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Safe refuge: homeless youth find secure homes elusive because of their sexual orientation.

Last year, Aaron Bowen was dubbed a "future gay hero" by The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, but there was a time when he felt more like a victim. The 21-year-old Chicago native spent the past six years living on his own ever since his family found out he was bisexual. "My mom had issues with my lifestyle--which resulted in confrontation and constant conflict," he said.

At first, Bowen had enough money to take care of himself. When money got tight, he started "couch surfing"--staying with friends and even strangers. Eventually, he sought refuge at homeless shelters.

The environment wasn't always welcoming, he said. At the first shelter, Belfort House on the South Side, Bowen was often the butt of "gay jokes" among other residents. One man even threw a knife at him. "He said I was a faggot and that I was staring at him," Bowen said. The shelter staff eventually intervened and suspended the aggressor.

Bowen tried other youth shelters, but they were either too strict or too crowded for his tastes. And he was too worried about homophobia and a lack of safety to try most adult shelters.

Bowen said he tried staying at other places, including a train station and the DePaul University student center. Throughout the experience, Bowen said he was robbed, sexually assaulted and harassed by people who took advantage of his homelessness.

But Bowen didn't let his experiences get the best of him. Instead, he's using them to speak out on behalf of other youth by assuming leadership roles at advocacy groups such as Public Action for Change Today, a youth-led organization that addresses issues like healthcare, voting rights and youth homelessness.

In March, armed with a microphone and picket signs, Bowen and other young activists gathered at the group's rally outside the Daley Center to send a message to the mayor: Do not ignore us. Bowen, who chairs the group's caucus of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender--or LGBT--youth, said housing is a basic human right, and that the city must do more to help young people secure it. "I was constantly upset with a system that was hurting me more than it was helping me," he told the crowd.

Advocates say Bowen's story illustrates the difficulties LGBT homeless youth face in finding a shelter where they feel safe and welcomed. Unlike cities such as New York and San Francisco, Chicago has no shelter program designed specifically to house LGBT runaway and homeless youth.

According to the Chicago Continuum of Care, a coalition of advocates, service providers and city officials working to end homelessness, there are only eight homeless shelters--with a total of 119 beds--in the city that are designed to serve youth aged 14 to 21. But none of them are set up to provide living arrangements specifically for LGBT youth, who make up a significant portion of the homeless youth population. In 2004, the Chicago-based Center for Impact Research surveyed 400 homeless youth in the city and found that 35 percent of them identified themselves as other than "straight."

These statistics make a strong case for more specialized housing programs for LGBT youth, some advocates say. "LGBT shelters are necessary because you need to feel safe in order to move forward," said Nikki Patin, coordinator of the Young Women's Program at Center on Halsted, which provides drop-in support and case management to LGBT youth.

Patin said some of her transgender clients tell her that they'd rather ride the train all night than go to a homeless shelter. "For trans youth, [staying at a shelter] is almost as dangerous as letting them stay on the street," she said.

Carlos Samaniego, a prevention counselor and health educator at Project VIDA, which runs a support group for young gay, bisexual and transgender men in Little Village, said LGBT-specific shelters would be invaluable for some of his homeless clients. He often refers his clients to shelters, but he said it can be difficult to find an appropriate space for them. "I think some shelters don't even think about this community as a possibility," he said.

But, given the scarcity of resources, some question whether LGBT youth alone should receive special housing. Patricia Crowley, the Chicago Continuum of Care's executive director, said the issue is often discussed in the group's meetings, but it's not officially addressed in its 10-year plan to end homelessness that was endorsed by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003. "We have to keep looking at the big picture," Crowley said. "We can't focus on just one group because the problem is not just about one group."

And Melissa Maguire, director of the Youth Shelter Network at The Night Ministry, a nonprofit that provides services to Chicago's homeless population, said a group of homeless youth told her they didn't want to be singled out based on their sexual orientation or gender, as they already felt stigmatized for being homeless. "They said the best way you can address their needs is to train staff to be sensitive," she said.

Still, The Night Ministry's newest shelter, Open Door West Town, scheduled to be fully functional in July, will have a separate "special-needs suite" available if transgendered or other clients want their own space, Maguire said.

Some city officials have also been focusing on LGBT youth because of the unique challenges they face. Three years ago, Bill Greaves, the city's liaison to the LGBT community, convened a forum to come up with ways to create safe environments for LGBT youth. Ideas from the meeting included the creation of LGBT-friendly shelters and gender-neutral bathrooms.

Creating an LGBT-friendly shelter can be as simple as talking openly about sexuality and gender identity issues among the residents, said Sara Dietsch, coordinator of permanent housing at Teen Living Programs, a nonprofit that runs two South Side youth shelters where a majority of the residents identify themselves as LGBT. "We welcome everyone here, and homophobia will not be tolerated," Dietsch said.

During the intake process, all clients have an opportunity to state their sexual orientation, added Bonnie Wade, supervisor of supportive services. "It sends a message to all youth that this is a safe place, and your sexuality will be affirmed and validated," she said. Wade also acts as a mentor for other LGBT members in the house. She has LGBT-friendly posters and books around her office. She talks openly about her partner, introduces youth to LGBT-related activities and connects some of her job-seeking clients to gay-owned companies.

The closest thing to an LGBT-specific homeless shelter in Chicago is the affordable housing program operated by the Youth Pride Center, an LGBT youth drop-in center in the South Loop. The center has lease agreements with five different apartments and condominiums across the city, providing long-term housing for up to 12 LGBT youth, according to Francisco Walker, the center's youth director. The organization covers the cost of cable, utilities, food and other expenses, including part of the rent.

One of the center's residents, Terry, 21, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said he feels more comfortable living in his new subsidized condo in Bronzeville. "Normally, I can't be myself around others," he said.

When he stayed at a couple of "straight shelters," others made hateful comments about his sexuality. Terry said he likes the idea of LGBT-specific shelter. "A lot of these gays--when they're homeless, they don't have anyone else to go to," he said.

The current waiting list for the center's affordable housing program is about 20 people, with the number growing each week, Walker said. He said a property developer from west suburban Oak Brook offered to lease a 70-unit building to be used as an LGBT shelter, but he doubts the organization could afford it.

As it stands, the affordable housing program costs $5,000 a month to operate. Ninety percent of the organization's funding comes from private donors, and the rest is government grants. Walker said competition among different homeless shelters for grants makes it difficult to acquire new funds to build a new shelter. "There's so much red tape you have to go through that's not conducive to helping our youth," he said.

Ellen Sahli, the mayor's liaison on homelessness and supportive housing, said the city spends $16.3 million of its money each year to fight homelessness. Rather than increasing the funds, the city's priority is to make existing resources more effective.

Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the city should at least double the amount of the funding. "If you're going to be serious about ending homelessness, you've got to be more serious about the money that goes into it," he said. "I think the funding is there. I think the political will isn't there."

Daria Mueller, policy specialist at the coalition, pointed out that the city's current plan employs a ranking system to determine which subgroups of the homeless population receive funding, and the needs of youth are not a high priority. "It's trying to rank these different groups that all deserve help," she said. "It's not fair when you don't have funding to help anyone who needs it."

Bowen echoed similar sentiments. "I would have liked the system to say, 'You'll have a place to stay where you feel comfortable--whether you are gay or not,'" he said.
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Title Annotation:Keeping Current
Author:Schlaikjer, Erica
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Date:May 1, 2006
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