Gay and homeless: In plain sight, a largely hidden population
The city hipsters sipping expensive coffee and chatting on cellphones did not give a second look at the two young men cutting across a Hollywood courtyard on their way to bed down in a nearby park.
AJ, 23, and his boyfriend, Alex, 21, hide their blankets and duffel bags in bushes. They shower every morning at a drop-in center and pick out outfits from a closet full of used yet youthful attire.
“If I could be invisible, I would,” AJ said. “I feel ashamed to admit that I’m homeless.”
Every year, hundreds of gay youths end up alone on the streets of Los Angeles County, where they make up a disproportionate share of the at least 4,200 people under 25 who are homeless on any given day.
A recent study found that 40% of the homeless youths in Hollywood, a gathering spot for these young people, identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure of their sexual orientation. Five percent say they are transgender.
But it is a largely hidden population, said Simon Costello, who manages the drop-in center frequented by AJ and Alex.
“They haven’t been on the streets for years and years,” he said, “so they don’t look bad.”
Blending in is part of how AJ and Alex survive on the streets. Police officers are quick to issue tickets, and the streets are full of predators.
In recent weeks, a Times reporter and a photographer spent time with several gay homeless men in their early 20s.
The men agreed to speak openly about their lives, including illegal drug use and other criminal activity, on the condition that their full names not be used. Using public records and other sources, The Times was able to independently verify some details they shared about their family histories.
Gay and transgender youths become homeless for the same reasons as others their age. Many come from families with a history of abuse, neglect, addiction, incarceration or mental illness. But they say their sexual or gender identity often plays a role in the breakdown of their families.
“Queer” was among the more polite names Christopher was called while growing up, before he even knew what the barbs meant.
A slight 22-year-old with a shock of red hair, he said he stood out in his large Latino family in Pacoima, a place he calls “the ghetto of the Valley.”
“My cousins were gangbangers,” he said. “They’re talking about girls and parties … and I knew in middle school that I liked boys and wanted to hold their hands.”
At school, classmates would pelt him with food and milk cartons. To dull the hurt, he turned to alcohol and drugs. He stole money from his grandmother, swallowed his brother’s medication and cut himself with razors.
When he turned 18, he said, his grandmother kicked him out of the family home. She filed a restraining order against him in court.
“I been hearing about my peers committing suicide because of the teasing and bullying … and of course I understand,” he said, staring at a web of scars on his left forearm. “But then I go, ‘How come that’s not my story? Why didn’t you kill yourself? How did you make it through all that?’”
Christopher said that on his first night without a roof over his head, he shared a drink with two men who took turns raping a girl who had passed out on the side of a highway.
Soon he was selling his body on Santa Monica Boulevard to support a methamphetamine habit. He and his friends used the drug to stay awake, he said, so they would not get jumped. They shared a room and a soiled mattress in an abandoned building. “No plumbing, no electricity,” Christopher said.
AJ was just 16 when his Vietnamese immigrant father told him to get out of his house, unable to accept his admission that he was gay. Any effeminate gesture, AJ said, would drive his father to beat him.
For a time, AJ moved between the homes of friends and relatives in California and Colorado while he worked a succession of jobs. Some paid well enough for him to get his own apartment. But, he said ruefully, “It has been hard to sustain my sobriety.”
When he was fired from his last job in July, he had no place to go but the streets.
He met Alex at the drop-in center operated by the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. Tired of his father’s drunken rages, Alex left his home in El Paso in June and caught a train to Los Angeles with a friend. He thought there would be more opportunities here. After two weeks, his backpack was stolen along with the only possessions he had with him. He still hasn’t found work.
AJ and Alex bonded quickly. Both lost their mothers to drug overdoses and struggled to be accepted by their fathers.
On a recent night, the couple headed to a park, one of their favorite spots to while away time during the hours the drop-in center is closed. The restrooms are open late. Friendly neighbors stop to chat while walking their dogs; once, they ordered pizza for them.
