For now, I'll call him Detlow. His name could be Bob, Rick or Steve. The point is, he's openly gay, middle aged, a talented writer with his first publication credits. But after a period of chronic unemployment, he was evicted from his apartment and went homeless as of a month ago. This happened in Los Angeles County, now called "the homeless capital of the U.S." Here Detlow joined some 50,000 other souls on the city's heartless streets.
Because of its big LGBT population, L.A. County is surely "the LGBT homeless capital" as well. And not just because thousands of LGBT youth wind up there. On Thanksgiving, as the rest of us dined on roast turkey and rich desserts, 5000 + - LGBT adult homeless Angelenos were lining up for free hot meals, or dumpster-diving in alleys behind the crowded restaurants.
Detlow's friends found out about his deadly deadline just two weeks before his eviction. He hadn't wanted to expose his situation to others, but finally he emailed us a desperate red alert. He'd already figured out that friends were his sole resource. In a city so rich with LGBT institutions - including help for homeless youth up to age 23-24 - he had noticed that there is little help for these kids' older homeless sisters and brothers, including himself.
Worse -- being ignored by his own kind could happen to Detlow in most American cities. Most of our so-called "community" doesn't give much of a hoot about our adult homeless -- even though the recession is now pushing their numbers upwards. As I search online under "LGBT homeless," almost every link that comes up is for "youth."
Yet we have our own unique homeless history. Starting in the 1980s, the high cost of having AIDS bankrupted many low-income gay and bi men; those who didn't die were often hurled onto the street. Transgender and intersex people suffer their own high rate of homelessness.
But two years ago, after Wall Street went into meltdown, our homeless rate had to be picking up speed. American neighborhoods are now raddled by foreclosures and bankruptcies. Among the thousands of low- and middle-income individuals and families, whether renters or homeowners, there are an unknown number of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people who suddenly find that they have nowhere to live.
While statistics aren't available, I suspect that many of the just-over-24 LGBT homeless are students who are chewed up by job scarcity and debt. Older LGBT workers like Detlow are hard hit by workplace downsizing. With replacement jobs so scarce, the slippery slope leads down to living in your car. When your car is finally towed, you're afoot with your backpack.
Yes, there are shelters and other services. But many are offered by churches, and these have strings attached: you have to let yourself be proselytized. So many homeless LGBTs opt to shun these resources and stay out in the cold. There, if sexual orientation is at all detectable, they're at higher risk -- becoming targets of violent crimes that are more and more aimed at homeless people.
Over the last several years, I can't help noticing that the number of people I know personally who have been homeless, or perilously close to it, is inching ominously upwards.
"You'll Have to Stab Me"
Before the eviction date, Detlow's friends, including myself, tried to help him nail a spare room, a sofa situation or house-sitting job. But the city is so full of people looking for makeshift housing, that sofas and other marginal opportunities are in short supply. Some enterprising apartment dwellers will charge you $500 a month just to sleep on their couch.
For the moment, the best I could do was give Detlow a little money, and find a temporary home for his beloved cat. He was very worried about the cat. She already had her own street history -- he'd taken her in as a stray, and didn't want to dump her back on the sidewalk.
"I want to get her back when I can," he said.
On the last day, when Detlow unplugged his laptop, he gave it to a friend for safekeeping, so his unpublished writing wouldn't be lost. He was keeping a little tape recorder, so he could journal his days on the street. Maybe some publisher would be interested in a piece of "on-scene reporting" about being homeless. Since he'd had a little money, he paid some advance time on his cell phone, wanting to keep a lifeline as long as possible.
When Detlow left his apartment, a lesbian friend of mine met him on the corner to take the cat for delivery to a new home. As his pet meowed nervously in her carrier, he handed her over. Then he sat down on the curb and cried for about 15 minutes. My friend sat with him till he calmed down.
Finally his tall skinny figure, with head wrapped in his signature bandana, disappeared down the street.
As the days passed, Detlow stayed in touch with his peeps by cell phone. He was going through wild emotional swings -- sometimes choking up, sometimes grimly buoyant and determined to make it. Through it all, he managed to find public Internet access to check Craigslist, and got a couple of housecleaning jobs for food money.
Then, two-plus weeks into the street, Detlow called me in tears. He'd just had the first close encounter with that violence that homeless people face every day.
"I felt the knife point at the back of my neck," he said. "The guy wanted the little money I had. He also wanted my backpack, which I had strapped around my body. It had my cell phone and tape recorder and ID, and a few valuables. I couldn't lose that phone -- it's my lifeline. So I leaned against the knifepoint and told him, 'You'll have to stab me to get the backpack.'"
Detlow's inspired outburst worked. The mugger let him keep the backpack.
Giving It All Up
A week before Thanksgiving, a friend and I met Detlow at a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard to discuss a possible housing opportunity. We bought him a warm meal, which he scarfed. He looked strained and skinnier than ever, but was still managing to keep up appearances. His shirt, pants and bandana were clean.
He shared his experiences of the initial two weeks at Skid Row downtown.
