In the second half of my interview with Jaytee Starr, I asked Jaytee whether he ever thought he’d be homeless and living in the shelter system. He replied that he realized he might become homeless when he had to tell his dad about his sexuality.
Like many LGBTQ youths in the NYC shelter system, Jaytee can no longer draw on family support because his father disowned him once he came out as being gay. There are twice as many LGBTQ young people in the homeless shelter system than there are in the general population. Harassment in the shelter system by heterosexual co-habitants or shelter workers, alarmingly high suicide rates (62%, compared to an also alarmingly high rate of 29% among heterosexual homeless youth), and sexual violence are just some of the issues LGBTQ youth face in addition to the other traumas of homelessness.
MN: Did you ever imagine you’d become homeless?
When it came to the point I had to tell my dad about my sexuality, I thought homelessness might be a possibility.
MN: Can you tell me the story of how you ended up homeless?
When I was 17 years old, I moved away to college. Away from my parents and their conservative community I was able to actually tell people that I was gay. People were accepting and after a year of being “out” in college, going back home and into the closet again for the summer was absolute torture. I read a lot about other people coming out to their parents and I heard so many encouraging stories… I thought it would be the same for me. My parents said they loved me unconditionally.
My dad flipped out and we fought almost daily after that until I was forced to leave. My mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, so I had no support there either. Baton Rouge, Louisiana was never accepting of me so I moved down to New Orleans… Then suddenly a hurricane hit and the levees broke. I stayed with friends and took any job I could. Eventually I was able to get back in school, but finances stopped me
from finishing, because I lost my job and my college financial aid.
I lived in an art commune for a little while, and then in 2008 Hurricane Gustov hit AND the economy crashed. I lost everything again.
At that point I thought I could either stay in New Orleans just to start over and save up to move to New York, or just drive up and start over in New York. So I packed what I could into the car and headed North.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been shelter hopping since then. The only other thing I can think to bring up is my love life. People don’t usually think about it, but having a relationship as a homeless person is very difficult. I’ve heard people say that homeless people shouldn’t date because they have more important things to worry about. If you work day in and day out on getting money and housing, and you get denied over and over again… It’s very easy to fall into despair. I agree that homeless people should probably not eat out all the time and buy expensive presents for their partner, but the love and support that can come with a good relationship is invaluable.
I have been with my partner for 2 years, and he is the light in my life. He comes from a well-to-do family in Long Island, and still lives with them and is supported by them. I told him in the beginning that I was homeless, but he understands that this is temporary and I am working toward my independence. We have not told his parents, and we don’t plan to. So far they like me. They had me over for Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, and I’ve met some of the extended family. They are slightly traditional Chinese, and also pretty concerned with status and image. That’s the bit that worries me. When they ask me where I live I tell them I live with a friend in Harlem.
MN: Did you consider yourself to be homeless when you were moving around between cities in Louisiana, and living on the art commune? Or only now?
I officially became ‘homeless’ when I lost my last apartment in New Orleans. I thought I had only one semester until I graduated, so I lived on friends’ couches, and in friends’ basements, and short-term rentals and moved around a lot. Then I found out I no longer qualified for financial aid because of a logistical issue over the number of hours I had previously attempted. So I couldn’t afford to stay at college. That’s when I officially became homeless.
MN: What other sorts of reasons for homelessness do you see or hear about at your shelter or among people you know?
Most commonly I hear about people just like me who told their parents that they were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered and they ended up on the street. Because I have only been involved with LGBT youth programs, I have only associated with other LGBT youths. I turn 25 in September and therefore I will no longer be a “youth.” I am a little afraid because if I don’t have something set up for myself by then I will have to acclimate to an entirely different system and find all new resources.
Back to other people though, transgender people a very common in the homeless community. Parents tend to set up their kid’s life in their mind. When the kids don’t turn out the way they want, many react harshly. When your precious son comes to you and says he doesn’t feel comfortable is his body and feels that he is a she and wants to transition… Well, that just blows a fuse in the minds of some.
