LOS ANGELES ― On her first night without a home, Kaityanna Phillips cried herself to sleep on a sidewalk in front of a Shell gas station in north Hollywood.
She had arrived in Los Angeles on a one-way ticket from Texarkana, Texas, earlier that day. From the bus station in the heart of downtown L.A., she walked north for miles. At the edge of Hollywood, she forced herself to stop. Her feet were swollen. Her phone was dead. She was hungry and exhausted. Phillips was 20 years old and completely alone.
Phillips had started walking with one destination in sight ― the Los Angeles LGBT Youth Center. When she entered the building the next day and admired its rainbow mural, she instantly realized: “This is the only place for me here.”
The center is a haven for the LGBTQ youth who make up a disproportionate number of the young people experiencing homelessness in L.A. The center helps them confront challenges similar to those many other people in the streets face. Directors at the organization report that many of the youth experience depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns. They describe repeated rapes, assaults and other abuse.
But the center also helps them navigate an additional battle ― one for their own identity. While struggling to find stability, queer youth on the street are also struggling to carve out their own place in life. And as they fight to stay alive and stay true to themselves, the issues facing LGBTQ youth are quickly becoming one of the most complicated challenges in fighting homelessness in Los Angeles.
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Phillips came to California in hopes of finding something better. Her community in Texas didn’t accept or understand her gender identity, and she didn’t feel safe or wanted in her hometown. So at the age of 20, though she had never left home before, Phillips left Texas for the promise of a better life in Los Angeles.
Three years after her move, she laughs recalling that first night on the street. “I thought I was going to die. For real, I thought that was it,” she said. “‘Lay me down, I’m gonna die, it’s over.’ And that was just the first night.”
Since then, she’s had more than a dozen “addresses” in tents on the sidewalks of Hollywood. The center remains the closest thing she has to a home.
“People see trans people as a disgrace,” Phillips said, leaning back in her chair and tugging down on her bright pink shirt. “Even in the LGBT community. No one wants to talk about us. No one wants to help us. So when you walk in the center, and you’re their first priority... you never want to leave.”
Providing the complex and personalized care that young people like Phillips need is a large and difficult job.
There is little research into the mental health of LGBTQ youth, especially in the scope of homelessness studies, and none specifically focused on trans and nonbinary youth. But the few existing studies indicate that queer people end up on the street in disproportionate numbers. LGBTQ youth account for 40 percent of young people on the street nationwide, according to the Center for American Progress. The same study has found that while about 20 percent of U.S. teens in general are queer, 40 percent of homeless U.S. teens are queer. There is no precise data for the number of LGBTQ youth living on the streets of L.A.
These trends are connected to the wide range of challenges that young LGBTQ people face. Young queer people are 25 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted and twice as likely to run away from foster and group homes, the Center for American Progress found. Transgender people have an unemployment rate three times higher than the average American, research from GLAAD shows.
Faced with trauma, acute needs and questions about their gender identities, homeless LGBTQ youth need access to both mental and physical health care to make it through. They need food, showers and a safe place to rest. Many require education in the medical basics of affirming their gender identities. And many face tremendous fear, despite desperately wanting to take the next step.
Phillips is currently transitioning from male to female with the help of the center. She’s scheduled to undergo gender affirmation surgery in six months. The center has connected her with doctors, helped her secure proper prescriptions and enrolled her in therapy to guide her through the process, and is paying for the entire process.
But while Phillips is desperate for the surgery to take place, the transition is difficult to manage while living in a tent on an L.A. street.
Even in the months leading up to the procedure, the challenges have been apparent. The most valuable item in Phillips’ tent is a stack of paper ― her prescriptions for estrogen and spironolactone, an anti-androgen. She tries to have them on her at all times, but has struggled nonetheless to keep her medications safe and up to date. Staying on top of the medication is vital: Missing even a day can result in violent mood swings and depression.
