Weeks before Magnus turned 16, he worked up the courage to tell his mom that he is gay.
She took the news well, but when his father found out weeks later, he responded with disgust, yelling, “You’re not gay! Get the fuck out of here.”
“It was a hard time to begin with for my family, and with me coming out on top of it, it just made my dad go over the top,” says Magnus, who asked that his last name not be published to protect his privacy. “He got really upset, and he was like, ‘Get the fuck out!’ I was just like, ‘Screw you, this is who I am.’ So I left.”
Magnus, who grew up in Madison, spent the next several months homeless, bouncing from couch to couch, being let in by his friends’ parents who either understood or didn’t have the heart to turn him away.
While Magnus no longer had to worry about his dad, living away from home posed different problems. The stress and anxiety left no time or energy for studying.
“Around that time my grades dropped, and I stopped going to school altogether,” says Magnus. “I was really conscious that I wasn’t doing the best. It was around that time that I started with alcohol and drug abuse, trying to cope with everything.”
Instead of finishing high school and planning his future, Magnus was left wondering where things went wrong and how he ended up homeless just because of his sexual identity. Although he felt completely alone, Magnus wasn’t an anomaly.
Homelessness is growing in both Madison and around the country. Data indicates that it disproportionately affects youth who are LGBTQ+, an acronym for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, with a “plus” added for those who are questioning or don’t quite match any of those identities.
According to a June 2015 report by the Williams Institute, “Serving Our Youth 2015: The Needs and Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth Experiencing Homelessness,” roughly 20% of youth using homeless services identify as gay or lesbian, 7% as bisexual and 2% as questioning their sexuality. Yet, LGBTQ+ youth make up only 7% to 8% of the United States population.
June Paul, a doctoral student with UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, says the statistics aren’t surprising.
“I think that a lot of youth who end up on the streets either overtly came out and were displaced because their parents were not accepting, or they feel like they can find a community of people that understand them better, so they take the chance by running,” says Paul.
Unlike adults, who can go to a handful of emergency shelters, minors in Madison have had no place to go (unless they are accompanied by a guardian). Until now. Briarpatch Youth Services opened Dane County’s first overnight youth shelter in October 2015. While the shelter aims to help a variety of youth, none may be more vulnerable than those who are LGBTQ+.
To fully understand the extent of homelessness in Dane County, who is suffering and who is at risk, extensive data is needed. Unfortunately, detailed and consistent local data is unavailable.
The federal government requires runaway and homeless youth agencies to collect administrative data on LGBTQ+ identification, but they don’t require most other human service programs, like Child Protective Services, to do the same, leaving it up to the states to decide what data is important.
Wisconsin, then, leaves it up to counties to decide what data to collect, says Paul, whose dissertation is on LGBTQ+ foster youth. “In this state, the vast majority of counties still don’t collect this information,” Paul says.
Dane County does not require agencies — apart from ones mandated by the federal government — to collect data on LGBTQ+ identity.
What the county does know is that 10.9% of all seventh- to 12th-graders in Dane County identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual or are questioning their sexual orientation. Data from the county’s high schools show that 1.5% of teens identify as transgender.
Jani Koester is a resource teacher and program staffer for the Madison school district’s homeless services program, Transition Education Program, or TEP. She says that as of March 1, the district had identified 1,262 students in 4K through 12th grade who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. Of those, 81 were “unaccompanied,” meaning they were homeless without being with a parent or guardian. The count will continue through the end of the school year. Last year, the final tally was 1,414.
“We are way ahead of where we were last year, so whether that trend continues or not, our chart looks steep,” says Koester. “What I can say is that it hasn’t slowed down. It feels like there are more, the numbers tell us there are more, and because there are more there’s always going to be more of everything else.”
Magnus usually had a couch to crash on at his friends’ homes, but having a place to sleep and feeling welcome were two different things.
“My friends’ parents, they looked out for me, gave me a bed to sleep in, but I knew my being there was straining their relationship with their kids, and I always felt like I was a burden in their home,” Magnus says. “I felt very secluded and alone in those times.”
When he felt like he’d worn out his welcome, Magnus would simply stay out all night. “There were points in time where I wouldn’t sleep for a couple of days because I had nowhere to go.”
One night, after driving around with friends, Magnus told them he had nowhere to sleep. “I was in a car with three or four people, and they were just like, ‘you don’t have a place to go, I’m not going to leave you,’ so we drove around for the whole night,” Magnus says.
Thai Tomlinson (right) credits Blythe Gamble (left) and her daughter, Soulja (center), with saving her from being homeless. The three stand inside Briarpatch’s new youth emergency shelter, which opened last year.
