In Between Homes
Michaelle Gonzalez used to be part of the twenty-three percent of youth experiencing homelessness in Connecticut who are LGBTQ+. Now she’s advocating for them.
When she was 15 years old, Michaelle Gonzalez came out to her parents as queer. To her surprise, her mother, a member of a Pentecostal cult with extremely conservative views, acted normally.
“She pretended like everything was fine,” Gonzalez said. “I thought everything was fine.”
When her parents announced they were going on vacation to their native Puerto Rico, she thought nothing of it. They dropped her off at a friend’s house and told her they would be back in two weeks.
She never heard from them again.
At first, Gonzalez continued living with her friend’s family. But after enduring six months of frequent beatings from the family’s son, she made the decision to leave, she said.
“I felt like, if I’m going to sit here and get hit or I’m going to go live on the street, then I’ll go live on the street,” Gonzalez said.
Her sister, who remained in the house her parents had left, barred her from entering because of her sexuality. When she couldn’t break in, she slept outside in the extreme cold and in extreme heat. At times, she slept behind The Sound School, sneaking in during after hours for warmth. Other times, she slept on the New Haven Green. For a few months, she slept at a man’s house in exchange for sex. Meanwhile, she started working two jobs at different locations of Dunkin’ Donuts. She ate her meals there sometimes, ate at her school or stole from convenience stores.
“I was so frightened about being very small, and by myself, and nobody knows where I’m at,” she said. “I was always frightened of getting caught [stealing] and also frightened that nobody would ever find out.”
She said that the Department of Children and Families knew of her case and was searching for a living situation for her, but her caseworker told her that few foster families would want to adopt someone as old as her. The department did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez moved from place to place, unmoored.
On Nov. 16, Gov. Dannel Malloy announced that Connecticut would receive $6.5 million to end youth homelessness in the state by 2020. The grant was the largest sum conferred this year as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, which aims to award states with concrete and innovative plans for combating youth homelessness.
According to a study conducted by the True Colors Fund and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, compared to other states, Connecticut is doing well. The study graded each state on dozens of metrics spanning legal, systemic and environmental barriers faced by youth experiencing homelessness. Their resulting State Index on Youth Homelessness gives Connecticut a score of 61 out of 100 for homeless youth — the third best in the country.
Connecticut is one of only four states to have a strategic plan to end youth homelessness that specifically includes strategies to address LGBTQ+ needs, per the study. And it’s one of only six states that maintains a youth action board, which represents youths’ needs in the making of youth homelessness policy. Overall, Connecticut and the District of Columbia had the highest “environment” scores, indicating a supportive environment for youth experiencing homelessness.
But Connecticut lacks crucial support for homeless youths’ education rights, as well as a state law to provide funding support in the style of the federal Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. And despite efforts to remedy these deficiencies, both across the state and nationwide, the number of youth experiencing homelessness is on the rise.
Last January, Connecticut’s third annual Youth Count administered surveys to youth in schools, colleges, local drop-in sites and other gathering places. Overall, 5,054 homeless or unstably housed youth were counted, up from about 4,300 the previous year.
In the Greater New Haven region, 816 were counted, and in the city of New Haven itself, 87 were counted to be homeless or unstably housed.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act mandates that schools in the U.S. provide a homeless liaison for their students, ensuring that youth experiencing homelessness are identified and connected to services including health care, mental health, substance abuse, transportation and housing. In reality, however, according to Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, the Chief of Youth, Family, & Community Engagement for New Haven Public Schools, the people who serve as McKinney-Vento liaisons are teachers, social workers, guidance counselors and even principals, who prioritize their primary duties over their McKinney-Vento responsibilities. Furthermore, their services tend to be poorly publicized, leaving students experiencing homelessness to feel a lack of support from the school.
Gonzalez said that during her time experiencing homelessness while attending the Sound School, she wasn’t aware that a McKinney-Vento liaison was in the building.
Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing one-tenth of the school year, hovers around 19 percent of the general student population in New Haven. Among students facing homelessness, the figure is more than double: 44 percent. Increasing embarrassment resulting from teachers’ attitudes and her own sense of dignity and presentation contributed to Gonzalez’s worsening attendance — and her eventual dropping out.
“When I did show up to class, teachers would point me out, like oh, you’re late, you need to see me after class,” she said. “And that felt like you’re putting all this attention on me right now, and all the students are noticing I’m wearing the same things I was wearing three days ago, and they all notice now that I haven’t been here for a few days. It made me wonder, what’s the point of being here?”
