They sleep on streets built by the gay generation before them.
Chicago's queer homeless youth have come to Boystowndesignated by city officials as the world's first official gay neighborhood in 1998for everything from a hot meal to the promise of a life without homophobia.
Many have been kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ. Others fled abusive households. Some simply have complicated life situations that led them to the streets (deceased or incarcerated parents, family poverty, the lack of support system, etc.).
The result is a community of queer youth sleeping on streets that, for many, symbolize the growing prosperity of Chicago's LGBT community.
In August, Windy City Times sent a team of reporters into these streets to document the lives and thoughts of these young people. Reporters Bill Healy, Erica Demarest and I documented the young people's experiences through photo, video, audio, survey and text for three months. Contributing reporters also included Will Hartman, Hayden Hinch, Bob Tekavec and Steve Liss, whose portfolio includes 43 covers for Time Magazine.
In this week's Windy City Times, we begin an 8-week series on LGBT youth in the city, especially those most at risk, more in need of support, and gravitating to Halsted, the location of many of the community's bars, businesses and the Center on Halsted.
Over the next weeks, readers will get to know many of Lakeview's street-based queer and allied youth. The series will explore how the youth survive, what happens overnight in Boystown, where queer street-based youth congregate beyond Lakeview, the dynamics between youth and police, and how social service providers interact with young people.
This multimedia series will run both in print and online, so those accustomed to reading Windy City Times solely online or in print are encouraged to check out both. Don't miss: Windy City Times' Generation Youth video segment at www.youtube.com/windycitytimes and www.vimeo.com/windycitytimes .
Youth by the numbers
More than 100 young people participated in this series.
For the purpose of the series, Windy City Times defined "youth" as young people ages 24 and under, the same definition used by many local service providers. Still, some street-based young people interviewed were older than 24. The series did not exclude those 25 and older whose challenges and support systems matched those of their younger peers.
Most of those interviewed took an anonymous survey, the results of which follow this introduction. Others consented to on-record interviews, and their stories will be included in weeks to come.
Reporters conducted the surveys on the streets in Lakeview and in other areas where queer youth tend to congregate, including Auburn Gresham. Windy City Times and youth service providers also distributed the survey online and shared it through Facebook and Twitter.
Many young people served by Chicago agencies have come to expect monetary incentives for their participation in everything from HIV tests to social service programs. Windy City Times did not offer incentives to youth for this project with the exception of those youth surveyed in Auburn Greshaman area known for sex work, where participation without incentives would have been unlikely, according to service workers. In this instance, reporters offered $10 Walgreens gift cards.
Reporters took great care to keep surveys anonymous and to inform young people about the ramifications of participating in on-record interviews. Those depicted in this series consented to being portrayed.
Overwhelmingly, Windy City Times found that the youth who frequent Lakeview services are homeless or without stable housing. Many who are not homeless report difficulty at home that causes them to avoid returning for days at a time. Others have stable housing and/or family support but frequent the neighborhood to be with friends.
"[My mother] is not supportive of me being gay," said one participant, an 18-year-old Black male who lives at home. "It's like hard. It's like hell. It's like you're a chicken, and you live in a house full of dogs."
More than half of the youth who were homeless reported that they had been kicked out by their families for being LGBTQ. Many more said they left by choice due to physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. Of those who had housing, many said they had slept in a shelter at some point.
While many youth praised the Crib, The Night Ministry's LGBT-friendly facility, other shelter anecdotes were overwhelmingly negative. Respondents reported homophobic attitudes, dirty facilities and altercations with other residents, including rape and theft.
Nearly all of the youth self-identified as "bisexual." A handful identified as "gay." Almost none called themselves "transgender," even though many who were interviewed appeared to be gender-variant or use different names/ pronouns than those assigned at birth. Several identified as "straight" but used LGBTQ services, or closely associated with LGBTQ youth. Some who identified as straight said they had dated or engaged in sexual activity with someone of the same assigned gender (for example, some young men identified as straight and added that they dated transgender women).
The youth surveyed expressed a strong understanding of safe sex practices and sexually transmitted infections. Most reported that they regularly get tested for HIV, and many participants pulled condoms out of pockets and purses when asked about protection.