The conditions in her tent raise additional concerns about the months ahead. Many people who undergo this kind of affirmation surgery do it in two stages — first the breast enhancement, then the vaginoplasty, or vice versa. Phillips plans to do it all at once. The healing process takes three months, with risks ranging from discomfort to bleeding that could require hospitalization.
Phillips’ tent is shaded in the afternoons, but at noon it takes the full brunt of the blazing sun. Over the summer, when temperatures rose into the triple digits, simply sitting up became an exhausting task.
Despite the challenges, Phillips hardly appears concerned about the surgery, or what comes next. In fact, she couldn’t be more excited. “I’ve always been a woman,” she said. “This is who I am. I can’t wait for this any longer.”
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The unique role of the LGBT Youth Center lies in providing personalized care for queer youth, even when they don’t have a home or a job. For homeless LGBTQ youth, the issue isn’t necessarily a lack of access to assistance — it’s a lack of the proper assistance.
“The other shelters, they can’t help me. This is the only place that can help,” said Justin, whose last name is being withheld to protect their safety. “I wouldn’t stay anywhere else, even if there was another shelter. I’d rather stay on the street outside the center, and at least eat there and shower there and have somewhere to go.”
The skin above Justin’s eyebrows is emblazoned with black ink. The name of Justin’s grandmother slants in Arabic script above the left; the English word “identity” arches over the right.
“I’ve had to fight for this one all my life,” Justin said, rubbing a thumb across the curling ink that spells out I-D-E. “It’s the most important thing, I think, for me. I’ve given up everything for this.”
Justin is nonbinary, a person who doesn’t identify as solely female or male. Like many nonbinary youth, Justin prefers the pronouns “they” and “them” rather than “he” and “him” or “she” and “her.” A tattoo on the back of Justin’s left hand reflects this identity in black and red ink — a face with flowing hair and painted lips on one side, and a stubbled, chiseled male jawline on the other.
Justin became homeless shortly after graduating high school in Chicago in 2013. On their first night on the streets, they wandered for hours before crawling under a bush outside a parking garage. Rats and squirrels scuffled through the leaves around their head.
“You don’t understand how scary it is until you’re living it,” Justin said. “I think most people think they can handle it, they can handle living like that, but once you’re there... it’s a different level of being scared. It changes you.”
Justin started out in a tent with a few other nonbinary youth, just a few blocks south of the center. But at night, the other youth in the tent often used drugs. Inches away, Justin watched, fear churning in their stomach. After a week of watching their friends soothe themselves to sleep with drugs, eyes glassy and faces blank, Justin left.
The center helped Justin remain grounded. They slept on the streets near the building, eating every meal and spending every day in its computer lab and lounge. Eventually, a spot opened up for Justin in a bed. But even after leaving the center for their own apartment, Justin remains close by.
Despite the role the center plays in the lives of many LGBTQ youth, it can’t reach every young homeless person in Los Angeles. The organization currently struggles with a waitlist of over a year for new people.
Organizers in the center are hopeful about the addition of the Anita May Rosenstein Campus, scheduled to open in Hollywood in early 2019. The campus is expected to add 100 bed spaces for LGBTQ youth, doubling the total resources. But the center will remain localized in the Hollywood area, limiting access for any youth who live on the outer edges of the sprawling Los Angeles metropolitan area. Ample resources, it seems, won’t be forthcoming any time soon.
Three years after they came to Los Angeles, life is looking up for Justin. With a job at a hip clothing store and a six-month lease in an apartment shared with friends, they feel as if homelessness could be in the past.
In many ways, Justin is a success story. They no longer live on the streets. Their life is beginning to return to “normal.” Yet the fear of instability never leaves.
“I’m terrified that at any moment, it could just go away again,” they said.
For Phillips, the upcoming surgery is her only focus. “I’m getting my procedure. I’m getting my dream job,” she said. “Things will be better. I know it.”
This story is part of the series Homeless on the Streets of L.A., a four-month investigation by students at USC Annenberg’s Reporting on the Homeless class. The project, overseen by veteran journalists Mary Murphy and Sandy Tolan, continues through early 2019. Contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.