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Matthew Cardinale: After the Storm
by Andrew Davis

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Pictured Shannell Jefferson and Matthew Cardinale. Photo by Andrew Davis

Matthew Cardinale and Shannell Jefferson were in town during December interviewing youths displaced by Hurricane Katrina, hoping to compile their findings into a book. However, Cardinale and Jefferson are just more than inquisitive investigators—they're evacuees themselves.

The devastating tempest was just the latest in a series of hurdles for Cardinale, who refers to himself as homosexual but not gay. ( 'Gay is a term from the Christian right that hides the fact that sexual orientation is part of who we are,' he says. ) At age 14, he left his childhood home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and then spent the next three years as a homeless teen. Eventually, though, he cleared those obstacles, becoming legally emancipated at 16 and graduating from high school, undergraduate school ( New Orleans' Tulane University ) and graduate school ( University of California-Irvine, with the help of the Point Foundation ) . Now he's getting another graduate degree, taking Internet classes offered by the University of New Orleans while living in Atlanta. In addition, he has started Atlanta Progressive News ( ) , an alternative publication that addresses working-class issues.

Cardinale spoke with Windy City Times about the project.

Windy City Times: How did this project come about? Weren't you originally researching something regarding New Orleans police and homeless teens?

Matthew Cardinale: Yes. I had written a $10,000 grant proposal in the spring [ of 2005 ] . There had been requests for proposals from an agency called CIRCLE ( Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement ) . I had gone to Covenant House in New Orleans [ a homeless youth shelter ] to put together a team of youths—and they unanimously decided on police treatment, an ongoing issue. I knew this would be an amazing opportunity for these youths to learn about research, be empowered, have a voice and other things that I knew homeless youths were capable of.

We then got the grant—but didn't get the money until July. At that point, only three of the original 10 kids were still around. We then had a wonderful four weeks, inviting homeless advocates and other people to talk to the youths. We [ Matthew, Shannell and two others ] then drafted a survey. It was an interesting process, teaching the others things like not asking leading questions.

Then, the hurricane came and disrupted everything. We all dispersed but I stayed in touch with everyone. However, it was clear that none of us [ workers ] was going back to New Orleans. So we decided to change our topic—but we needed more money to travel as well as other research expenses. We ended up getting another $7,000 from CIRCLE, which was gracious of them—but I agreed to conduct some focus groups for them.

This is a multi-city study. We're just wrapping up things in Chicago and then I'll be flying out to Houston. Then, I'll personally fly to New Orleans to do some interviews there. It's our traveling junket.

WCT: In general, what have people told you so far?

MC: There have two areas of questions. One involves personal experience, and the answers have varied there because there were people who could've evacuated and people who couldn't. But we also ask questions that have been the same for everyone, such as 'Do you plan to return to New Orleans?' No one intends to do so, except for one who wants to finish college there. People have also said that the government's response was horrible and that race and class played roles in how it responded. Other questions have even asked about trust of public officials, for example.

WCT: What's been the racial makeup of the interviewees?

MC: They've all been Black so far. That's just the way it's panned out. People have been talking about what they've seen—but I have my own stories because I was stuck there for a while. Giving people the opportunity to share their experiences is amazing and important.

WCT: You left home because of abuse. Was this abuse a result of you coming out or was it something else?

MC: It was just an intolerable situation. My situation—like that of many homeless teens—involved a stepparent. My mother got divorced and [ eventually ] married another guy; we ended up moving in with him and his two children. He was a conservative guy from Oklahoma, and we had arguments. The fact that I was opinionated and argumentative was something that he couldn't stand. I don't think there was a direct connection between my sexual orientation and being homeless. However, I do think that there were some issues around gender role expectations and the idea that I wasn't fitting into the 'masculinity' package. ( I now call myself a political refugee. ) My mother and I are pretty close now—although we haven't really resolved anything.

WCT: What was the lowest point for you as a homeless teen?

MC: There were several. I was homeless for several years and there aren't very many services for 14-year-old homeless youths; the ones that were available mainly centered around drug rehab and that didn't apply to me. They didn't have one for someone like me, who just didn't get along with his parents. ( During this time, I was still going to school full-time and was an honor student. )

I lived in several places and [ ended up ] at Covenant House, where I'm now a consultant. I tried moving back with my family and it didn't go very well. I never thought I would choose to go back to Covenant House; it's not exactly the Hilton.

WCT: You became an Eagle Scout by organizing an HIV-awareness program. Were you in a pro-gay troop?

MC: Oh no. I was just a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout. Sexual orientation never [ was a factor ] . I stopped for a couple of years and then re-joined. The program was my service project. I had been volunteering at the gay and lesbian community center; I then thought of an HIV-awareness expo. The Boy Scouts could not object to that event itself. However, I was confronted by my scout master about 'leading an alternative lifestyle' and was told that it wasn't acceptable; he then said that they had a 'don't ask, don't tell'-type policy.

WCT: What was school like?

MC: I ended up skipping my junior year at Piper High School because I had enough credits. I then got a full-tuition scholarship to Tulane University. I always had a fascination with New Orleans because of Anne Rice and Nine Inch Nails. I went there and I loved it; I majored in sociology and political science.

I then went on to graduate school. Irvine is pure Orange County—it's so not New Orleans; what a culture shock. I only got my Master's [ after planning to get a Ph.D. ] because I simply couldn't do Irvine. It's a wealthy area and [ the residents ] just think that the world is perfect. We had some big protests; at one point, nine of my friends were arrested by the campus police. Things seemed like Guantanamo Bay; I ended up filing a 26-page whistle-blower complaint with the state. So I elected to not stay at UCI, which I later coined 'The University of Corrupt Injustice.'

I went back to New Orleans. Those people may not have the best resources or education, but they know what's up. I was going to the University of New Orleans when the hurricane hit.

WCT: What was that like?

MC: I had been in class for only a week. My apartment was in a low-lying area and I was fortunate to stay at a friends' two-story house uptown. They evacuated but I stayed with my three cats. I had no car ( and not even a driver's license ) so I couldn't leave—and my cell phone stopped working, so I couldn't get in touch with anyone. I only had a week's worth of food—and when you're nervous, you go through most of it for the first two days. [ Laughs. ] So I was on the Katrina Diet for a while. I never thought that I could feel some of the things I ended up feeling. I ended up looting; I went to a drug store we won't name and took food, alcohol and drinks. I made two trips through that disgusting water. New Orleans was like Lord of the Flies, except with helicopters.

The Coast Guard picked me up; I left because I kept hearing explosions and seeing fires. Unfortunately, I couldn't bring my cats along. The Guard subsequently abandoned me on the side of the road at a ghetto at night—and I waited for a bus that never came. I then walked through Cracktown to get to this shelter but I couldn't pass by the parish borderline. Then, I hitchhiked with the Church of Scientology to get to this alleged shelter but what turned out to be a hospital. I pretended to have an emergency, got in the ER, charged my cell phone and hitchhiked a second time with this random Black man. I then had enough cash to take a bus back to Fort Lauderdale and stayed with [ a friend ] . Eventually, I went back and rescued my cats.

WCT: How do you feel the city's coming together?

MC: It's all about the levees. Until they can repair them, people cannot invest in that city—especially those without cars who can't move. Now, it's going to be a gentrified city with all the affordable housing gone. I'm worried that it's going to be this corporate Disneyland.

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