Youth Radio: Young, gay and homeless

Roy Lee Spearman Jones
Roy Lee Spearman Jones, 21, was homeless for five months during his senior year in high school in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Gay teens are more likely than their straight peers to be homeless. It can be a tough road.

An estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless teens are on the streets because of their sexual orientation. Some are kicked out by their parents; others feel like they can't be themselves if they stay at home. Roy Lee Spearman Jones tells the story of being out on his own in MPR's Youth Radio Series.

Staying in Minnesota

When my mom told me we were leaving for Omaha, Nebraska, I didn't want to go. It would have meant moving for the 17th time. I didn't want to leave Minnesota. I had become comfortable here and it was the first place in my life I felt accepted.

I told my friend Alex from high school what was going on and Alex's grandmother, Jeri Ezaki, said I could stay with them. Next thing I knew, I had a new family.

"Grandma Jeri" as I call her, lives three blocks from Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis. I started living with her when I was 15.

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Stopping by her house I asked her what she remembers about meeting me. Jeri says she first heard I was coming to stay when I was already on my way over.

"So what really just possessed you to bring this socially awkward, mentally unstable child into your house that you had never seen or heard of before?" I asked Grandma Jeri.

"A dangerous thing about being out homeless is there are people who mug you while you're sleeping."

"Because Alex vouched for you for one thing," she said. "And besides, you needed a place to stay and although we don't have much room in this house, we made room for you."

I slept in Jeri's basement and became a part of her family for four months.

But one day, I got a call from my mom in Omaha saying she was cutting off my health insurance. I didn't want my medical bills piling up on Grandma Jeri so I decided to go back to my mom in Omaha.

That was a mistake.

After I moved back in with my mom, everything went downhill. I was depressed. We were always fighting. I was in and out of the psych ward, trying to run away from home, and doing badly in school. Then in the last month of my junior year, I was raped by a close friend of mine, an older man that I had trusted and admired for some time. That's when Alex said "you're coming home."

When I moved back in with Grandma Jeri, she noticed a change.

"I think when I realized that you really knew who you were, [that] was when you were able to say on the phone to your mother, 'Mom, I'm gay, and that's not going to change,'" Jeri said. "I think that was a turning point for you to say that straight out to your mom."

My mom said she was sorry and when I hung up the phone Grandma Jeri gave me a hug.

Temporary home
For a few nights his senior year in high school, Jones tried sleeping behind the trash cans at his school, Avalon School in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

On my own

Eventually, I felt like I didn't want to be a burden on Grandma Jeri and I moved out. Then I got kicked out of the place I was staying. I bounced around to some shelters and friend's couches, but by February of my senior year, I found myself behind my high school, Avalon School in St. Paul, sleeping behind the trash cans.

I actually didn't get much sleep because it was terribly cold. All I had was two hooded shirts that were very warm, but not warm enough to sustain long periods of time in a Minnesota winter.

I tampered with idea of sleeping in a trash can, which was full at the time, but it seemed like a dangerous idea to fall asleep in the trash can because I didn't know when the trash was being picked up.

A dangerous thing about being out homeless is there are people who mug you while you're sleeping, or make sexual advances toward you while you're sleeping.

By about three or four in the morning, I got on the bus two blocks down at University and Snelling avenues and rode the bus until 6:00 a.m.

I scraped by a few more nights like that before I got a spot in a shelter again.

Recording at MPR
Jones recording his script at MPR.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

According to advocate Rocki Simoes, my story's fairly typical of what she sees at Avenues, a 15-bed youth shelter where she works in North Minneapolis.

"The vast majority of queer youth who are homeless in this state are youth of color," Simoes said.

I fit that. I'm black and Native American.

Simoes says the problem of gay homeless youth really came to light in Minneapolis after District 202 opened in South Minneapolis in 1992.

"The community center was intended to be a drop-in center for queer youth, and we didn't anticipate that [need] to look at resources around housing and homelessness," said Simoes.

In 1996, Simoes started pairing gay teens that were homeless with people who had spare bedrooms. The Host Home program helps about 10 to 15 teens and young adults a year.

In 2006, The Wilder Foundation reported 13 percent of homeless youth in the Twin Cities were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Simoes says the national numbers are higher, more like 20 to 40 percent.

Gay kids who are homeless have two strikes against us. We don't have any financial security, and we don't have parents watching over us, helping us make good decisions.

I needed advice on relationships, so I turned to Dan Savage. He writes the relationship advice column "Savage Love" that's published in alternative weeklies around the country. Most teens who write to him want advice on coming out to their parents, or finding other gay teens so they don't feel so alone. Savage says he doesn't get a lot of letters from kids who are homeless.

"I've heard from kids thrown out of their houses, I've heard from kids who are engaged in survival prostitution, and that's very depressing and sad," Savage said. But in his 18 years of writing his column, Savage says he's also seen big changes in parents' acceptance of their gay kids.

"Those letters [from kids thrown out of their homes] now are so far out-weighed by parents writing me who want to do right by their kids -- that they believe are gay or know to be gay -- who want my advice on how to be good and supportive," he said. "And that's a real sea change."

Savage likes to hear from parents trying to help their kids. He's concerned about the parents who would rather avoid dealing with their kids' sexual identities.

"The 'gay community' is not raising your kids who are gay," he said. "It's not like once your kid turns 15, you drop them off at a gay bar. You still have to parent your gay teenager. The only way to do that effectively is to be involved. Meddle. Just we like we do in our straight teens' lives."

Sometimes parents who seem "cool" with their kid's homosexuality still might say, "I don't want to meet your boyfriends."

"Kind of like my mom," I tell him.

Savage says gay teens need their parents' guidance. They can't "fly blind" as he calls it, into adult sex and adult relationships.

"One of the things you go to your family for when you first start dating is their more finely honed B.S. detectors. They may be able to spot a pattern of abuse or a jerk because they've got more experience," said Savage.

I don't have those parents Savage is talking about, screening my dates or paying the bills. I've been getting by on my own.

I've held a check-out job at Cub Foods in Edina for three years; even when I was homeless. I took the bus here and made it to work on time every day.

My regular customers check up on me and make sure I'm staying in school. I never had a real home growing up, or a close family, and now Minnesota will always be my home no matter what. I have a life here.

I'm taking classes full time at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, paying my rent, and getting health insurance though my job.

I still worry, there's a 50-50 chance I'll end up homeless again. But for the most part, I've made it through the worst.

I have hope in myself.


Roy Lee Spearman Jones is a native of Gary, Indiana. Currently living in Minneapolis, he's studying at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and hopes to be a filmmaker.