Thai Tomlinson, a senior at Shabazz City High School, says Magnus is not alone. Some nights, her Facebook page is filled with posts of friends looking for a place to crash.
“I see at least a couple of people on Facebook who are just posting statuses every single night that are like, ‘Is there anybody’s house I can stay at? My mom’s crazy, I can’t be here right now,’” Tomlinson says.
Tomlinson was almost in a similar spot. After coming out to her mom as a sophomore in high school, the two began arguing relentlessly until she realized she needed to get out.
“Especially on nights where my mom and I started fighting and I didn’t want to stay there,” she says. “I would have had to skip out on school to go to my [extended] family who lived out of town, just because my mom and I couldn’t get along.”
Thankfully for her there was Blythe Gamble and her daughter, Soulja Gamble, Tomlinson’s girlfriend, who took her in.
Since Briarpatch Youth Services opened its doors in 1971, it has been trying to address the lack of services for Dane County’s at-risk minors.
The organization has long provided counseling, parental support and other services. But it wasn’t until Oct. 1 that the organization raised enough money to open the county’s first emergency overnight shelter for minors.
Cedric Johnson, the development and communications director at Briarpatch, says opening this shelter is a day that he has been waiting for.
“The need for runaway youths and homeless programs has increased over time,” Johnson says. “Within the first couple of hours of the shelter being open, we had a placement.” As of the end of January, 27 youths had used the shelter for a total of 114 nights.
Briarpatch’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Program provides an array of services to Madison’s most vulnerable youth, including temporary shelter, one-on-one counseling, family counseling, case management and a 24-hour help line.
It was Briarpatch that helped Blythe and Tomlinson’s mom come to an agreement, allowing Tomlinson to legally move in with Blythe and Soulja.
Briarpath’s new building sits a few blocks from the Alliant Energy Center on Rimrock Road. The organization moved into the space in March 2014 after realizing the central, downtown location couldn’t meet its long-term needs and goals. The new building boasts a modern touch, with big windows, exposed brick and chestnut siding.
Inside, down a long, narrow hall, is the door to Madison’s first overnight youth shelter.
Youth can stay at the shelter for up to 28 days. The shelter, which has four rooms with two beds each, can accommodate eight people at any given time. While the bedroom walls are bare, each bed has a homemade quilt made by area churches that teens can take home with them once their shelter stay is over.
The shelter opens up to a large kitchen and community room, complete with overstuffed black leather couches, stainless-steel appliances and a chore sheet, with daily tasks — including sweeping floors, washing dishes and cooking dinner — assigned to everyone staying there.
If the teens don’t know how to cook or do laundry, staff members show them how, teaching them life skills.
The communal room includes board games, Netflix and a computer with Internet. Teens that stay in the shelter also have full access to the other services Briarpatch provides.
For youth who don’t have the support to make it to Briarpatch on their own, the organization’s Street Outreach teams meet them where they’re at.
Robin Sereno, the street outreach specialist for Briarpatch, says gaining trust is often the toughest part of the job. Every day for the last year she has scoured the city looking for kids with nowhere to go. She searches secluded encampments, railroad tracks and State Street. And she chases down tips from co-workers, previously homeless kids she helped and the chronically homeless.
“They’re really hard to help because they’re afraid,” Sereno says. “They don’t trust because they’ve been made to not trust.”
Sereno uses the relationships she’s built with Madison’s chronically homeless to vouch for her. Having that bridge can be the difference between getting teens help and letting them fall through the cracks.
Steve Starkey, executive director of OutReach, is thrilled to see the shelter up and running, especially since Briarpatch is operating it.
“Briarpatch Youth Services is great for the homeless teen work that they do, but especially for LGBTQ+ youth because there isn’t anybody else doing it,” he says. “Adults are vulnerable, the clients we see here are vulnerable, but teens, they’re not even the age of majority, they have no legal standing. They have nothing, they are impossibly vulnerable.”
As the stress and anxiety of being homeless began to overwhelm him, Magnus turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort.
“My addiction really started to go; I would be out every night, not be in contact with my family for weeks,” Magnus says. “My friends were my support, but they were egging my addiction on as well. They were the ones saying, ‘Let’s go get fucked up, let’s do something, let’s make you not feel bad.’ I still felt shitty, but I felt happy [even though] it was a fake happy.”
Koester of the Madison school district says these coping mechanisms are common among youth who lack a safe home and a support system. Homeless youth are prone to abusing drugs and alcohol. Others steal. Some survive by being exploited for sex. Many shut down emotionally. School attendance drops, grades fall, and mental health takes a huge hit.
