NEW YORK—Juan Valdez vividly recalls the night he left home.
“I grabbed a whole bunch of black plastic bags, packed all of my things, and went to my best friend’s house. And, I mean, what else could I do? I was 16, I didn’t know how to do anything,” Juan said.
Juan was kicked out of his house when he revealed to his parents that he was gay.
Adrielle Grant has a similar story.
“I moved down to New York with [my mom], and like two weeks into the move she found out that I was gay,” Adrielle said. “The drama started and she kicked me out.” Adrielle (who changed his name from Leroy) was 18 when he became homeless.
The most recent survey of runaway and homeless youth in New York estimates that, each night, a minimum of 3,800 youth are homeless, as much as 40 percent of whom identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Within the overall homeless youth population, 15 percent were born outside of the U.S. mainland. Advocates say much of the immigrant homeless youth population identifies as lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual (LGBT).
Jim Bolas with the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services led the 2007 survey of homeless youth.
“I think immigrant youth are going to be disproportionately affected because they have less resources elsewhere. I do think that immigrant youth have an additional challenge that even other homeless youth don’t face,” Bolas said.
For gay immigrant youth, poverty and lack of support from their families and immigrant communities make them particularly vulnerable to becoming – and staying – homeless. Margo Hirsch of the Empire State Coalition described the risks faced by these young people as a combination of poverty, cultural homophobia, religion, and a lack of community support systems.
When young LGBT people come to the U.S. and are offered the opportunity to be open about their sexuality, their families often do not follow suit, relying on behaviors and attitudes from their home countries where homosexuality may be taboo, or even violently repressed.
Juan Valdez, now 21 years old, he has been homeless off-and-on for the past five years. Juan is a quiet, gentle person with a big smile contrasted by sad, tired eyes. He wears large, horn-rimmed glasses and stylish clothing. Juan is known to be kind and friendly, a giver of big, deep hugs to staff and residents at Sylvia’s Place, an LGBT drop-in shelter run by the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, where he sleeps. When he talks about his past as a church-goer in a religious family his mood ebbs and flows. At times, he seems detached from his painful experiences, laughing through difficult memories. Moments later, he is on the verge of tears.
Juan immigrated to Orlando, Florida from the Dominican Republic when he was a child, along with his mother, father and two brothers, Michael and Joshua. Juan’s parents are Pentecostal pastors, and he had a very sheltered and strict upbringing.
“My sexuality is not accepted by my family, at all,” Juan said.
“It’s a lie, it’s the devil, it’s demons, you have to rebuke it, if you don’t change your ways you’re going to go to hell, you’re going to burn in hell—these are the things that I’ve heard ever since they’ve known,” Juan said.
Juan was 15 when he realized he was gay, but even before he came out he suffered continuous insults from family and schoolmates. Juan felt he could never live up to the masculinity other Latinos in Florida expected of him.
“I’ve always been feminine. My cousins would be like, ‘Why are you such a pussy?’ Even in school, you know, even before I said anything about my sexuality I was being called a faggot, because of who I am,” Juan said.
When he was first homeless, Juan relied on friends for shelter, hopping from couch to couch, and doing what he felt was necessary to survive.
“Eventually, I did have to have sex for money; um, quite a few times. And unfortunately that’s very common in gay youth that are homeless, because that’s the kind of predator who’s out there looking for that,” Juan said.
Family is very important to Juan. He attempted to return home at 18, and renounced his sexual identity in the hope of gaining his parents’ acceptance.
“I told them that I wanted to change. ‘Mom I want to change, I don’t want to be gay anymore. I want to come home,’ ” Juan said, choking back tears.
Listen to Juan tell his story:
After a short while, Juan found he was unable to sustain the façade. “I realized that I was just lying to myself, and I was lying to everyone else. And who wants to live a lie? Life’s too short,” Juan said. “It is.”
Again, he was thrown out. He has been homeless ever since.
“Sometimes I feel, like, that maybe, all of the times that I’ve been told, ‘You’re a faggot. I believe you’re gay.’ You know, maybe it got recorded into my brain or something. Sometimes I wish that’s what it was so that I could cut it off and maybe my life could go a little better. Maybe I could marry a woman and have my family back, you know? But, no, that’s not how it works,” Juan said.
Juan vacillates between feeling sadness over the loss of his family, and happiness at having finally found a community in New York that accepts his sexuality. Even though he is homeless, he is grateful to have escaped the constant secrets, lies and persecution of his past.
“I’m among family here,” he said looking around the shelter.
At support centers for LGBT homeless youth, administrators say a significant portion of their clients are immigrants. In 2010, about 10 percent of the homeless youth at Sylvia’s Place were immigrants. At Green Chimneys, a transitional living program for LGBT youth, as many as 20 percent of residents were LGBT immigrants.
Sarah Wilson is a social worker at Sylvia’s Place who worked with Juan Valdez.
“A lot of [LGBT youth] don’t have a support system, but that’s particularly true for the immigrant clients. So they really have no one to fall back on. A lot of the immigrant clients come from families who are in poverty anyway, and their families are in no position to help them out. And then, with the addition of the language barrier, that makes it even more difficult,” Wilson said.
People who immigrate to the U.S. often rely heavily on support from members of their community who are already established. When LGBT immigrant youth are ostracized in their communities because of their sexuality, they find themselves without a support network and alone on the street.
That’s what happened to Adrielle Grant, a 19-year-old immigrant from Guyana. He moved to the U.S. 5 years ago with his mother and sister.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that more than half of homeless youth identify as LGBT. That is true in Manhattan, but not in all five boroughs.]