They spread a sleeping bag on the lawn, then pulled out a bottle of cheap gin, which they mixed with diet Mountain Dew. They said they collected store gift cards, which are offered by many institutions as incentives to attend therapy sessions, then traded them in for cash to buy the beverages.
“We’re not alcoholics,” Alex said. But sometimes their life is difficult, he said, “and we have to numb it down.”
Soon they were singing along to songs stored on a cellphone with no service. As they neared the end of the bottle, AJ became by turns angry and despondent. All he could think about was getting high, but he did not have the cash to buy crystal meth.
“Let’s go,” he told Alex. “I want to prostitute myself.”
Alex tried to distract him with a bite of hamburger, but AJ pushed it away and groaned.
Finally, they crawled underneath some bushes to go to sleep. As they curled up in each other’s arms, cheerful chatter wafted over them from a late-night picnic, punctuated by the thwacks of tennis rackets hitting a ball on an illuminated court.
For some gay youths alienated from their families, the foster care system provides sanctuary. But too often, said Costello, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s associate director for children, youth and family services, they bounce between foster parents and group homes until they turn 18. Once emancipated, they have nowhere to go.
Jonathan, a gregarious 21-year-old with a marijuana leaf tattoo on his arm, said he had more than 20 placements between the time he was removed from his parents’ home at 5 and aged out of foster care three years ago.
“I had anger management issues,” he said.
When he was 9, Jonathan said, one of his foster mothers left him alone with two men who raped him.
“I used to hate gay people because of what happened to me,” he said.
But he recently told his best friend that he is bisexual. They were in a cell waiting to see a judge about a pair of tickets they’d been issued for riding a train without paying.
Jonathan said he has lost track of the number of times he has been arrested. He hangs out in skateboard parks and often sleeps on a rooftop, where he feels safe.
The first thing he does when he wakes up is reach for a marijuana pipe. Staring through the pungent haze from his spot on the pavement early one morning, he had a commanding view of the Hollywood Hills.
“You see those houses on the hill?” he said. “I’m a have one of those one day.”
Getting off the streets is a challenge for many of these young people. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center is one of several Hollywood organizations that assist homeless youths. Among them, there are only about 200 beds available.
Christopher credits the center — and the kindness of a teacher who took him into her home for a time when he was being bullied — with keeping him alive.
But it has not been easy. Soon after he was admitted to a transitional living program operated by the center, he was kicked out for getting into a fight with his boyfriend. Months later, Christopher asked the center for another chance.
“I was so tired … so broken and hopeless,” he said. “I was desperate for something different.”
With their help, he completed a rehab program, passed the high school equivalency test and moved into a sober-living home. He now works part time dispensing frozen yogurt and has a tiny apartment of his own.
“I’m a part of society,” he said. “I couldn’t be any happier.”
Jonathan says he isn’t sure that he wants to go into transitional housing — too many rules. But he has plans. He would like to go to college, maybe become a doctor or a lawyer so he can help others like himself.
“Things are going to work out,” he said. “Remember this face.”
AJ has promised Alex he will stop doing crystal meth. They are looking for work, but are finding it difficult without an address.
AJ was diagnosed with depression and applied for a bed at a shelter operated by a mental health center. But when two beds became available one morning, the staff had no way to reach him. By the time he checked in with the center that afternoon, the spots had been snapped up.
A few days later, there was good news. Another bed was available. AJ, worried that Alex could not cope alone on the streets, made his boyfriend take the bed. They held hands on the bus and kissed goodnight outside the metal gates.
To be close to Alex, AJ started sleeping under a nearby bridge. There were rats and piles of trash. He spread cardboard on the ground before putting down a blanket. His last $2 went to buy a bottle of vodka. When that was gone, he grabbed another bottle from a supermarket shelf and sprinted out the door.
He tried to bum a cigarette off a passerby, but the man ignored him. Furious, AJ threw down the backpack in which he had stuffed the bottle, then burst into tears as vodka seeped onto the pavement.
Spending a night apart from Alex, “it seems so small,” he said later. “But when you have nothing but each other, it’s huge.”
Photographer Christina House and Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.