Ending Homelessness for LGBTQ Youth: A Conversation with Ryan Berg

by Bonnie Rosenbaum February 25, 2016

I was halfway through a chapter of No House to Call My Home, when my train arrived at Harvard Square. I had a dentist appointment I couldn’t miss and a lump in my throat that I couldn’t shake. After my cleaning was over and before going back to work, I ducked into Peet’s Coffee for 10 minutes to finish the chapter.

No House to Call My Home, Ryan Berg’s debut memoir, is one of those books that’s both incredibly painful to read and at the same time impossible to put down.

Berg is a gifted writer who spent several years as a caseworker in a group home for LGBGTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) homeless youth in New York. In No House to Call My Home, he invites us into the turbulent day-to-day lives of eight queer youth he meets at the group home. They are proud, wounded, hopeful, and often ignored. They are teens we need to listen to if we want to end homelessness in our country.

I caught up with Berg via email to talk about his book and his insights on what it will take to keep our LGBTQ youth safe and housed.

.   .   .

What was the most surprising outcome of writing No House to Call My Home?

I think I’m mostly surprised by how little people know about youth homelessness. Many people think “homeless” and picture a stereotype. We need to deepen the conversation. Statistics can be numbing. We will continue to share the statistics but I think people operate from a place of empathy. People may be moved to do something when the human dimension is brought to the surface. The circumstances of these young people’s lives are disturbing, but all they experienced and expressed—the love, the loss, the turmoil, the betrayals—all these are universally human things and things anyone can relate to.

You tell many stories about the youth you worked with that were devastating to read–painful stories of neglect, deprivation, and abuse by their families and by the agencies that are supposed to protect them. But for some reason the story you tell of going out to lunch at a high-end Manhattan restaurant with your old friend Ethan who is a bank executive stuck with me. At one point Ethan says, “If they just applied themselves, don’t you think they could experience success like everyone else.”

 Can you speak to that interaction? How do we reach all of the Ethans?

Victim-blaming is essential in perpetuating the myth of the American dream. I think that kind of judgment is a way to distance ourselves from the reality of systemic racism, poverty, homophobia, transphobia–all forms of systemic oppression. If Bella’s [one of the youth in the group home] poverty is her fault, that means my financial comfort is solely my accomplishment, right? Nothing to do with the privileges afforded me. It’s a very unsophisticated way of saying that if you work hard enough, anything is possible, everyone gets what they deserve. That’s a dangerous myth. Many trans youth can’t find legitimate work and face discrimination from service providers tasked with providing employment support. I work with homeless youth in Minneapolis now and witness some of them working forty hours a week, doing everything they’ve been told will help them break the cycle of poverty but they’re never able to get a leg up. Politicians use this judgment of the individual as a tactic to distract us from a really fundamental question: Should we help people in need? The question shouldn’t be who deserves help or not, but do we want to be a country that turns its back on the neediest. Vilification of individuals and their choices diverts us away from this question.

How do we reach the Ethans of the world? Systems of oppression will not change unless those who benefit from those systems acknowledge this and demand change. It’s an uncomfortable and messy acknowledgment. It forces us to hold ourselves accountable, to examine our own biases, and our role in how others are treated. We need to learn to care across differences if we are to confront this form of inequality.

Ryan Berg

Ryan Berg

You write, “Within a system that paints in such broad strokes-focusing more on warehousing youth than on providing connections to enable a successful life after aging out-I feel there’s little I can do to make a difference. The bureaucracy is asphyxiating, and out of step with the work foster care workers do. The powers that be seem more concerned with documenting efforts to prove due diligence around food and shelter than on helping young people succeed. The burden of caring falls on workers who find ways to show up for the youth despite the system’s flaws.”

Do you see a way out of this? How can we support those workers on the front lines?

The system is broken. We need to address the over representation of people of color in our systems. I don’t have an answer for how to fix the system’s broken-ness beyond saying we need to put the wellbeing of people first. Allow young people to build healthy attachments with caring adults. So many young people are disconnected, and have attachment disorders due to trauma, abuse or abandonment. Overworking youth workers and monopolizing their time with arcane procedures only takes them away from the youth. In addition to learning financial literacy or how to write a resume youth need to learn how to interact healthily with others. Often times that happens with direct care staff. Policy makers need to keep that in mind as they shape programs and create space for youth workers to interact regularly with young people.

