Sassafras Lowrey had no choice but to run.
Ze grew up abused, “the recipient of wandering fingers, of broken promises, black eyes, and manipulation.” (Sassafras prefers the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir.”) When ze came out, at 17, ze wasn’t met with love. Ze was told how to be “fixed.” So, like thousands of LGBT youth every year, Sassafras left.
But the “safe” adults ze ran to also soon asked “if [ze] was over that whole gay thing.” Sassafras wasn’t straight, and because ze wasn’t going to pretend to be, ze found hirself homeless for the second time.
Living on the streets presents enough challenges in and of itself, but it often creates new ones, like when Sassafras was kicked out of hir high school because they had never had a homeless student before and didn’t know how to handle it. (Other parents complained to the administration that ze was “leading their kids down a path to hell.”)
On hir 17th birthday, Sassafras had a home, a family, and an education. On hir 18th, ze had none.
Sassafras’ story is tragically common. As a new report from the Center for American Progress details, LGBT people, especially LGBT youth, are at a far greater risk not only of winding up homeless, but being abused on the streets as well.
This is true even in some of the most tolerant areas of the country.
In San Francisco, for instance, approximately 1 in 6 residents identify as LGBT. Among the city’s 6,436 homeless residents, though, nearly 1 in 3 are LGBT.
There are many reasons why LGBT people are more likely to wind up on the streets.
LGBT youth are coming out earlier than in the past — the average age is now 13. In cases of family rejection, LGBT youth often have nowhere to go.
Other factors can exacerbate problems at home for LGBT youth as well. These include bullying and poor performance in school to drug abuse and mental illness, which occurs more frequently among LGBT youth. In addition, many wind up in the juvenile justice system, instigating a malevolent cycle between jail and the streets.
Though not pleasant for anyone, homelessness can be a particularly tough experience for LGBT individuals. They’re more likely than straight homeless people to have a substance abuse problem. They’re more likely to be robbed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted. They’re far more likely to have HIV/AIDS.
In fact, homelessness is a major force exacerbating the HIV/AIDS problem, Brad Vanderbilt of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told ThinkProgress. For many LGBT homeless people, “the push to attend to medical care has to be set aside because the search for housing is the primary concern,” he said. In addition, many LGBT people living on the streets resort to sex work to survive, which increases their risk of contracting disease.
Organizations like Project Homeless Connect and the Family Acceptance Project are working to address the LGBT angle of homelessness. PHC held its first ever LGBT homelessness services fair in San Francisco this month, bringing in dozens of service providers to address the needs of LGBT individuals living without a permanent home. More than 600 people, as well as an additional 400 volunteers, showed up for the all-day event. The Family Acceptance Project, meanwhile, works with families and their LGBT children to decrease the chances of rejection, the leading cause of homelessness among LGBT youth.
For Sassafras, family was what caused hir to be homeless, but it was also what ultimately saved hir. After relocating to Portland, Oregon, ze walked into a queer youth center and found home. “I survived because of the queer family that I created” there, ze wrote. Sassafras went on to write an award-winning novel about the experience, hoping to help the millions of other LGBT people across the country who continue to grapple with homelessness.