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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Where the Day Takes You


Recently I returned to San Francisco after a long absence.  It was my third time in the city, the first being an idyllic sojourn at the Fairmont on Nob Hill at age 14, when my mom and I accompanied my dad on a business trip. I remember being told with great politeness that the man who played the piano in the cocktail bar was very particular about who else touched it, and then being presented with another instrument (Steinway grand, natch!) in a disused conference room with the invitation to enjoy it for the rest of my stay.

My second visit was in 1991 with my then-roommate Glenn.  In our early 20s, we were traveling on a budget and relied on the Hotel/Motel Red Book  for our choice of accommodations sight-unseen in those pre-Trip Advisor days.

Our first hotel looked as if it survived the Great Fire of 1906, but just barely.  If there was an actual fire, other guests on the floor were instructed by a large sticker to break the painted-over glass in the door to our room to access the fire escape.  We decided to leave before one of them decided to try.

Our next place of residence, the Leland, was -- unknown to us until we had arrived -- not exactly a tourist hotspot either. Most of its guests were either more permanent, or just there for an hour or so.  We stuck it out for our few remaining days in town, but the Fairmont it was not, and I was not surprised to learn that it suffered a major fire a few years later, displacing 60 people who called it home.

Polk Street was at that time in its last throes as a former gay mecca that pre-dated the Castro.  By the 1990s, in a city decimated by AIDS, the once-vibrant scene was pretty downbeat. We were largely surrounded by sex workers and those whom they attracted, as well as many young people who were -- as the Brits say -- "living rough" on the streets of the Tenderloin.  Both were surprisingly engaging and we had a number of exchanges, some humorous, some heartbreaking.  At a luncheonette, for example, I learned that you could eat three-quarters of a meal before pretending to find glass in it and walking out in a manufactured huff.

Everybody had a story: Going to be an actor, going back to school, just here 'til I turn 18. They accepted our presence without question; thrown -- if anything -- by the fact that we were neither buying nor selling, and really only interested in conversation. By and large, they took it in stride.  I -- on the other hand -- had my world rocked. I grew up in the woods in what I now understand to be a life of great privilege compared to how most of the world lives.  We understood such things as poverty mainly in the abstract: we knew that it was important to care for those who had less than you, but we rarely encountered the kind of gritty reality in which my friend and I found ourselves.

The following year saw the release of Where the Day Takes You, a film portraying the lives of a group of young people on the streets of Los Angeles.  It marked the feature debut of Will Smith (as a double amputee, no less), but also featured such names as Dermot Mulroney, Ricki Lake, Kyle McLaughlan and David Arquette which would later become household words.  Their daily routines of trying to score food, money, drugs, a place to sleep, were starkly similar to what we witnessed first hand in the Tenderloin, and both have haunted me ever since. Below is a montage of scenes from the film, set to "Precious Pain" one of several songs by Melissa Etheridge that appear in the soundtrack.

"Empty and cold, but it keeps me alive
I gave it my soul, so that I could survive
Keeping me safe in these chains, precious pain"


There are approximately half a million homeless young people in the United States, with just 4,000 shelter beds designated for this age group.  Depending on whom you ask, between 20-40% of them identify as LGBT (compared to 10% of the general population).  These young people are twice as likely as their straight/cisgender peers to have experienced sexual victimization (60% vs 30%) and seven times more likely to experience sexual violence, and most have either been thrown out of their homes or fled for their own safety.  A crushing 62% of them commit suicide.*  In the movie, Lil-J, portrayed by Balthazar Getty, resists and then ultimately resorts to sex work, only to be traumatized by a flashback of being molested by an uncle.  Young people who experience gender variance are at particular risk, frequently being denied access to shelters or encountering violence.

Signs at San Francisco Shine
Signs at San Francisco Shine 2009
PHOTO CREDIT: LarryBobSF flickr.com/larrybob
Some Rights Reserved
Used under Creative Commons License.
In a country that views the homeless as "a problem" and will spend money to install spikes in the sidewalk so they can't find a place to rest instead of offering them food, shelter or counseling, runaway/throwaway LGBT youth and young adults are near the bottom of an already-low pile.  Struggling young mothers and their children garner much of the limited sympathy the public can muster.

Fortunately, at least in some places, this unique need is being met in specific and appropriate ways:
  • The Church of St. Luke in the Fields is located just off Christopher Street in New York's West Village, where many young people (a large number of them either homeless or housing-insecure) gather every weekend.  The congregation responded by creating an event each Saturday night known simply as "the church" which provides a meal, programming, and access to counselors and doctors.  The church would like to expand the mission to a 24/7 drop-in center but is meeting stiff resistance from some of its neighbors.  
  • Another youth center which intentionally engages LGBT youth (although not exclusively) is The Door, which provides a host of counseling, education, and social opportunities in a positive, affirming environment.
  • The Hetrick-Martin Institute, which helped open the Harvey Milk High School in 1985 as a place of refuge for LGBT students to learn in safety, recently added an after-school drop-in center in Newark.
  • In addition, the Ali Forney Center operates a network of shelters and temporary residences, while providing access to health care and counseling. Residents are encouraged to continue their education and secure employment, with the goal of preparing them for an independent and stable future.  Their "get help" page lists resources in many other states.  Several of their facilities were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. 

Contributions and other support for all of these projects are always welcomed, and -- in some cases -- sorely needed.

I am mystified and saddened that parents could reject their own offspring on the basis of something as innate as attractional orientation or gender identity, but -- given what our society prioritizes and glorifies -- I suppose I shouldn't be.  In a place where a person can say gays deserve death by stoning and still get elected to statewide office, there are clearly people who agree.  It is equally sad, but unsurprising, that there appears to be a strong correlation between identification as "strongly religious" and rejecting your kids.

In the years since I last visited, the Tenderloin has -- like Times Square -- been sanitized and gentrified.  The coffee shop where we conversed with those young survivors is now part of a trendy chain, and there was scarce evidence of the area's former population.  However, they're still around. A recent article estimated there are 1,000 teens and young adults squatting in abandoned buildings, couch-surfing, or camping in the city's parks.  The Homeless Youth Alliance focuses its efforts on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, and acknowledges that the city has long been a mecca for young people seeking an escape.

I will go to bed tonight in a house my great-grandfather built, doubly grateful for a family who has accepted me as I am.  I pray for those who are not so fortunate.

NOTE: Statistics from a 2009 survey by the National Coalition for the Homeless

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