Out of the closet and onto the streets: Young, gay & homeless in Vancouver

 

Sitting across from his mother and stepfather at the restaurant table, Jin (whose name has been changed to protect his identity) tried to muster up the courage to come out to them.

 

“If I was gay or bi what would you do?” asked the 20-year-old.

 

“Well, I didn’t raise a gay or bi son,” his mother replied. “So we’d disown you.”

 

Jin continued eating his cheeseburger and dropped the subject. Two months after starting an acting program in Vancouver, his parents were now in the city visiting from Toronto. Money was tight in Jin’s family and he hoped the conversation wouldn’t end with him being cut off financially.

 

“It’s really hard. You have parents you are supposed to look up to and seek for that support and they’re not willing to give it to you,” Jin says, wearing an upward-turned baseball cap and a shirt given to him by a local youth shelter. “Especially in the Korean community. It’s like if you don’t do what your parents expect of you, you bring shame, you bring embarrassment.”

 

The aspiring young comedian relocated to the West Coast in September 2009. Since he’d struggled to keep a stable home, trying to live off an $800 allowance his mother gave him each month. In a city where the average rent of a bachelor apartment costs $800 plus, that didn’t leave him with many options. Jin couch surfed and moved in and out of apartments, scrambling to pay his bills until the following May.

 

“That’s when everything just went downhill,” Jin recalls, who was tossed out of school for unpaid tuition fees. He was unable to reach his mother for nearly five months. In August he began having sex with strangers after selling most of his belongings.

 

“I would basically, wouldn’t say prostitute myself, but it was more like I would give services just so I would have a roof over my head,” Jin explains. “I was always safe about it and never asked for money. Never asked for anything. Just meet them late knowing that they’ll let me stay overnight.”

 

After five months of silence, Jin reconnected with his mother. Where she and his stepfather had disappeared for the previous five months, he doesn’t know. After moving into an apartment with financial help from his aunt and parents, he tried coming out again.

 

“Will you still love me?” Jin asked his stepfather, testing what his reaction would be.

 

“Well, I’ll still love you, but I just won’t respect your way of life,” he responded.

 

His mother remains in denial of his sexual orientation, so Jin’s decided to keep quiet for the time being.

 

“If I told them now, you know what would happen to me?” he asks. “I’d lose everything. And right now the only way I’m going to be able to survive is with their financial help.”

 

No home, little help

 

Jin’s story is not unique. The work of Elizabeth Saewyc and her colleagues at the McCreary Centre Society shows sexual minority street youth are more likely to be sexually exploited than their heterosexual peers. And among them, boys are just as likely to be sexually exploited as girls.

 

“What this says is we do a pretty bad job of protecting our gay, lesbian, bisexual teens,” she says. 

 

Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are overrepresented among British Columbia’s young homeless population, according to studies from the nonprofit research group the McCreary Centre Society. A quarter of homeless kids from the ages of 12 to 18 identified as belonging to these sexual minority groups in a 2006 provincial survey, while less than three per cent of teenagers in British Columbian schools identified this way in 2008. Older youth also fared poorly in the statistics. A 2002 study found that almost a quarter of 19- to 24-year-olds who were homeless or at risk of becominghomeless were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) or questioning their sexuality.

 

Aboriginal youth between 12 and 18 years old were also disproportionately accounted for when it came to sexual orientation. Those who were LGB and questioning their sexuality made up 34 per cent of Aboriginal homeless young people in British Columbia in 2006, while 15 per cent of Aboriginal boys and as many Aboriginal girls identified the same way in a 2003 school survey. 

 

According to Saewyc, LGB youth are often pushed to the streets by family conflict and find more acceptance there than at home. But it doesn’t have to be the case. 

 

“The same protective factors that work in the lives of all kids work in the lives of gay and bisexual kids, too. It’s just that they have less societal support and may face rejection from their family,” Saewyc explains. 

 

“When they have family support and societal support they do well. They do just as well as heterosexual teens who have those kinds of supports in their lives.”

 

Jeremy Long understands firsthand what can happen if gay teens don’t feel a sense of belonging in their communities. He found himself homeless in downtown Vancouver after leaving his parents’ home at 15. Feeling as though he were the only gay kid in White Rock, he snuck into gay bars 45 kilometres away. Looking for acceptance, Jeremy began partying.

 

“They had what I wanted,” he remembers, talking about the guys he saw in the nightclubs. “They were themselves, they were open to being gay. They were happy, they were successful, and it just so happened that they were doing drugs, and I didn’t see that as a problem because I was so young.”

