erika have.

“We have a lot of success stories,” Brennan says, pride edging into her voice. “But I’d like to see us have a lot more.”

Y-HEP’s drop-in center is open daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Donations of new or gently worn clothing for teens and young adults can be made every Wednesday. Donations of food can be made at any time. Books for teens, school supplies and other educational tools are also welcome. Contact Robin Brennan at (215) 564-6388 ext. 17 for more information.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.