Photos by Victoria Bedford
Forrest Ward spins across the stage like a reincarnation of Michael Jackson. “Thriller” blasts from two speakers as he nails every crotch-grab and head-tilt. The talent show, hosted annually by Youth on Fire at the AIDS Action Committee-affiliated drop-in center’s Cambridge headquarters, seems just like any other. But after the music stops and the chairs are folded, the performers will return to the frigid winter night then seek refuge in friends’ houses, or shelters, or the alleyways behind Harvard Square.
Watching Ward and the others on stage and afterward, you wouldn’t guess that most participants are homeless. They resemble any of their peers, from trendy clothes to technological accessories in some cases. As it turns out, it’s this invisibility that keeps them alive, and that, at the same time, often prevents them from securing help they need.
“Not every homeless kid looks homeless,” says Diamond MacMillion, one of only three Youth on Fire members in history to become part of the staff. When she was 16, MacMillion was kicked out of her home for being a lesbian, and spent nine years living on the streets, watching friends overdose and even die as she struggled with her own addictions and endured a daily challenge to survive. “Not every homeless kid smells homeless,” she adds.
Across the river, Boston’s last homeless census counted 7,255 men, women, and children living in shelters, on the street, or in transitional or residential treatment programs–a 3.8 percent increase from the 2012 census. The way the homeless census is conducted, the mayor, city officials, community leaders, and 350 volunteers spend one night every year counting every homeless person they can find, in and out of shelters. In the process, the commission also passes out a survey targeting unaccompanied youth, with questions about age, sexuality, and where people sleep.
Each year, the homeless census generates vital information and statistics, and informs state officials about what resources are needed for these at-risk populations. But MacMillion, like other advocates interviewed for this story, says asking young folks to come forward can threaten their camouflaged way of life. In 2012, for example, the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission conducted a homeless youth count for the first time ever, attempting to identify unaccompanied young people across different service sites. Those wielding the clipboards found 191 individuals under 24 years old–a number advocates and legislators say seems drastically inaccurate.
“You’re not going to be able to seek them out,” MacMillion says. “They survive by being invisible. That’s one of the biggest complaints, that they’re so invisible on the street, but it’s the only reason they survive so long.”
Before working at Youth on Fire, in the basement of the Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, MacMillion spent her nights with friends, in non-working elevators near Kenmore Square, or in laundry rooms at MIT. Today, the 28-year-old lives in an apartment in Malden, and acts as a cook and mentor for many of the approximately 500 18-to-24-year-olds who drop in and out of Youth on Fire.
“It’s all about appearances, and when you’re out here, you learn that quick,” says MacMillion, who sees herself in many of the young people she helps. “If you were to ask me when I was out here if I was homeless, nine out of ten times I would deny it, because I don’t know what that means for me long-term.”
Though harrowing by all means, the situation around youth homelessness in Massachusetts is also complicated. Statewide, there is not only a lack of housing opportunities, but also a lack of emergency options. In all of Greater Boston, there are only 12 beds for young people–at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a transitional housing program in Downtown Crossing. There are also adult shelters, but according to advocates, regardless of how well maintained those facilities are, they’re still unfit for anyone below the age of 24.
“We just throw our 18-24 year-olds into the adult shelter system,” says Ayala Livny, the program manager of Youth On Fire. “We set them up to be victimized, and exploited, and violated. It is unconscionable that we can’t do better by them.”
By avoiding shelters for safety reasons, young people can slip through the cracks and escape the state’s radar. Livny says youth caught in the shelter system are often preyed upon by older homeless people. As a result, when many under the age of 25 feel unsafe, they avoid shelters altogether.
“The challenge isn’t so much the way the shelter system is set up, other than the fact that it’s not appropriate to throw a 19-year-old who is on the streets with a 43-year-old who is on the streets,” says Livny. “They’re developmentally different, and they’re emotionally different.”
If young people don’t feel safe in shelters, and they don’t feel safe on the streets, that leaves few options when the sun goes down.
“In the nighttime, young people are often left on their own, without adequate resources to address their housing and safety needs,” says Kelly Turley, the Director of Legislative Advocacy of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s not uncommon for young people to report having to be involved in trading sex–not only for a roof over their head, but to meet other basic needs.”
MacMillion says the problem is exacerbated by prejudice against LGBTQ youth, who deal with a limited set of options. Catholic shelters, for one, often won’t take them in. “People who work in the shelter system do not care,” MacMillion says of her experience. “And if you’re young and you’re queer, you’re open for it all, and nobody gives a shit.”
A CONTINUUM OF OPTIONS
This year, the Massachusetts House Committee on Ways and Means will consider a $5 million bill to provide funding for housing and services for unaccompanied homeless youth. The legislation, House Bill 135, was drafted in 2011 by then-state Senator Katherine Clarke, who has since replaced Ed Markey in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Rep. Jim O’Day of Worcester, which faces similar problems to those in Boston. Specifically, the bill focuses on young people, a group that is typically and tragically underrepresented in terms of available state resources.