"Skid Row is where they get you ready for the street. The city homeless authority gives you 2 weeks there. The entrance is kinda Hollywooded up -- a fancy grillwork fence. But inside it's pretty grim. You get a room the size of a closet, and counseling. You've got two weeks to learn the ropes... what you're going to run into, how to stay safe. You tick off the days -- each day in that little room is precious. Ten days left, then 7, 6, 5... When zero day comes, they kick you out."
He added, "The people who've been out here for months, or years...I can see it in their eyes. They've had to give it all up. You give up it up by inches. Your humanity, your dignity. A little more every day. I already see it happening to me."
The battery on his tape recorder had run low, so he had scrounged some paper somewhere and was writing on that.
The possible housing situation didn't pan out. But a few nights later, Detlow called to say that his private network might finally come through for him. His voice sounded brighter. He'd connected with an old friend in Virginia who was offering him a plane ticket and a room for a while.
"Virginia!" I said.
"Yeah, Virginia. Goodbye L.A. The ticket is waiting for me at LAX. The trick is," he added, " I have no money, and I have to get to the airport by 6 a.m."
I offered to ask a friend to drive him to LAX.
"No need," he said. "I'll manage."
After two long days of radio silence, Detlow called me again. It was late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day.
"I'm in Virginia," he said. "We just had the big family dinner. They're putting me up in their guest cabin out in the woods. It's beautiful here." His voice was strong, but he sounded a little dazed. "The contrast between where I am now, and where I was last week -- well, I can't even describe it."
The friend was helping him job-hunt. Allegedly there are more jobs in Virginia than California. Meanwhile, he was back to writing about his experience. We made plans for re-uniting him with his cat when his situation stabilized.
Hiding the Homeless
Detlow's story ends well -- for now, at least. But for many, the nightmare goes on.
America is busy hiding some of its worst problems right now, and the population explosion of homeless people is one of the most pushed-out-of-sight. We've been busy trying to bury our homeless people ever since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when tens of thousands of low-income New Orleans refugees weren't allowed to return to their homes so their neighborhoods could be razed and redeveloped. They wound up in permanent FEMA camps.
Some American cities have been forced to create tent cities and other services for the homeless. However, many cities still make every effort to sweep homeless people out of sight - to slash services, to bar church groups from feeding them, to make it illegal to be anywhere or do anything that street people have to do. This way, they can be arrested for their "crimes" and thrown into our already crammed jails. In Vegas, it's six months in jail for sleeping in your car. In Hawaii, city legislators are actually proposing six months in jail as punishment for having a strong body odor on public transportation.
Republican candidates are talking about more FEMA camps - about turning "unused" prison facilities into holding pens for homeless people.
Sad to say, our own "community" is just as prone to hide its homeless. My search for organizations who care has turned up a few. Examples: In L.A., Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing (GLEH) offers 104 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors. Thirty-four percent of the apartments go to people who have HIV/AIDS or are either homeless or in danger of going homeless. In Palm Springs, the Golden Rainbow Senior Center offers weekly food distribution to homeless LGBT seniors. The national organization SAGE states a concern for our senior homeless.
But these organizations seem to be isolated points of light in an otherwise dark landscape of apparent unconcern. Homelessness is one of those things that most people never think about till it happens to them.
So I asked an old friend, a Latina lesbian teacher, if I was missing something. She had spent several years working with an L.A. organization that helps homeless families. Did she know of more organizations that care about adult LGBT homeless people? She emailed back, saying, "I am sorry to say I don't know of any. What happened to caring for those who allowed us to be here?"
My Latina friend mentioned her own woes with foreclosure -- she had been proud of her small home bought with a loan gotten through the teachers' union. "My house goes up for auction on the 29th," she said, "and CalHFA has done nothing to help me stay in it. All these programs our taxes go to fund, and I still am on the outside looking in."
My teacher friend is lucky. Her family will take her in.
We LGBT citizens have been very quick to call ourselves a "community." True, the big effort we made for people with AIDS was (and is) important. We belatedly started caring about our youth. But those efforts aren't enough. The LGBT world still doesn't do enough for other needy groups -- its transgender and intersex people, its elders, its disabled, its mentally ill, for example. Above all, there is a sickening political dismissiveness about those economic threats that are surely affecting many of us. The threats are not viewed as "LGBT issues." Yet that nationwide landslide of foreclosure and unemployment is surely sweeping away a whole slope of LGBT lives along with the larger mountainside of non-gay lives.
For a growing number of us, the right to marry or serve in uniform is looking less important than the right to a home, a job and enough to eat. We won't become a real "community" till we get those priorities clear.
Photo via rofanator on Flickr.
As I hear about them, I will list below any additional organizations, local or national, that have resources for LGBT adult homeless people.
H.O.W. . Located in Phoenix, AZ. Among H.O.W.'s programs is The Residence, which offers living facilities to some trans homeless people.
Maetreum of Cybele in Catskill, NY. The organization describes itself as focused on women in need, including they are lesbian-friendly and transsexual-woman-inclusive. Emergency housing is available.