Gay Immigrant Youth in New York Struggle With Homelessness

Adrielle Grant is a gay, homeless 19 year old who came to the US five years ago from Guyana

Adrielle Grant is a gay, homeless 19-year-old who came to the U.S. five years ago from Guyana. (Photos: Maria Watts)

Adrielle is tall and dark-skinned, and wears plastic rimmed glasses with butterfly stickers affixed to the frames. He wears fitted clothes and an argyle and glitter patterned purple New York cap. At Green Chimneys, in a sparsely furnished therapy room with broken blinds on the windows, he described the experience of coming to America.

“One afternoon me and my sister went to the store, and we came back, and my uncle took out these two suitcases, and told us start packing because we was about to go to America. And I was like “What?” We didn’t even know.  And so we started calling all our friends and stuff and told them we was leaving the country.  The next day we went to the airport,” Adrielle said.

Adrielle and his sister initially moved to Atlanta, Georgia to live with their aunt.  His first year in school was very difficult.

“I didn’t talk to anybody the first semester. Everyone was, like, laughing at my accent and stuff. I didn’t do any talking, I just sat in the back of the class,” Adrielle said.  “I didn’t even go to the cafeteria to eat. I just sat in the library and read books,” he recalled.

Eventually high school improved for Adrielle. He made good grades, took AP classes, and even joined the tennis team. He met his first boyfriend in Atlanta, but kept his sexuality secret from his family members except for one cousin. For the first time he was open with his close friends who were very accepting.

“In middle school [in Guyana] was when I started noticing that I wasn’t attracted to girls, that I was more attracted to guys. But then I couldn’t do anything about it, I had to keep it inside. If I didn’t, it would be big problems,” Adrielle said.

Adrielle says he knew from a young age that he was gay, but he knew he could never reveal his sexuality without repercussions. He remembers a news story involving two gay men in Guyana who were murdered after publicly announcing their marriage. He also recalls violently homophobic comments made by family members, including his mother.

“[In Guyana] they don’t condone gayness. Like, if you gay, they kill you,” Adrielle said.

Listen to Adrielle tell his story:

Shortly after graduating high school, Adrielle’s mother called and asked him to move to New York City. Two weeks after arriving in New York, Adrielle’s mother learned that he was gay. His cousin in Atlanta had revealed the secret. Adrielle’s mother responded violently.

“She said, ‘You’re trying to make me feel embarrassed.’ And I couldn’t even say anything because she was so loud and in the middle of the road,” Adrielle said, describing how horrified he was by his mother’s reaction. “She started, like, cursing me out every day, and she was hitting me and stuff, and saying, ‘You wanna be gay?’ And then she kicked me out.”

Adrielle had nowhere to go, and he was terrified. He had just arrived in New York City and didn’t know his way around and was traumatized by the events that had left him alone and wandering the streets of a strange city. He walked constantly, back and forth from Queens to Manhattan, afraid he would be attacked if he stopped moving. When he was too exhausted to walk any further, he found shelter in Central Park and slept on subway trains.

Adrielle was homeless for over a week before he was referred to Green Chimneys, where he is currently a resident.

The shock of being homeless has been hard for Adrielle to accept.  In Guyana and Atlanta, he lived in nice homes, was very close with his family and had a lot of friends. Adrielle feels sadness and anger at having everything he knew ripped away from him and being denied the opportunity to grow and develop with family support.

Being alone in New York is still bittersweet for the 19 year old. “It makes me feel sad, and kind of happy at the same time.  Because I know if I was still in my family, I would still be having to hide that I am gay. And now that I’m homeless, I can be out there like I am gay, and I’m proud of being gay,” Adrielle said.

The tremendous challenges LGBT homeless immigrant youth in New York face can lead to very different outcomes. Adrielle’s future is looking up. Thanks to Green Chimneys, he has housing and basic necessities.  He was recently accepted to Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), and began his first semester in January.

Adrielle Grant singing at a valentine's day party he organized at Green Chimneys, a social service organization for LGBT homeless youth Photo: Von Diaz

Adrielle Grant singing at a valentine’s day party he organized at Green Chimneys, a social service organization for LGBT homeless youth. (Photo: Von Diaz)

“I want to become a math teacher, so mathematics is going to be my major. I’m going to become a teacher, and teach high school and middle school, and when I get my PhD or M.A., I can go on to become a professor,” Adrielle said.

Juan Valdez is less fortunate. Transitional living programs like Green Chimneys have long waiting lists and Juan has been unable to find a job despite applying daily. He is now living in the Ali Forney Center emergency shelter and struggles with crippling depression.  With no money, no family or other support networks, Juan’s future is precarious.

Cast out by their families and rejected by their ethnic communities, both young men have had to grow up fast. If Juan cannot find employment, it is likely that he will remain a homeless adult. Adrielle has the opportunity to pull himself out of homelessness through education and a supportive transitional housing program. However, he is completely reliant on services provided by city and community organizations, and without support from friends and family, he too has a challenging road ahead.

Von Diaz is a Feet in Two Worlds LGBT reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

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AboutVon Diaz
Von Diaz is a writer and radio producer based in New York City. She is a self-taught cook who explores Puerto Rican food, culture, and identity through memoir and multimedia. Her work has been featured on NPR, American Public Media, StoryCorps, WNYC, PRI’s The World, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, and Feet in 2 Worlds. Von has an M.A. in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies from New York University. A graduate of Agnes Scott College, she earned a B.A. in Women’s Studies and focused her research on women in Latin America. She is a currently a producer at StoryCorps, and previously worked in community advocacy and communications for nonprofits focused on women, children, art, and Latino culture.