 

Long, now in his mid-20s, cleaned up and became a youth counsellor at Directions Youth Services Centre because he wanted to help others get through similar struggles.

 

“One of the biggest issues is that queer youth don’t feel like they can be open to trust people to support them,” he says reflecting on his own experience and discussions he’s had with young people at the outreach centre.

 

Homeless teenagers who are gay or transgender don’t have access to many helpful services, Long explains. They often feel out of place at sexual minority youth groups where most teens are not strugglingwith addiction or living on the street. Conversely, resources for homeless teens do not necessarily provide a safe environment for gay youth to hang out and be themselves.  

 

“If all you’ve experienced is negative, you may not be willing to walk in that door to trust that somebody is going to reach out and help you,” Saewyc says. 

 

“Pervasive community homophobia or discrimination makes it harder for LGB youth to reach out and access other resources. So they don’t know where to turn.”

 

Saewyc’s research also shows sexual minority teens are more likely to do drugs than their heterosexual peers.

 

That’s why Long started an outreach group for queer homeless youth at Directions that lasted three and a half months in 2010. 

 

As part of his practicum in the Youth Justice program at Douglas College, Long held gatherings once or twice a week where youth could talk or go see a movie. Some told him they felt alcohol and drugs were staples of the gay scene.

 

“One of my goals was that I wanted the youth to see that you didn’t need to be in the club doing drugs to be normal or okay with being gay,” he says. “I wanted to show them there are people in the community that aren’t like that.”

 

He reached out to about 20 young people who were partying downtown and without a stable home. The group stopped meeting when his practicum ended and there was no funding left to keep it going.

 

‘You don’t have to be gay’

 

Matt Piercy, a young man in his early 20s with striking blue eyes and fair skin, met Long after visiting Directions to eat the dinner served there each night. They bonded over how they’d both experienced homelessness because of their sexual orientation.

 

“If Jeremy hears this he might laugh, but he’s fabulous. He is a fabulous person,” Piercy says, chuckling as he sits on the couch in his new subsidized Vancouver apartment blossoming with freesias. “He inspired me to always keep trying.”

 

Piercy’s come a long way since contemplating suicide two years earlier. 

 

“I don’t hate myself anymore,” he reflects, remembering the times he’s been hurt and called a faggot. “I just don’t love myself.”

 

When he was 16, Piercy’s mother and stepfather kicked him out after catching him with another boy he’d been hiding in their Metro Vancouver home. 

 

“If you say that to my parents they’ll say, ‘Well, you left,’” Piercy explains. “And I would always say, ‘Well you gave me no option.’”

 

Since coming out to his mother at 11, his parents made numerous attempts to turn him straight. His mother gave him a book called You Don’t Have to be Gay and sent him to see a counsellor who said he must be heterosexual because God doesn’t make gay people.

 

He soon began thinking he’d rather die than be gay.

 

“I wanted to believe her. So I was struggling inside because I had all these sexual attractions to men and I’m trying to be straight,” Piercy says. “I thought whatever’s going on in my head right now I must be crazy, because I am straight.”

 

In acts of rebellion, Piercy began using hard drugs. He ended up stealing and selling sex to support his intensifying drug addiction. “I just fell in love with it,” Piercy says of crystal meth, a drug that would keep him up for days without having to eat. He moved on to heroin and became instantly hooked.

 

He jumped from staying with a friend to sleeping in Vancouver alleys before moving into an single room occupancy hotel with the help of his stepfather. Sitting there in his cramped room littered with needles, eight years after he first tried to take his own life, the 20-year-old began thinking similarly morbid thoughts. 

 

“Somebody had stolen my last little bit of heroin and I just wanted to die,” Piercy recalls. “I had no money so it was like, you know, ‘What am I going to do? I have to do crime or I have to go prostitute on Homer Street,’ and I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

 

Feeling wrecked, he’d picked up the phone that day and called his building reception for help. He eventually received it from social workers who showed him that who he is matters.

 

Beyond Boystown

 

“Traditionally sex work is seen very much through a female lens,” says Matthew Taylor, the organizer of an outreach program for men in the sex trade called Hustle: Men on the Move.

 

 “The realities are very much that men are exploited. Men are in sex work.”

 

But one of Taylor’s challenges continues to lie in confronting myths that men and boys aren’t vulnerable and don’t sell sex. 

 

A 2005 report of 40 young men involved in British Columbia’s sex trade shows almost two-thirds had their first “date” before turning 18 years old and 70 per cent had stayed in shelters. 

