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Gay and homeless: In plain sight, a largely hidden population

Every year, hundreds of gay youths end up on the streets of L.A. County, where they make up a disproportionate share of the people under 25 who are homeless. 'They haven't been on the streets for years and years,' an advocate says, 'so they don't look bad.'

December 12, 2010|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • AJ, left, 23, and his boyfriend, Alex, 21, live on the streets. "If I could be invisible, I would," AJ said. "I feel ashamed to admit that I'm homeless."
AJ, left, 23, and his boyfriend, Alex, 21, live on the streets. "If… (Christina House / For The…)

The city hipsters sipping expensive coffee and chatting on cellphones did not give a second look at the two young men cutting across a Hollywood courtyard on their way to bed down in a nearby park.

AJ, 23, and his boyfriend, Alex, 21, hide their blankets and duffel bags in bushes. They shower every morning at a drop-in center and pick out outfits from a closet full of used yet youthful attire.

"If I could be invisible, I would," AJ said. "I feel ashamed to admit that I'm homeless."

Every year, hundreds of gay youths end up alone on the streets of Los Angeles County, where they make up a disproportionate share of the at least 4,200 people under 25 who are homeless on any given day.

PHOTO GALLERY: On the streets of Hollywood with AJ and Alex

A recent study found that 40% of the homeless youths in Hollywood, a gathering spot for these young people, identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure of their sexual orientation. Five percent say they are transgender.

But it is a largely hidden population, said Simon Costello, who manages the drop-in center frequented by AJ and Alex.

"They haven't been on the streets for years and years," he said, "so they don't look bad."

Blending in is part of how AJ and Alex survive on the streets. Police officers are quick to issue tickets, and the streets are full of predators.

In recent weeks, a Times reporter and a photographer spent time with several gay homeless men in their early 20s.

The men agreed to speak openly about their lives, including illegal drug use and other criminal activity, on the condition that their full names not be used. Using public records and other sources, The Times was able to independently verify some details they shared about their family histories.

***

Gay and transgender youths become homeless for the same reasons as others their age. Many come from families with a history of abuse, neglect, addiction, incarceration or mental illness. But they say their sexual or gender identity often plays a role in the breakdown of their families.

"Queer" was among the more polite names Christopher was called while growing up, before he even knew what the barbs meant.

A slight 22-year-old with a shock of red hair, he said he stood out in his large Latino family in Pacoima, a place he calls "the ghetto of the Valley."

"My cousins were gangbangers," he said. "They're talking about girls and parties … and I knew in middle school that I liked boys and wanted to hold their hands."

At school, classmates would pelt him with food and milk cartons. To dull the hurt, he turned to alcohol and drugs. He stole money from his grandmother, swallowed his brother's medication and cut himself with razors.

When he turned 18, he said, his grandmother kicked him out of the family home. She filed a restraining order against him in court.

"I been hearing about my peers committing suicide because of the teasing and bullying … and of course I understand," he said, staring at a web of scars on his left forearm. "But then I go, 'How come that's not my story? Why didn't you kill yourself? How did you make it through all that?'"

Christopher said that on his first night without a roof over his head, he shared a drink with two men who took turns raping a girl who had passed out on the side of a highway.

Soon he was selling his body on Santa Monica Boulevard to support a methamphetamine habit. He and his friends used the drug to stay awake, he said, so they would not get jumped. They shared a room and a soiled mattress in an abandoned building. "No plumbing, no electricity," Christopher said.

***

AJ was just 16 when his Vietnamese immigrant father told him to get out of his house, unable to accept his admission that he was gay. Any effeminate gesture, AJ said, would drive his father to beat him.

For a time, AJ moved between the homes of friends and relatives in California and Colorado while he worked a succession of jobs. Some paid well enough for him to get his own apartment. But, he said ruefully, "It has been hard to sustain my sobriety."

When he was fired from his last job in July, he had no place to go but the streets.

He met Alex at the drop-in center operated by the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. Tired of his father's drunken rages, Alex left his home in El Paso in June and caught a train to Los Angeles with a friend. He thought there would be more opportunities here. After two weeks, his backpack was stolen along with the only possessions he had with him. He still hasn't found work.

AJ and Alex bonded quickly. Both lost their mothers to drug overdoses and struggled to be accepted by their fathers.

On a recent night, the couple headed to a park, one of their favorite spots to while away time during the hours the drop-in center is closed. The restrooms are open late. Friendly neighbors stop to chat while walking their dogs; once, they ordered pizza for them.

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