“Homelessness in and of itself is a trauma, but homelessness isn’t typically a trauma by itself; usually there’s something that’s happened: domestic violence, eviction, loss of a job, argument about lifestyle,” she says. “Kids can probably handle one trauma, but then they lose their home, their relationships and their safety net. If the first trauma doesn’t affect them, the second one typically knocks them off of their feet.”
Lack of acceptance of sexual or gender identity is often the breaking point for many youth, Sereno says. “The biggest reason youth are ending up on the streets is because caregivers won’t accept sexual orientation or gender identity to where it becomes so overwhelming for them that it’s ‘if I don’t leave I’ll kill myself,’ and ‘I left so I’ll kill myself,’ leaving them in this completely hopeless situation either way,” she says.
Some face discrimination in other ways, for their race or a disability. For Paul, helping teens affirm their identity is key to their wellbeing.
“When you conceal who you are because you’re afraid, you become socially disconnected,” Paul says. “I know that as a queer person, having access to affirming services is really important. If you can’t disclose who you are, it’s really hard to get the help that you need.”
Even in a progressive city like Madison, there aren’t many support groups for LGBTQ+ youth. Briarpatch’s Teens Like Us program, a weekly drop-in group, is one of the few. Proud Theater is another. Magnus credits Proud Theater with getting his life back on track.
“They really helped me grow as a person, come out of my shell and just explore who I was,” says Magnus. “When I got there, everyone was so polite and kind, and I just got the best vibe that that was going to be my family now.”
Magnus is now taking classes to get his GED. He has a part-time job at Ella’s Deli and is hoping that with his high school diploma and a steady job he can get a place of his own soon.
He’s living back at home with his parents. While things are still strained with his father, they’re doing better. “We’ve had this unspoken rule between me and him where we don’t talk about certain things that we don’t want to talk to each other about, and we usually keep our feelings towards each other to ourselves, and we cooperate all right now.”
Cedric Johnson says Briarpatch’s new shelter took in a homeless youth just hours after opening on Oct. 1.
Between 30% and 40% of the youth Briarpatch works with identify as LGBTQ+, and Johnson hopes its services help bring stability to their lives.
It’s something that hits Johnson, who is gay, on a personal level. In high school in Rockford, Ill., Johnson also participated in an LGTBQ+ group, and he remembers those in the group who lacked the support at home he was lucky to have.
“I attended the group until graduation, and within that time there were a lot of kids who started to disappear,” says Johnson. “I knew their stories involved parents who said, ‘I’m going to kick you out,’ or ‘I’m going to run away because it’s not safe for me.’ When I first started working at Briarpatch I thought about those people and wondered where they are today. Are they even alive? This job is one way for me to honor those people and do some good.”
Doing good may be as simple as trying harder to ensure vulnerable teens feel accepted.
Paul co-facilitates Briarpatch’s Teens Like Us group, and while LGBTQ+ issues are being talked about more and more, she says there’s still a long way to go.
Something as simple as ensuring schools, businesses and public places have gender-neutral bathrooms could make a big difference in making sure people feel accepted, Paul says.
“If you have somebody who identifies as transgender and they don’t feel comfortable going into a bathroom that’s designated for males or females, are you prepared for that?” Paul asks.
Over the past few years, Madison’s high schools have made a point to add gender-neutral bathrooms for their students. East High School has a multi-stall bathroom that anyone can use regardless of gender identity, and Memorial, Shabazz, West and La Follette all have single-stall gender-neutral bathrooms. Yet only a few middle schools have gender-neutral options.
“If I had to go to the bathroom and I was transgender, where would I go? The male or the female?,” Paul adds. “You have to make that choice every time, and that over and over, not even so subtle message that there’s no place for you, that’s what a lot of the kids really struggle with.”
Beyond bathrooms, teens who have lost the support of their families and closest friends because of their gender or sexual identity need an outlet, a safe space to be themselves.
Blythe and Soulja provided that for Thai when she couldn’t turn to her mom, Magnus found Proud Theater, and Johnson continues to push Briarpatch to fill that void for other Madison LGTBQ+ teens.
While only a fraction of the work has been done to ensure Madison’s most vulnerable youth are safe, organizations like Briarpatch continue to bring homelessness out of the shadows.
“Youth homelessness in Madison is invisible,” Johnson says. “The more this becomes a topic and people become comfortable talking about it, it could really go a long way in opening the door for youth to reach out and get help.”