It sounds a little bit like the pitch for a television movie: Bright kid gets plucked from oblivion, blasts into the bright lights of fame and fortune and then gets brought back down to earth with astonishing rapidity.
That’s exactly what happened to 22-year-old Jesse Helt in the course of the last week. Jesse accepted an award at MTV’s Video Music Awards on behalf of Miley Cyrus and told a somewhat stunned audience that he was living on the streets and spoke poignantly about the plight of homeless youth. (Cyrus had met Jesse on a visit to My Friend’s Place, a shelter for homeless youth in Hollywood.) During a weeklong period that saw both the VMA event and the Emmy Awards, Jesse’s comments were a stark reminder that despite all the glamor and wealth of the movie, television, and music industries, thousands of young people live brutal lives on the streets of Hollywood and its environs.
At the Los Angeles LGBT Center, we know this firsthand. Each day at our drop-in center and three residential programs for homeless youth we see both the damage life on the street causes and the courage and sheer determination it takes just to survive in a hostile world. According to recent studies, nearly 7,000 young people are homeless in Los Angeles and a stunning 40 percent of them are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Many of these young people are thrown out of their homes because they are LGBT. Many others age out of foster care and, at 18 years old, find themselves on their own with no familial relationships to help them adjust to life on their own. Each morning scores of those young people line up at our Youth Center on Highland to take advantage of three meals, a hot shower, and some small respite from the unforgiving reality of their everyday lives.
The Center’s strategy is to make that initial contact a gateway to the comprehensive services we offer, to move youths from day-to-day survival skills to a focus on lifelong stability and success. Our programs seek to get these young people healthy, educated, and employable, and we’ve had dramatic success at doing just that. But there is still so much more to be done.
If Jesse’s story had ended with his touching speech at the VMA Awards, I suppose everyone could have had a brief moment of sympathy and awareness and moved on. But life — and especially life for homeless youth — is usually a bit more complicated than that. It turned out that Jesse had been arrested on charges of criminal mischief, criminal trespass, and burglary—all misdemeanors — in Oregon when he was 18. So upon completion of his speech, police promptly announced there was a warrant out for his arrest in Oregon for violating his probation.
From our work at the Center, we know that young people who live on the streets often struggle just to stay alive, and that means many turn to petty crime as a means of survival. It is not uncommon, when a youth shows up on our doorstep, to find that he or she within a few weeks of becoming homeless has engaged in petty theft or survival sex not necessarily for money, but just for a little bit of food or shelter.
Studies have shown that those experiencing homelessness are found to be arrested more often, incarcerated longer, and re-arrested at higher rates than people with stable housing. Think about it: If you don’t have a place to sleep and you find an abandoned building to crash in for the night, you’ve just committed a crime. And if you fail to show up for your hearing and don’t receive notices about your failure to appear because, after all, you’re homeless and don’t have a permanent address, you’ve just committed another crime. It is a cycle that is hard to escape.
That’s why programs for homeless youth like the ones at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and My Friend’s Place are so important. They help some of these young people escape that cycle, get some support and guidance, and maybe even develop a sense of hope about the future.
So rather than rushing to castigate Jesse Helt, let’s take just a step back and thank him for standing up and giving a face to what it means to be young and homeless in Hollywood. Let’s appreciate the courage it takes to tell your story in the hopes that people will stop for a minute and consider the tragedy that lingers right outside their door. This isn’t a bad TV movie, this is real life, and perhaps this interlude can create the space to have a national conversation about what we can do to give these young people a fighting chance at a successful and happy life.
ALAN ACOSTA is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.