We need to support our workers on the front lines by hearing them, recognizing their contribution to the conversation. Often times people who have no contact with youth are making all the programmatic decisions. Listen to the youth; listen to the workers. Be strengths-based not only with youth but also with workers. Workers who don’t feel valued or heard are more likely to split. Programs should provide clinical supervision for direct care workers to help minimize burn-out and compassion fatigue.

Few mainstream LGBTQ organizations have youth homeless on their radar or if they do, it’s a recent development. Yet it’s an epidemic. Washington D.C. just released a report that states almost 50% of homeless youth in the city are LGBTQ identified. Why is this issue so far from the agenda of LGBTQ organizations and folks?

With marriage equality the personal reward for LGBTQ activists was evident. I think many people struggle fighting for a cause where they don’t see how they personally benefit. They have the luxury to not care. I know that sounds harsh but I don’t know how else to explain the apathy of many LGBTQ organizations and activists when it comes to youth homelessness. Most of the major LGBTQ media outlets have been negligent in their reporting and dedication to this issue. I can read fifteen articles about Kim Davis in one week, and one article, if I’m lucky, about LGBTQ homeless youth issues. Forty percent of homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ but make up only eight percent of the population. Nearly half of transgender youth report having experienced homelessness at one time or another in their lives. Many get turned away from shelter or services due to their gender identity. Where is the outrage in the community? Despite the shifting tides of political and social acceptance, LGBTQ youth continue to suffer the burden of social stigma and are continually denied dignity while little is done to address their pain. As a community, when we fall silent to these issues, we fail our young people in our complicity.

LGBTQ organizations need to take an intentional stand on this issue, and dedicate themselves to reporting these stories. People often don’t want to read about tragedy unless there is redemption in the end. Then we need to create that redemption. If we mobilized half as much and showed half the ingenuity as we did in the fight for marriage equality, the LGBTQ community, and their allies, could end LGBTQ youth homelessness. These young people have had to face enough indignities. They shouldn’t have to face erasure and neglect from their own community.

Imagine you had a room full of funders in front of you. What are the top threee things you would want them to know? Where should we be focusing our resources right now?

It’s hard to narrow what’s important down to three things, but here’s an attempt:

  1. The philosophy of solidarity rather than charity through a social justice lens, which includes being youth-driven, and taking into account the intersections of power, privilege, and racial and economic justice work. Staff should have access to on-going trainings on these topics.
  2. Making mental health a central component for direct care work and working holistically from that vantage point. Family strengthening work and restorative justice work falls into this category.
  3. As programs expand, making sure they are evidence-based, culturally-specific and provide cultural-competency training for staff.

We talk a lot about not just ending homelessness but preventing it before it happens. As we see over and over again in your book, one of the big factors for LGBTQ youth is family rejection. Can you give us any insight on how to begin to mend this? Is there a role for those of us working on youth homelessness in this work?

Programs like The Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco and RECLAIM! in Minneapolis are doing great work around family strengthening and education. A family-based approach, when appropriate, can be an incredibly powerful tool. Wrap-around, holistic services for not only youth, but families can bridge the gaps in understanding, empathy and support while service providers are also taking into consideration that families may be struggling with generational poverty, a scarcity of community resources, and trauma.

It’s important to not focus exclusively on family rejection. The predictors of LGBTQ youth homelessness are varied and complex. Family rejection is a very real piece for many youth and an easier narrative for people to connect with. But it isn’t the whole truth. We need to make sure we are embracing the LGBTQ youth whose mother is mentally ill, or poor and unemployed, or facing deportation, or recently evicted, just as much as we embrace an LGBTQ youth whose parent has kicked them out specifically due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The entirety and enormity of those stories require us–especially the white LGBTQ community and social service organizations–to shape our efforts to go far beyond acceptance and cultural competency.  And that’s more difficult to do.

As Rocki Simões of the GLBT Host Home Program has said:

“When we stop making families the enemy, intentionally or not, and truly engage with the systemic and generational disparities and under-resourcing that many families/communities are experiencing, then maybe we can shape responses and create spaces where LGBTQ youth are able to share their whole selves, their whole truths–however difficult and complex–and still feel the love.”

Read an excerpt of No House to Call My Home here.
Buy a copy of No House to Call My Home.
Follow Ryan Berg on Twitter.
Visit Ryan’s website.

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