Homeless LGBTQ Youth Remain at Risk for HIV, and They Need Us

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I packed my belongings in black plastic Hefty bags and left, leaving the house key behind. My mother was not home, and she had made sure my two younger siblings would not be home either. She did not support my decision to attend a four-year university because Jehovah's Witnesses are supposed to focus on their spiritual relationship with God, and anything that could potentially hinder that relationship is forbidden -- including higher education.

I was only 17 years old, but I already knew that I was different. I liked boys. As a matter of fact, I had known that ever since attending bilingual pre-school, where I learned English and met my first crush playing Duck Duck Goose. I picked him to be the goose so he could chase me around the circle. And as I grew old enough to act on my desires, the climate in my household became more toxic, and my mother did what she felt was right in her heart: She broke all ties with her first-born child and kicked me out of the house.

I was just beginning my last semester of high school when I was forced to couch surf with friends. At the same time, I worked two part-time jobs in order to graduate high school, pay for college applications, and attend a four-year university. It was not easy for me to work, study, and still graduate from high school with honors -- all the while mustering the strength to move forward from the rejection I had suffered at home.

I was very fortunate to be a part of a college-bound program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), which helped me become a strong candidate for college. However, more resources are needed to support such programs to help LGBTQ youth succeed.

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Shortly after high school, I enrolled at University of California (UC) Riverside and later transferred to UC Berkeley. However, college was not much easier, unfortunately. I faced money and tuition problems since I had no parental income tax information to rely on to apply for financial aid. During my summers as an undergrad, I couch surfed with classmates, and sometimes with older gentlemen, as I waited for my college refunds to come in. These refunds consisted of Pell grants and subsidized loans -- loans that I still need to pay back today. At times, I did not know how I was going to make ends meet, but I knew that college would give me the resources and support to finally accept myself for who I am. In hindsight, I realize that the university was my transitional living program.

According to a 2012 report by the Williams Institute, 40% of homeless youth in this country identify as LGBTQ. "Coming out" can be a precarious situation for many of us, which is why I fully support youths' decisions to do so when and if they feel comfortable.

Homelessness is a problem in and of itself, but for LGBTQ youth, housing instability is also a significant risk factor for becoming HIV positive. This is because, compared with heterosexual youth, LGBTQ are having sex at an earlier age and are more likely to be engaging in survival sex (sex in exchange for money, housing, and other necessities).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just published research a report emphasizing that "[e]arly initiation of sexual activity is associated with having more sexual partners, not using condoms, sexually transmitted infection (STI), and early pregnancy during adolescence." What does this mean? It means that these situations increase the likelihood of youth being in circumstances where they are exposed to STIs such as HIV. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) must be accessible to homeless youth in order to prevent HIV rates from going up.

Many factors should be kept in mind when advocating for LGBTQ homeless youth (e.g., PTSD, substance usage, survival sex), but the end goal is not a hopeless one. My Friend's Place, for example, is an organization based in Hollywood, California -- an area notorious for having high numbers of LGBTQ homeless youth. The organization welcomes about 1,500 homeless youth each year and helps them attain clothes, food, and social service resources, such as food stamps and general relief.

After UC Berkeley, I worked with homeless youth at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where I was a youth advocate in the Transitional Living Program (TLP). This program was designed to help finalize the last stages of their independent living skills. The youth taking part had demonstrated a capacity to fulfill the requirements needed for this stage of the program (e.g., seeking work, having a case management plan) before they obtain their own home. I case managed youth on a case-by-case basis and assisted them with obtaining resources to succeed in the TLP -- such as compiling their resumes and helping them time manage. I began to see myself in them; we were only a few years apart in age with very similar backgrounds.

These youth are survivors, as well as the next generation of activists. Their stories will have a positive impact on the lives of others. But, in order for that to occur, we must advocate for more housing resources and prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place. Working with this population made me realize that we need more programs that support HIV prevention and linkage to care, as well as more mentors willing to create a positive impact in these youth's lives.

I helped launch a book club with the youth I worked with, since reading had always been my escape from the problems I was facing. Our first book-of-the-month was transgender writer and advocate Janet Mock's Redefining Realness. The youth voted unanimously to read this book and were excited to begin her memoir. They were thirsty to see more leaders who look like them -- who look like us.

Clearly, this work is very personal to me, as you have read. Being homeless helped me to appreciate what I had taken for granted: having a home and a family. However, that ordeal helped me to understand what I am capable of accomplishing. I learned the meaning of resilience and the determination to make change in the lives of others.

I hope that after reading this article you can help decrease the number of homeless youth in this country. Without my friends and chosen family who took me in when I needed them most, I am scared to think where I would be now. All it takes is one ally; please be that person for a youth in need. If you are in the Los Angeles area and wish to be an ally for LGBTQ youth, I highly recommend PFLAG, a parent-run organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ youth.

Unfortunately, my mother and I no longer speak. Our tumultuous relationship is marked by family history that pre-dates me coming out to her. Her religious creed will always be a hurdle in our relationship, and I understand that we may never speak again. Nonetheless, I do hope we can find common ground one day and that she will hold herself accountable for her actions. Family acceptance is such an important mechanism for the growth of LGBTQ youth; it's the formula for a successful and healthy life.