Op-Ed: LGBT Youth Struggle to Survive Detroit Winters
Jessica, a 21-year-old African American transgender woman in Detroit, has lived a hard life. At the age of 13, she became homeless when her family kicked her out for not conforming to gender norms. Instead of a warm home, she had to find shelter in one unsafe and abandoned building after another. In one building, filled with drug users and located in a high-crime area, Jessica had to sleep on top of the stairs. But after increased security made using that building far too risky, she moved to an abandoned house on Arizona Street, sharing it with other homeless LGBTQ youth. The house has no running water or electricity. It is filthy; the house is strewn with garbage, and the second floor is covered in dog feces, yet many of the youth are forced to sleep there after a recent fire on the first floor. In a cruel irony, the local humane society came for the dogs, yet made no attempt to refer Jessica or her friends to any kind of services for them.
And this winter, there will be no heat in the Arizona Street house. Hundreds of youth like Jessica will struggle to find shelter from temperatures into the single digits, with many turning to sex work simply to survive the cold. It is unacceptable that so many of our youth are effectively forced to endure these conditions in the chill of winter. But we don’t have to accept it.
Jessica’s story is typical of the youth we work with at the Ruth Ellis Center, the Midwest’s only organization dedicated to working with LGBTQ runaway and homeless youth—more than 4,000 each year. These youth are one of Detroit’s invisible populations, seldom seen on the streets like their adult counterparts—often for fear of being sent back to the homes they fled by local cash-starved runaway and homeless youth services. And there are far too few shelter beds for them, with many of the programs in the area being unprepared to help or outright hostile to LGBTQ people.
Detroit is far from the only city with a significant LGBTQ homeless youth population. But in a city ravaged by economic decline, it is these youth who bear a disproportionate share of the burden.
Take the example of another site where REC youth have stayed: at the intersection of Woodward and 6 Mile, a new construction site has arisen in the very neighborhood where two of our youth have been murdered in the past year. It happens to be near Palmer Park, one of Detroit’s main gay areas, so many of our youth stay there for the sake of community. Yet since the park is a known cruising spot, many youth cannot even walk down the street without being harassed under the assumption they are sex workers. The park is the focus of a new effort to “clean up” the area, which will likely drive these youth further away, into even more dangerous conditions.
These problems cannot be solved overnight. But there is hope for Jessica and other youth like her, provided we take action to give these youth a voice. This is why the Ruth Ellis Center has launched our new campaign: End the Chill: Where Homeless Youth Sleep this Winter. We are spotlighting the awful conditions which these youth must endure, simply because they are LGBTQ. We are giving these youth a space to tell their stories of life on the streets. And we are giving you a chance to make a difference in their lives.
Currently, our Second Stories drop-in center, which provides vital services, is only open a few days a week, for limited hours. By donating to the End the Chill Campaign on Indiegogo and contributing towards our $20,000 goal, we can expand Second Stories’ hours in the winter, giving youth a longer respite from the cold, off the streets.
The End the Chill Campaign may seem like a small step forward. But is a step forward. It is my belief that by acknowledging the spaces where our youth are sleeping—by the exposing the reality of our youth's lives—we move towards a day when all youth in Detroit have a welcoming home. Not one of our children should be denied warm or shelter because of who they are. It is in our power to make that happen, and I ask you to join me.
Laura Hughes is the Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, MI.