In 2013, when 24-year-old pansexual woman Keyshia Lay Morris first met Chicago House TransLife Center director Bonn Wade, she hadn't closed her eyes in more than three days. Wade made her a spinach smoothie and, as they were talking, Morris fell into an exhausted sleep.
Born in Atlanta, Ga., Morris said her father moved her family to Chicago and left when she was 2. By the age of 4, her mother had moved Morris, her brother and sister into a home they shared with a woman named 'Mother Thomas.' Morris claimed the woman physically abused Morris and her brother while her mother was at work. "She used to beat on us," Morris remembered. "They found scars on my brother when he was going to school."
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ( DCFS ) removed her from the household. Morris' mother fought unsuccessfully to get them back and no one in her extended family would take her.
Morris said she went through 37 placements as a part of "the system," as she calls it. "I am very skeptical of white people because of what happened to me in those foster homes and what they got away with."
Morris asserted that she suffered physical abuse at the hands of some foster families. "I was being passed around," she recalled. "A lot of foster parents would try to tell me 'we're your moms now. Your mom doesn't want you. That's why you're here.' I used to get into fights because I'd disagree with calling them that because I knew my real mom was still out there. People was trying to change me to what they wanted me be. Then they started beating me."
Morris' experiences with the DCFS are apparently not unique. James McIntyre is a motivational speaker and youth advocate who spent 17 years in DCFS placements. "I was adopted at five years old," he told Windy City Times. "Everything was fine for a couple of years then the adopted homes started to physically abuse me. So her story is not rare. They are more common than we would think if you talk to wards of the state."
McIntyre said that a lot of these cases are unreported because the children in the DCFS system do not know where to turn. "The system placed them there, so they thought they could trust the system," he said. "So when they get hurt like that it affects them on a mental and emotional level to not trust anybody. When they turn into young adults, they start acting out in behavioral and aggressive ways."
During one of her visits to her mother, Morris announced that she thought she was different. "My mother used to always tell me to go out and play with my brother and I was not the type of girl who wanted to play with him. My mother used to ask if I was gay and I said 'no mom, I'm not gay.' I had feelings for guys but I didn't know how to admit to it." She was 8.
Ten years later, while a student at Nicholas Senn High School, Morris came out as a woman. She did not graduate with her class because of problems she said she was having with her teachers. "When they came at me and didn't respect me as a she, I was like how dare you, as an adult, sit up there and tell me my sexuality is wrong," she said.
She had already been dressing for four years. "At night, for money," she explained. "I was in a group home and I used to run away with the girls. Then the drugs started coming." Morris said she found her clothes by stealing from stores like Macy's: "It was easy for me to rip them off. I used to hang out with a lot of white people. I was getting away with it because they was getting away with it."
Morris said the scariest moment of her life came when she was 14. She and a friend were arrested for shoplifting: "They sat me in this big receiving room and there was a whole lot of people around me. That's the most hell I went through."
After Morris was released, the arrests continued. "I kept on hanging with this girl, we called her Jamaica, and every time I got locked up I was with this chick," she said. Morris described one such incident at a local Dominick's: "I got nabbed because I was with her. She stole something and ran out the back door. They caught me because I was walking slow because I didn't steal anything!"
The most serious chargeaccording to Morris, the theft of a large amount clothes and purses from Macy'slanded her in jail for six months. While at the Cook County lockup, she was placed in an area with other transwomen inmates. Morris said that rape in that facility was a regular occurrence. "There was straight people coming over just to fuck us," she said.
Morris was transferred to the Illinois Department of Corrections minimum security facility in Vienna, Ill. Despite her gender identity, Morris was placed in a male prison. There, Morris said she was sexually harassed. "I had boys hitting on me. This guy grabbed my ass," she added. "They got away with more shit. I went crazy."
Morris was placed on medications for post-traumatic stress disorder. "It took me a long time to get myself back together," she said.