Before becoming a legislator, O’Day spent years advocating for homeless youth through social work. “The department of secondary education tells us from a lot of the work that they’ve done that we can pinpoint at least 6,000 of these unaccompanied homeless youth [statewide],” O’Day tells the Dig. “My gut tells me that the number is probably higher. Given the experience that I’ve had working in the past, [homeless youth] try to avoid the system.”
When it comes to requesting funds for Bill 135, legislators and advocates are faced with an invisibility paradox–homeless youth are difficult or even impossible to identify, and that’s what keeps them alive. In other words, lawmakers must essentially ask their colleagues to help a population that is, statistically speaking, almost nonexistent.
“As a state, Massachusetts has a very comprehensive response to homelessness,” Turley says. “But for this particular population of young people, there isn’t a safety net.”
In addition to her position on the commonwealth homeless coalition, Turley is the co-chair of a working group on connection and identification–ways to make up for the troubling but inevitable visibility gap. In that work, Turley says young people are reluctant to participate since they doubt their input will amount to anything.
“Because the state right now doesn’t have a comprehensive response to homelessness, even if a young person were to come forward and share their story, there may not be resources,” Turley says. “Once young people know that there may not be resources, there’s less and less motivation to come forward, and to come out of the shadows and share their story.”
The text of O’Day’s House bill calls for “a continuum of housing options,” to be delivered in conjunction with “wraparound support services.” The proposal also pegs various training programs and health services that could be of help.
“It’s for us to get stability, and consistency, and to provide young folks the opportunity so they can be productive on their own merits, and be able to be employable, and to go on to higher education,” O’Day says. The representative adds that Bill 135 isn’t meant to provide more short-term shelter solutions, or hotel rooms, but rather structured long-term support. “How do you study if you’re bouncing from couch to couch to couch?” he asks. “If your biggest challenge is keeping yourself alive, all those other things are secondary.”
To present a case to the legislature, advocates of Bill 135 need to prove the need is there. To prove the need is there, they need the numbers. And to get the numbers, they need homeless youth to understand the purpose of the surveys, and to know exactly what the bill will do for them.
“If they’re homeless trying to make it, the only way that they can survive out here is to blend–so people don’t take that into account,” says MacMillion of Youth on Fire. She also says the survey spurs young homeless individuals to ask further questions–they want to know why they’re being asked, how they can know the questionnaire is real, and what kind of benefits they’ll see from it–and that those queries warrant explanation.
According to MacMillion: “I want to know–how is this going to benefit my friends, or anyone that I really care about?” She says confusion around homeless surveys is part of the problem. “It really makes a difference on the way you go about counting them … It matters what you do to make people feel safe and secure enough to count them.”
To perform such a count, advocates attempt to send out people homeless youth can relate to. Even with peers and sympathetic volunteers helping conduct surveys, the invisibility factor persists, but in the face of that hesitation, Turley remains hopeful. “We feel like the pieces are coming together,” she says. “We’re hopeful that this bill will pass before the end of this legislative session.”
Of course, the issue of youth homelessness goes far beyond the scope of just kids trying to find beds at night and jobs during the day. Likewise, the problem eclipses LGBTQ issues, prostitution, and drug addiction, and has roots in broken families and a world of other factors.
“A professor told me this allegory,” Livny says. “You’re walking through the woods, and you come up on a river, and you see all these babies in the river. At that moment, you have a choice: you can start taking babies out of the river–you can walk upstream and figure out why they’re getting in the river–[or] you can teach them how to swim while they’re in the river, and you can figure out what to do with them when they’re out. Fundamentally, we know that we have to do all of those things.”
If the House bill passes, legislators will have to determine how much funding each of these actions requires. “There are always going to be kids on the street as long as you have abusive and neglectful families, and as long as there are situations where the streets are safer than home,” Livny says. “But the challenge is, your job as providers is to get them off the streets as quickly as possible, because bad things happen on the streets.”
It takes time for a bill to pass, and even with time, budget decisions are complex. And political. That can mean a lot of cold nights and hot days. Still, the advocates leading this fight are working daily to prove that resources are insufficient, and to show that state funding should be set aside to help this segment of the homeless population. As for the young people … they’re likely to maintain invisibility, and blend in until they have the chance to lift themselves out of poverty.
“I love the resilience,” says MacMillion, who sees a lot of her own story in the Youth on Fire survivors. “I love seeing young people who think, ‘This is the case now, but this isn’t always going to be the case … This is me now, but this isn’t always going to be me.’ I love people who can say, ‘My situation doesn’t define the person who I am.”’