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.