"I always wrap it up," said one gender-variant youth. "And I go get tested regularly just to be sure because there's nothing like knowing you're healthy and everybody is well taken care of."
Of social service providers in the city, youth most frequently reported using Broadway Youth Center and Night Ministry services.
Nearly all had also been to Center on Halsted, but of that group, a stunningly high number reported that they had been banned from the Center. Most who had been banned in the past said they believed they were still banned. As a result, many of the youth who had used the Center's services chose not to list the Center as resource for them. (The series will explore this issue further, with comments from Center on Halsted).
About two-thirds of respondents said they travel 45 minutes or more by bus or train to reach health and social service agencies. Some see the downtime as an opportunity to relax.
"It's the most peace I get all day," said one 25-year-old female.
Most described the lengthy commutes as restrictive, exhausting and irritating, citing incidents of theft and assault.
Young people also reported high levels of police harassment, with nearly all referencing an incident during which they felt they were unfairly detained or targeted by police. A number also claimed that a police officer had ignored them when they asked for help. Nearly all who reported police harassment said they felt police harassment in Lakeview exceeded that found in other neighborhoods they frequented.
"I'll get harassed just for being in front of my friend's house [in Lakeview] because his neighbors have problems," said one respondent, 21, who identified as Latino and male. "It's just really weird. And it really does happen to me a lot more on this side of town than it does on the South Side."
Some youth reported that they felt harassed by Lakeview residents or other people in the neighborhood.
"Some of the people that live in this area… if they see me and my friends, like they would just look at us, and they would say something under their breath and just keep walking," said one young person. "Then when we say, 'Excuse me, did you say something?' They'll just keep walking like nothing happened."
Asked what their needs were, a majority of youth prioritized a job/career as well as housing and transportation. Several also said they felt they needed mental health services or "peace of mind."
Most of the youth interviewed had not completed high school, but several reported obtaining General Education Development (GED) certification through Broadway Youth Center. Many also reported current enrollment in college, but in some instances young people intimated that this reflected their intention or desire to begin classes, not necessarily their current circumstances.
The surveys are not scientific, and Windy City Times makes no claims of scientific accuracy. Rather, the information presented aims to shed light on common themes among youth not typically captured in studies.
None of the questions on the survey were strictly multiple choice, leading youth to give a variety of responses to every question.
While respondents were overwhelmingly youth of color, white reporters conducted the majority of surveys. A common perception that reporters could be police or simply would not relate inevitably impacted some of the responses and discouraged some from taking the survey. Several young people declined based on negative past experiences with members of the press; still others refused for fear of perceived repercussions.
As a result, about 50 youth were willing to participate in the anonymous survey. This sample size is too small to extrapolate statistics or trends.
Finally, the surveys do not capture some of the more important aspects of queer youth street life, which will be explored in-depth over the next eight weeks.
Most significantly, many queer street-based youth care for each other in ways largely unseen in LGBTQ communities since the AIDS crisis. It is not uncommon for youth to forgo meals to feed each other, prioritizing those most in need in the moment over their own comfort.
See stories and videos in the first installment of this series at the following links:
"Our Future, Our Selves" at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Our-Future-Our-Selves/40375.html .
"INFOGRAPHICS: The Youth Experience" at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/INFOGRAPHICS-The-Youth-Experience/40373.html .
"INFOGRAPHICS: Survey Demographics" at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/INFOGRAPHICS-Survey-Demographics/40374.html .
Don't miss: Windy City Times'Generation Youth video documentary at www.youtube.com/windycitytimes and www.vimeo.com/windycitytimes .
-Koala, 18, walks along North Halsted Street on a chilly October night. Photo by Bill Healy.
-A young person enjoys spaghetti at Chicagoland Community Church's Sunday dinner program. For many LGBTQ homeless youth, the dinner is often the only meal they have over the weekend. Photo by Will Hartman.
-A young person in Lakeview takes a drag off a cigarette. Photo by Bill Healy.
-A group of young people pass a security guard outside Center on Halsted. Young people tend to gather and smoke outside the Center but are often asked to move away from the building or not block the sidewalk. Photo by Erica Demarest.