March 15, 2010

The Homeless Challenge

I have known for a while that homelessness among LGBT youth is a problem. Many teenagers either get kicked out or live in fear that they will get kicked out when they come out to their parents. It is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. After completing the Homeless Challenge I have a much better idea not just of how it is to be homeless, but also how it is to be openly LGBT and homeless. Thinking about how toned down my experience was compared to the plight of actual homeless youth makes me sick. Nowhere else in society is homophobia so clearly and destructively expressed.

The Homeless Challenge is put on by the National Coalition for the Homeless in cities throughout the country. Fifteen people went on this year's Alternative Spring Break trip to Washington D.C. We were divided into groups of five and spent most of our time walking in groups of two or three. For 48 hours we gave up possessions, showers and money. At night formerly homeless guides kept us safe while we slept on the street in our sleeping bags and layers of clothing. During the day we were encouraged to complete tasks like applying for a job or library card, using the bathroom at a fancy hotel, talking to homeless people and panhandling. We ate at soup kitchens.

Being out is important to me. I saw the homeless challenge as an opportunity to experience what it was like to be a openly gay homeless youth without compromising my safety. While panhandling, a seemingly homeless man asked me why I was homeless. I told him I was kicked out of the house because I was gay. He proceeded to quote Bible verses at me and ask me why I chose to be gay. I pretended to agree with him. After telling me how nasty I was he stormed off, no longer the concerned man who thought I was too young to be on the streets. During our wrap-up session with our guides I was asked to share my cover story. Right after I said I was from Texas he remarked “The only things to come out of Texas are steers and queers.” When I told him I was one of those queers, he said he didn’t believe me. I told the group my cover story (that I was kicked out of the house) and about the random man who chastised me for being gay. The guide couldn’t have cared less. Later, when we reflected on the experience just as a group, the comment was mentioned. Turns out it went beyond just one remark or cold stare. Other people in the group thought our guides were homophobic. The reactions I personally received were not extreme. I could have heard them any day of the week on Duke’s campus and have heard them throughout my life. The difference is that I had been singled out and shamed by an authority figure. When you are on the streets without food, shelter and safety these attitudes are the difference between life and death. While I am not quick to call any of these selfless and strong men “homophobic bastards” I know that their attitudes are dangerous. During our challenge I was surprised at the existence of a homeless community. Homeless people we met were quick to give us advice, clothing or companionship. Most non-homeless people don’t know where the soup kitchens are. Finding out where to eat was not as simple as searching on the Internet since most public libraries require a library card to use their computers and library cards usually require a permanent address. Additionally the soup kitchens we went to had a strong religious component. I don’t think there is anything wrong with charities run by religious groups or religion as a means to uplift people. Yet these places are likely to be unfriendly to LGBT homeless people. Sometimes the harshest rejection comes from religious institutions. When you need food, clothing and companionship you can’t pick and choose where to go.

After this challenge I reflected on how different my experience would have been if I was flamboyantly gay. I wondered if my homeless peers would have showed me the same friendliness. I wondered about violent reactions and sexual assault. I wondered if I would have been able to find a girlfriend in my dirty, lethargic and isolated state. During our reflection one of my friends remarked that when I thought some men on the streets wanted to sexually assault me it was just fear. Yet this is anything but empty fear. It’s not empty fear when you have the statistics and experience to back it up. Over the next couple days I will continue the homelessness theme by posting data, suggested reading and resources. Any LGBT student who has experienced homelessness and wants to be interviewed should contact me.

I encourage everyone to participate in a homeless challenge and an Alternative Spring Break before they graduate.


  1. Wow, I'm utterly speechless. This is one aspect of the LGBT community that I didn't even think of. It sounds like your experience really made an impact on you and I'm glad you were brave enough to step up to the challenge. You are amazing!

  2. hi well,in london england the problem is hostels for homeless people,they are not gay friendly,either from staff,or residents..and if you have a partner as well..hostels are out of the question..
    how do i know this have been street homeless with a partner,in the end we had to help ourselves,no support from most of the charitys that advocate,and support homeless people
    regards Rodger and Tim

  3. Fantastic and insightful article Veronica, I really look forward to reading the next! It sounds like you had a truly eye-opening experience.