 

Young men had similar histories of sexual and physical violence as young women, but were more likely to enter prostitution at a younger age and stay in it longer, wrote researcher Sue McIntyre.

 

Forty-three per cent of those surveyed were Aboriginal. Taylor’s data also shows 29 per cent of male sex workers in Vancouver identified as First Nations or Métis in 2010. 

 

David Kirk, a goateed man who now works as a First Nation advisor at a North Vancouver university, saw Aboriginal boys working as prostitutes in Vancouver’s warehouse district during the 1970s and 1980s.

 

When the 1990s came along gentrification transformed the area into the upscale neighbourhood of Yaletown. Still, Kirk continued to spot Aboriginal boys picking up men on the corner of Drake and Homer streets, a crossing formerly dubbed Boystown. 

 

“When you are 15 or 14 or 13 and you are out on your own and you have no work experience, you can’t get a job,” he says. “So what do you turn to? The sex trade.”

 

Seeing part of his struggle in them, Kirk started a drop-in for Two-Spirited and queer First Nations youth in 1995 that lasted three years.

 

“They’d left their communities because of the stigma of being gay or Two-Spirited,” Kirk explains.

 

Two-Spirit is an Aboriginal name for individuals who might be considered LGB or transgendered by Western standards. Two-Spirit, however, focuses more on Aboriginal spirituality and tradition instead of revolving around sexual preference.

 

 “To me, it means that people’s gender identity is much more complex than what a colonial view is today in the Americas,” explains Albert McLeod, a Two-Spirited man who was part of the movement that coined the term in 1990. “Historically, you find among indigenous groups around the world there were concepts of third genders.”

 

Holding multiple meanings that can vary by nation, one definition describes a Two-Spirited person as someone who embodies the presence of both a male and female spirit. Before colonization, they fulfilled special roles in their communities, including caring for children and acting as medicine people. That changed in the 19th century when residential school programs punished Aboriginal children for speaking their language and forced them to stop practicing their culture.

 

Finding culture

 

When Kirk was 15, he left Burnaby and hopped on a Greyhound bus headed for the other side of Canada.

 

“When I got that ticket to Toronto it was freedom,” he recalls. The year was 1978. He spent four full days and nights on the road before arriving out East with a duffel bag he’d bought the morning before the bus trip.

 

“I was a bit scared and yet, it was freedom,” he says, eyes creased and smiling. The trip propelled him on a lifelong journey to discovering himself and his First Nations roots. 

 

“I just decided I needed to explore who I was as a Two-Spirited person and I wasn’t comfortable doing that. So I left to Toronto where I could be free and figure out what that meant.”

 

Kirk spent eight months in Toronto partying, couch surfing and sleeping in a shelter before returning home and telling his family he was gay. After that, they cut off ties with him completely. 

 

“I was part of a family for 15 years and basically was kicked out of the family and told never to come back for being gay or TwoSpirited,” Kirk says, his voice losing steam. 

 

“They just closed the door and said, ‘Don’t call us. We don’t want to hear from you, we don’t want to see you. Goodbye.’”

 

Kirk moved out again and couch surfed at friends’ places. Through working as a dishwasher and a waiter, he was able to afford a place when he turned 18.

 

Years later when he started the drop-in group, Kirk noticed a gap in the services available to homeless Aboriginal kids 

 

“There was nothing else out there,” he says. “And I was starting to realize that the street-entrenched youth who were TwoSpirited weren’t using mainstream drop-ins.”

 

Kirk invited First Nations elders to teach them about their cultural histories as well as the sacred roles of Two-Spirited people. Field trips took the teens outside of the city and into nature. There they’d learn about traditional medicines and participate in smudging ceremonies by burning sage to cleanse away negative energy.

 

“They just had this hunger for knowledge and for traditional teachings,” Kirk explains. “We’d have a picnic and share food and laugh, and they could forget about worrying about pulling their next trick.”

 

Kirk, now 50, holds a master’s degree in adult education and is contemplating a PhD.

 

“I would continue my research around cultural identity and Aboriginal learners, because I think there is a really strong connection,” Kirk says as he sits under the hot sun by his community garden plot, just blocks away from the apartment he and his partner share. 

 

He believes Aboriginal students with stronger ties to their heritage are more likely to succeed in life.

 

“I could have turned out a lot differently,” Kirk muses as he looks back on the time when he didn’t have a home or a family. 

 

“I could have let my past dictate and I could have said, ‘Poor me, poor me. I’ve been hard done by. I’m never going to amount to anything. Why bother trying?’ 

 

I did the opposite. It’s like, ‘Well, screw you.’”

 

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