At a Board of Alders meeting the night of Wednesday, Oct. 17, Gonzalez and other high school students who had experienced homelessness advocated for schools to provide more basic services for students, such as washers and dryers.
Gonzalez also advocated for the need to train teachers and youth peers to work with homeless youth and connect them with important resources.
“If I had been able to see that there was some sort of support available, I would have reached out for it. I wanted to be housed. I wanted off the streets. But I was really afraid of asking for help when I didn’t see any resources available. I just felt like, what are they going to do for me anyway?”
Gonzalez’s friends knew what she was going through, to some extent. But she warned them not to tell anyone. Gonzalez said they were afraid of what they didn’t know — what the school would do, what legal action might ensue.
After talking to other youth who have experienced homelessness, she said that this is a common phenomenon.
“Our friends always know — and they don’t say anything,” she said. “And it’s not their fault, but I feel like the school system is failing us by not pushing us, not educating us, not being open and inclusive and saying that this is a safe place, and nothing bad is going to happen to you and your friend; we will provide some sort of support.”
On a bleak day in 2017 on the Green last year, Gonzalez met another teenager experiencing homelessness, who told her about Youth Continuum.
The organization is the largest resource for unaccompanied homeless youth in New Haven and runs the only shelter for homeless youth in Connecticut. It provides a range of services, from street outreach to a variety of housing opportunities.
Gonzalez came to their drop-in center for homeless youth, where together with a caseworker, she called 211 — the statewide point of entry for homeless services — and began the intake process. Soon, she was accepted into the transitional living program and began sharing an apartment with a roommate. For the first time in more than two years, she had a place to come home to.
(Photo by Isabella Zou)
According to Paul Kosowsky, Youth Continuum’s CEO, the youth homeless population is primarily composed of runaways, youth who are choosing to live outside and “throwaways,” whose families have forced them out of their homes — sometimes after they come out, like Gonzalez, and other times after learning they are pregnant. Across crisis housing beds, the transitional living program, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and scattered site programs, the organization serves approximately 100 youth.
“What we do is so unique because there are so many different pieces, and they’re all connected to each other, so we’re able to move people through the system in a timely way,” Kosowsky said.
Fighting youth homelessness poses unique challenges in a system designed for adults. HUD defines homelessness literally, meaning that to qualify for many longer-term housing resources, someone has to be living either in an emergency shelter or in a place not meant for human habitation.
However, Kosowsky said, many youth avoid adult shelters because they feel out of place or unsafe, and many don’t sleep outside as Gonzalez did. Instead, adolescents will couch-surf to survive. But this creates a sort of limbo, destabilizing their housing situation while disqualifying them from most of the adult-oriented housing services in the area.
“Now they find themselves being sexually trafficked or engaging in survival sex for a place to stay or for food to eat,” Kosowsky said. “Now they’re in danger, and now they qualify for housing, but until they get into that bad situation, they don’t qualify. It’s a system that was built on the adult model, and it doesn’t easily take into account that unique equation that youth [who] are homeless bring. We try to be the agency that understands the issues and provide a range of services and can help figure out how to get into the system.”
One of these services is LGBTQ+ counseling. Twenty-three percent of youth in the 2018 Connecticut Youth Count identified as LGBTQ+, and nationwide, the estimates range from 20–40 percent.
Gonzalez’s homelessness directly resulted from perceptions of her identity. Her situation seemed only to reinforce her parents’ beliefs, leading to an ongoing mental health struggle with self-identity and worth.
“All I’d ever heard at seminars and things was like, gay people do drugs, and they end up homeless, and everybody gets HIV and AIDS, and they die, they go to hell, and they’re evil,” Gonzalez said. “I got a very negative education about it. And then, it was negative reinforcement when I was housing unstable and living on the street.”
The Voices of Youth Count, an ongoing project by the University of Chicago, interviewed 26,161 people about their experiences with youth homelessness for one recent study. It found that not only are LGBTQ+ youth at more than double the risk of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ+ peers, but homeless LGBTQ+ youth had over twice the rate of early death among youth experiencing homelessness.
The research also showed that most LGBTQ+ youth became homeless not in the immediate aftermath of “coming out,” as in Gonzalez’s case, but as the result of increasing family instability and frayed relationships over time.
This was the case for Violet Thomas, 20, who came out to her family as a trans woman during her senior year of high school and, as her situation at home worsened, eventually decided to leave. According to an article from Connecticut Public Radio, she couch-surfed for a while before living in her car.