MN: In all your time in the shelter, do you have times when you feel “at home?”
No. The lack of independence, control, and personal space that I had in my own apartments in the past… This will never feel like the home I need.
MN: How do you feel when people who are living in RVs, or vans, or tents, or camping at the beach, call themselves homeless? I mean people
who might be moving around all the time, wandering. Do you think they are homeless too?
RV’s are a little cushier than most of the alternatives, but if you don’t have electricity or water your conditions are still below what is commonly acceptable. Referring to my previous statements, I would never say “You have an RV so you don’t need any help. Come back when you’re on the side walk.” It’s really a case-by-case assessment.
As for me, well, a house or apartment is required for me to consider a place “home.” I have some social hang ups and groups make me really anxious so I avoid them. I just need control. I hate that so much of my future is in the hands of people who just have to say yes to make it so… And yet they don’t.
MN: How likely do you think it is that you’ll find a home?
I think I’m on the cusp of being sort of homed right now. The Door (a youth development services organization in NYC) has recently opened an apartment building called The Lee, which offers studio apartments to young people who pay rent according to what they can afford. I hope to find an apartment in this transitional housing program. My end housing goal is to be part of a program with Fountain House. This agency for adults with disabilities runs a housing program where it acts as a guarantor for up to $1050 of a security deposit; this helps homeless people find their own apartment in the city. This is not a youth services program, so if I get in it will be the first non-youth program I’ve participated in.
MN: What do you see in your financial future?
As I mentioned, I’ve applied for the Disability Allowance. If I get it, I should get back pay to a year before I first applied, in May 2010.
MN: Was the paperwork difficult?
There was a lot of it. But I’ve been here since in New York since January 2009 and so I have a large service support network. For example, The Door, and New Alternatives - an LGBTQ agency. The Trinity shelter has social services as well, they have a lawyer. All these places helped with the paperwork. There were over 350 pages of documents to renew with my case, including my documented work and psychiatric history.
MN: If your disability allowance comes through, what will you do with the money?
An organization called VESID (Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities) paid for me to go to esthetic school here in nyc, and that I’ve now finished that program I’m just waiting to pass my final exam. Then I’ll be a qualified Esthetician. If I get back pay I’d like to put that towards starting up a esthetic business, buying equipment such as a micro-current machine for anti-aging treatments, and ultimately, ensuring I can set up a business where I can work for myself.
I’d like to also work towards becoming a youtube make-up tutorial celebrity. That way I can get myself a following and then launch myself, and my business, as a make-up professional. By the time I’m 35 – 40 I’d like to have my own cosmetic line.
MN: Please share any other thoughts you have about what would help you to get out of the shelter system.
I’m pretty much doing everything I can. Right now I have to worry about all my bills that are coming up. I make money any way I can. For example, I sold my Magic card set for a couple hundred dollars, and have been selling a limited edition make-up artistry book that is in high demand in the U.S. but no longer in print. Those have been some supplemental incomes. But when I don’t have to work my hustle I can focus on my long-term goals. It’s just that right now everything is a short-term goal.
My long-term career goals are to finish the arts degree I began at college, (I’d like to complete the arts associates degree at La Guardia Community College and then attend FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) for my Bachelor in for cosmetic and fragrance marketing), and then start my own business.
As for the state of the shelter system – well, I feel like there isn’t enough education out there about what services are available to different people. I’ve learned which services to use, but it’s taken me two and a half years. Because there are a lot of services available, it’s just that they’re often targeted at specific groups. I would love to develop some sort of online database, where you could plug in your information and you get a list of all of the services that are available to you. It would change a fix of the problems homeless people have about access to information.
What I’m focusing on right now, though, is just getting an apartment. My dream is to have a two bedroom apartment, so that I can live with my partner, who offers the most stable relationship I’ve ever had in my life… With him, I can finally have a home.