Homeless to Hero: Shahera Hyatt
BY Sassafras Lowrey and Jama Shelton
June 27 2014 8:00 AM ET
Every night in this country, thousands of young people sleep on the streets, in emergency shelters, in their cars, or on friends' couches, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring — and 40 percent of those young people identify as LGBT. But what happens when those young people grow up? In some incredible cases, documented in this exclusive, month-long series, those formerly homeless young people go on to become leaders in the LGBT movement, pressing our society toward greater inclusion, acceptance, and equality.
Throughout Pride Month, The Advocate has featured true stories of formerly homeless queer youth who have not only survived their experience but gone on to thrive, inspire, and educate the next generation of activists. These stories aim to bring awareness to the ongoing crisis facing LGBT youth, and encourage openness among LGBT adults who experienced homelessness as young people.
For the past decade, author Sassafras Lowrey and social worker Jama Shelton have worked as advocates, direct service providers, and policy advisers on issues related to the epidemic of LGBT youth homelessness. Both of them also happen to be formerly homeless queer youth. And together, they are posing the question, what if today’s LGBT movement leaders were out about being formerly homeless youth?
In today's final installment of the series, Shelton and Lowrey sat down with Shahera Hyatt, project director at the California Homeless Youth Project, to discover how her past informs her present work.
But first, a note from Shelton and Lowrey:
It has been such a tremendous honor to partner with The Advocate to begin this conversation during Pride. Moving forward, we plan to continue exploring mediums to bring you the stories of formerly homeless LGBTQ youth, to break down the us vs. them dynamic that often accompanies discussions of youth homelessness, to dispel the myth that queer youth homelessness looks one particular way, and to build community amongst formerly homeless LGBTQ youth working as direct service providers, policymakers, and other movement leaders. Our long-term goal is to help facilitate opportunities for queer youth experiencing homelessness to work alongside us in the movement.
The Advocate: How did you become an activist, organizer, and movement leader?
Shahera Hyatt: I came to the California Homeless Youth Project as part of my graduate social work program at California State University, Sacramento, which is where my formal advocacy around youth homelessness, and particularly LGBTQ youth homelessness began. Prior to this current position, I worked with teens with mental health and substance use disorders, many of whom were one step away from being kicked out of their houses due to family conflict around drug use and mental health issues. Working with these young people and their families on a daily basis affirmed my passion for helping others and piqued my interest in helping to reduce the systemic injustices that complicate the lives of so many.
On a personal level, how does your work intersect with your experiences of homelessness?
My family struggles with many of the same issues as the families and youth I work with. We’ve been in poverty, lacked access to health care and mental health care, struggled with addiction. We struggled enough with those issues to lose our apartment — an incident that would happen multiple times throughout my life, spanning from middle school to early college. When I was younger, we stayed together, all six of us. By the time I got to high school, I took off on my own and slept on friends’ couches and in makeshift rooms — shout-out to the many mamas who took me in! — but it’s hard seeing pictures of families that aren’t yours on the wall. Suppressing the developmental urge to talk back at 16 because it could mean losing the only place you have to stay and taking responsibility for getting your basic needs met means growing up early for many of us.
Why have you chosen to be open about being a formerly homeless queer kid?
I think it totally changes the narrative for people, to know someone who is formerly homeless — it breaks a lot of the stereotypes that people have about what it means to be homeless and what kind of person it might happen to. It’s also important for people to know that even though my family and I have been through some very hard times, I consider this lived experience an asset, not a detriment, to my career and to my life. I also want to us it to communicate to people that we’re worth investing in. It took support from my extended family, community, and our government to put me on the path that I’m today, and it’s important to do the same for future generations.
What considerations went into the choice to come out about your past?
It’s actually always a little terrifying. I’m kind of terrified right now. Will people think I have less credibility or more of an agenda if I’ve lived through some of these experiences myself? Will they think I’m too emotional, if while doing this work, I sometimes take a moment to stop and reflect on my own childhood and young adulthood? I’ve worked hard to show that I have some level of expertise on this subject and that my recommendations around ending youth homelessness are grounded in research, but I also think it’s so important to champion the actual voices of real people who have lived through it. I guess that sometimes means championing my own voice too.
What have responses been to you coming out? Has that changed over time?
People are surprised! They’re also often reluctant to ask questions they feel might be too personal or invasive. But I think that the best way to end homelessness is to talk to people who have experienced it. Young people experiencing homelessness and other "marginalized" communities often have the strongest voices around; we just have to get out of the way and make space for them to speak.
Youth voices have been a hallmark of our project since day one. We’ve hired formerly homeless young people to interview their peers and to come speak at the capitol on policies that could impact them or other young people like them. It helps to build a sense of urgency to hear directly from people who are impacted, and that’s exactly what it will take to end homelessness — not just for youth, but for everyone.
How do you feel the work and conversation shifts when formerly homeless LGBTQ youth are in the room, and able to be out about that experience?
People listen! They take note. Currently and formerly homeless LGBTQ youth are often bursting at the seams with ideas, passion, and creativity, and we need a space to share it.
What do you hope to offer to the next generation of movement leaders?
I hope I can inspire others to come out of all closets and be open about our experiences with poverty, housing instability, family rejection, whatever it may be — and know that our voices and experiences have value. I also hope to offer them jobs! We’ve created positions in the past for other formerly homeless young people to cultivate that next generation of leaders.
Shahera Hyatt is the director of the California Homeless Youth Project, an initiative of the California Research Bureau focusing on educating policymakers on the needs of homeless youth in California. Hyatt also serves as the local coordinator for the Sacramento Homeless Youth Task Force and is a board member for the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. She has authored several publications on the topic of youth homelessness, including policy briefs on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and sexually exploited homeless youth in California, as well as California's first state action plan on ending youth homelessness. She received her master’s degree in social work from California State University, Sacramento.
Sassafras Lowrey got hir start writing as a punk zinester in Portland, Ore. Ze is the editor of the two-time American Library Association-honored, Lambda Literary Award finalist Kicked Out anthology, which brought together the voices of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras is also the author of Leather Ever After, a finalist for the National Leather Association Writing Award. Sassafras's debut novel, Roving Pack, was a Rainbow Award winner for Transgender Fiction and honored by the American Library Association. Sassafras is the 2013 winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Berzon Emerging Writer Award. Ze lives and writes in Brooklyn with hir partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, two bossy cats, and a kitten. Learn more at www.SassafrasLowrey.com.
Jama Shelton is the Forty to None project director at the True Colors Fund. For more than a decade, Jama has worked in the field of LGBTQ youth homelessness. Having worked as a direct service provider, housing program director, researcher, program evaluator, and trainer, Jama brings a comprehensive understanding of the issues facing both LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and also the service providers with whom they work. Jama received her doctorate in social welfare from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2013. Her dissertation examined the unique experiences of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth experiencing homelessness. She is also an adjunct professor at both the Hunter and New York University Schools of Social Work and a proud parent of two French bulldogs named Bambino and Meatloaf.