When she was not in jail, Morris spent nights in low cost apartments provided by child welfare nonprofits. She was kicked out of one at 79th and Avalon because Morris said her roommate was a member of the military who had gone AWOL, something she said she did not know. She was subsequently arrested for hiding him.
According to Morris, this occurred when she was 18.
She left the DCFS system after her nineteenth birthday and went into a life of prostitution and drugs. "I bounced around from hotel to hotel," she remembered. "That was my way of living. I couldn't get a job, or my G.E.D." She would sometimes spend nights going back and forth on the CTA Red Line. This was her life until she was 22. Even in areas like Lakeview, Morris said she was stopped, accused of prostitution and threatened with either ticketing or arrest.
In 2013, she was arrested for criminal trespassingsomething Morris is at a loss to understand. She claimed she was sitting in the backseat of a friend's car that was parked at Cicero and Madison. "I got out to smoke a cigarette, then the police rolled up. First they asked me what I was doing. They said 'did you know there's a high prostitution rate out here?' They asked me for ID and then searched the car," she said. The police officersone male and one femaleran the plate of the car and it came back as stolen. Morris was arrested.
During the entire process, Morris alleged that the male officer continually accused her of prostitution. "He's saying that 'all you gay people and drag queens do is come out here all the time and want to prostitute. Why don't you stay your asses at home?' He's calling me a faggot and I'm thinking what does that mean? Does that make me different because I'm gay?"
Morris was diagnosed as HIV-positive. She had been receiving therapy at the Howard Brown Health Center and was finally referred to Wade and the TransLife center via the City of Chicago's Central Referral Systemdesigned to provide supportive housing for chronically homeless youth. She met Wade in June of 2013.
"A lot of case workers know about the CRS list," Wade explained. "So they help get people on it. Keyshia had been running and trying to make sense of what was going on in the world."
Wade said that they immediately noticed that Morris had power, passion and energy. "When she came to the TransLife center, she threw herself into trying to build on her strength and resiliency. She knew where she wanted to go from day one."
Her eyes lit up and Morris nodded: "My passion is doing motivational speaking and talking to other people who don't know that you can still live and be out and be HIV-positive."
She is in training as an outreach worker at the Howard Area Community Center. "I was not handed everything," Morris said. "There's no one teaching me what kind of woman I should be. I'm one of those girls who came from being quiet, came from being pushed over, came from the streets. But I believe in being assertive-aggressive. Being passive gets you nowhere. I want to tell people that you can still be the best you can be. You can stand up and you have choices. I don't do it for fame or money but my heart is what's in it."
Wade and Morris are a part of a committee that is organizing a three-day summit in early May, hosted by Tracy Baim of Windy City Times. Kim Hunt of Affinity Community Services is summit director. The first day will be all for LGBTQ youth, hosted at Lurie Children's Hospital May 2. The other two days of the summit will be at other locations, including the final day for reporting results, held at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
"It focuses on homelessness," Morris explained "It's about having more housing for LGBT youth to go to."
"Our vision is that no LGBT young folks in Chicago should be on the streets," Wade added. "We need to ask how we are addressing the issue of homeless LGBTQ youth with both short- and long-term strategies, some that don't cost any money. This community is brilliant beyond measure. We have the resources and the capacity. We need to stand in solidarity with each other."
"This time we are giving young people a voice to speak," Morris smiled.
Windy City Times reached out to Karen Hawkinsa spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services regarding Morris's story about her treatment under foster care.
"While privacy laws prevent me from speaking specifically about any one child or family's case, I can generally say that we, at DCFS, find stories like this heartbreaking," Hawkins wrote in a statement. "Our caseworkers and investigators have dedicated their lives to child welfare to ensuring safe, loving, permanent homes for every child. One story like this is one too many, and we continue to do all we can to do right by the diverse communities of children and families we serve."
Hawkins is helping to coordinate DCFS participation in the May youth summit. Windy City Times will be announcing more details on the summit soon.