Homeless LGBT teens in the US – Interview with Ryan Berg

No House to Call My Home” ($25,99, Nation Books) is the new book by Ryan Berg, a writer and currently program manager for the Minneapolis & SuburbanHost Home programs of Avenues for Homeless Youth, who decided to speak out about homelessness faced by LGBTQ people of color, starting from his own experience as a caseworker in a group home in NYC.

Berg’s book belongs to the big realm of non-fiction, and this is one of its strengths: it’s a book of stories, real stories that will both make you smile and will move you to tears. The author builds empathy in his readers and not just indignation, and he successfully gets it avoiding to report facts as a researcher or a journalist, but by giving us the insights and emotions of a young man searching his own place in the world, influenced himself by the group home and its residents’ stories.

I met Ryan Berg after his book launch in New York City and we talked about the challenges of being a caseworker, confronting his own privilege and at the same time addressing the difficult task of helping out those kids to grab the future in their hands. Here’s our conversation, which turned out to be also a discussion about the responsibilities of the LGBTQ movement towards this and other challenges our community copes with everyday.

How did you become a caseworker in a LGBTQ youth group home?

I was working in theater in New York, and feeling uninspired by the work. I knew I needed to do something greater than for myself. I looked online and found the listing for a residential counselor job for LGBTQ youth. I applied, and went through a series of interviews. I was the least qualified candidate by far, but ended up getting hired. After a year of living with the youth as a counselor I was promoted to caseworker.

The book is both about the stories of young LGBTQ of color living in a group home and your personal point of view while working there. How did this experience influence your awareness of being a gay cisgender white man?

I learned about my privilege as a cisgender white male immediately. I saw how systems of oppression kept the youth from meeting their goals, how they were up against what felt like insurmountable obstacles, and no matter how hard they tried, and how much effort was put forth, they were unable to break the cycle. This was most striking when working with trans women of color. Their secondary status of being trans and a person of color never weakened their resolve to move forward in life, and defy the odds, but they were continually denied their dignity. As a youth worker it was enraging and awe-inspiring. Enraging because of the obstacles they faced and how they were treated; awe-inspiring because of the resiliency these young people showed each and every day of their lives. I learned what it meant to be tenacious, forgiving, and resilient from the youth I worked with.

In the book you describe foster care as a “gateway to homelessness” for queer people of color. What are the main challenges these teens have to face with foster parents?

Young queer people in foster care are repeatedly rejected and denied a caring home because of the gender identity or sexual orientation. Many are bounced around from placement to placement, never able to attach to a caring consistent adult in their lives. Often times LGBTQ youth in foster care are shamed about their identity, told they are sinful or bad for who they are. Many foster agencies are faith-based, and many foster parents are older and under-educated. There is no required LGBTQ cultural competency training for foster parents or social workers. 70% of LGBTQ identified foster children have experienced violence due to their identity; 100% have experienced bullying or verbal harassment; and 78% were removed or ran away due to hostility toward their identity. Youth aging out of foster care have higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than veterans of war. Depression, anxiety and addiction affects one-third of this population and over half remain unemployed. Suicide rates are double, sometimes triple that of the general population. Even more marginalized, LGBTQ youth of color experience victimization on multiple levels. A nationwide study of homophobia in schools found that the majority of LGBTQ youth of color had experienced victimization in school because of either race or sexual identity in the last year, while half reported being victimized because of both race and sexual identity. More than a third of LGBTQ youth of color had experienced physical violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These statistics are shown in sharp relief when combined with data suggesting the staggering percentage of homeless youth of color on the streets. Most LGBTQ youth leaving foster care are living in a state of crisis, and have unresolved trauma issues. Without a caring, consistent adult in their lives, they have little hope of a life off the streets or outside the system.

Ryan Berg - Ph. by Marc Charbonneau
Ryan Berg – Ph. by Marc Charbonneau

Success and failure don’t seem helpful categories to describe the growth of homeless LGBTQ teens, at least in their general connotation. Anyway, what are the goals set to make those kids independent for their future lives?

How we define success and failure have to be adjusted when we discuss LGBTQ homeless youth. As a youth worker I had to manage my expectations around what success looked like. If education had never been valued in the life of a young person, and a dedication to education was never mirrored to them, how can one be expected to have the same concepts of success in school? All youth in foster care learn Independent Living Skills: financial literacy, resume building, interview skills, tutoring and apartment search assistance. But how can we expect any of this to matter if the young person is still in a place of emotional instability and trauma? A young person needs to feel safe before they can focus on the necessary skills for living with community outside the system, yet the system is designed for “independent living.” Who lives independently? We live in community, yet these youth remain disconnected. Community and support-building are essential to a young person’s potential to live healthily.

The attention of the mainstream LGBT movement is somewhat absent from issues like that, also if many, after marriage equality, were guessing what would be next on the “gay agenda”. It seems the answer is an easy one, and still a complex one…

People don’t like to hear about tragedy unless there is redemption in the end. So we need to create that redemption. The media – both mainstream and LGBTQ focused – rarely mentions LGBTQ youth homelessness because there’s no Hollywood ending. It’s messy and without an easy resolve. I challenge the media to step up, tell these stories, share with the public this crisis. We need to educate people. Our youth are suffering, left abandoned and without support. Many LGBTQ youth are denied services because of their identity. That should enrage the LGBTQ community. Queer youth make up 40 % of the homeless youth population in this country but make up only 8% of the general population. That is unacceptable. Ignoring our youth is morally criminal. Audre Lorde taught us: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” LGBTQ issues are about housing, public safety, health, incarceration, racial and economic justice, and homelessness. I’ve read fifteen different articles about Kim Davis this week and not one about the LGBTQ homeless youth crisis or the lack of LGBTQ-affirming services for these youth. Let’s focus on how we can help our young people – who have experienced so much rejection–and provide safe environments so they aren’t forced into survival sex or drug-running to survive.

We need to fight for our youth experiencing homelessness and suffering from suicidal ideation; our transgender siblings targeted with violence; our brothers and sisters of color who face discrimination daily; and our undocumented, impoverished, or incarcerated brothers and sisters living in deplorable conditions. We need to fight with the same fervor that brought us the right to marry. We must build on the momentum of that victory and learn to care for each other across differences within our communities.

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