Research advocates for increased resources for LGBTQ+ youth to provide the kind of counseling and targeted support that has helped Gonzalez. The staff and counseling at Youth Continuum, some of whom are openly LGBTQ+, helped Gonzalez accept her sexuality, something she was previously unable to separate from her homelessness.
“I have to forgive myself,” Gonzalez said. “I need to stop hating myself for something I shouldn’t hate myself for.”
(Photo courtesy of Michaelle Gonzalez)
Kellyann Day — the CEO of New Reach, an organization that runs shelters primarily serving women and children — believes that ending youth homelessness could help address the issue of adult homelessness.
“If you give kids a stable environment to grow up in, a stable home, you help prevent them from becoming homeless later as adults,” Day said.
Studies as recent as 2010 have found that adverse childhood events, including the neglect and abuse that accompany homelessness, are powerful risk factors for adult homelessness. According to the American Psychological Association, homeless children are twice as likely as other children to have a learning disability, repeat a grade or be suspended from school and are twice as likely to experience hunger and its adverse effects on cognitive development. Also, about half of school-age children grapple with depression or anxiety, and unaccompanied youth are often more likely to struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues.
But working to rectify this is difficult. New Reach must fight to balance long-term prevention with the immediate needs of people in crisis, which vary greatly case to case. Even families with older children have different needs than those with younger ones, Day said. Parents of young children need childcare to work, while teenagers might require career and academic support.
“We want to help people today, but also make sure that they’re thriving and staying housed,” Day said. “For the chronically homeless individual who’s on the Green and who’s struggling with mental health and substance abuse, that thriving definition is different than the [one for a] 21-year-old mom who’s got two kids under the age of four, in a shelter. Neither is right or wrong: it’s just different. So the interventions need to be different, and the services need to be different.”
New Reach is receiving some of Connecticut’s grant money to help provide these services. And out of the $6.5 million, Youth Continuum CEO Paul Kosowsky said his organization will be receiving $450,000, all to be used in New Haven. He said the money will help his agency to double the number of short-term beds in its crisis housing program from six to 12, hire two youth navigators and enable 28 people — up from four — to receive rapid rehousing services, emergency housing stabilization and short-term rent assistance to get into their own apartments as soon as possible.
“The most important thing is to provide more of what’s needed so we don’t have to have a waiting list,” he said. “The goal of all the programs to make sure that homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.”
Youth Continuum is hiring several “youth navigators” to work with youth on the brink of homelessness to help stabilize their families or connect them to other community resources to keep them out of the homeless system. For those who do become homeless, they provide crisis housing to keep their period of homelessness as brief as possible. Finally, their longer-term housing and support programs aim to lift them into self-sufficiency and ensure they don’t have to enter the system again.
Gonzalez is now part of a Youth Advisory Board at Youth Continuum, a group of about 12 former or current clients of the organization that advocate for the needs of the youth it serves. She said it gives them “a sense of power in [their] own decision-making.”
The board represents the needs of the homeless youth population in city government settings, participating in New Haven Board of Education meetings once a month.
“We wanted to become human to these people, so we’ve created our own platform to speak and to share our experiences,” she said.
The board also engages in statewide initiatives to end youth homelessness, attending monthly meetings at Youth Action Hub, a youth-led research and advocacy organization, and participating in Youth Engagement Team Initiatives, which bring together youth advisory boards from across Connecticut.
At Youth Action Hub, they meet with the likes of Jay Perry, 25, who was abandoned by his parents as a 2-month-old because he was constantly sick and hard to care for. He grew up in the foster care system and became homeless after he aged out of the system at age 18.
“My experience being homeless has proven useful for some of the projects we work on at the Hub, and I think it has made the people we interview feel more comfortable and understood,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “Working at the Youth Action Hub has allowed me to gain more contact with support systems, as I have continued to struggle with unstable housing, and the knowledge I have gained has made a big difference in my life.”
The members help organize the annual Youth Count, conduct sensitivity trainings for Yale student volunteers at Youth Continuum, and train to use and teach others to use naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.
Gonzalez said that after Youth Continuum helped house her for the first time, she felt inspired to give back through advocacy work. She hopes to stay in the program as long as possible — probably until December of 2019 — and, meanwhile, start earning enough money to afford her own apartment when the time comes. In January, she will begin a six-year term with the National Guard, serving for one weekend a month and two full weeks a year.
Gonzalez hopes to continue her work with youth homelessness as a career, working full-time with Youth Continuum or a similar organization — or even starting her own nonprofit to enhance the network of services.
“When I was homeless, it made me feel like I was less than a person sometimes,” she said. “And I don’t think anybody deserves that.”