Queer, Young and Homeless: Real Life on the Streets of Philadelphia

An investigative report inside the epidemic.


It is his first apartment, and the thrill has not worn off. There is a steady stream of takeout containers coming through the door—he is 23, and not yet a cook—but not a drop of stray grease or red sauce has made its way into the plush fibers of the new wall-to-wall carpets. Pets are permitted, and he’s thinking of adopting a puppy or maybe a cat. He takes his time picking out the furnishings, but at the top of his list is a DVD player. He’s a bit of a movie buff, or at least aspires to be, and has a list of films, mostly horror, that he’s been meaning to catch up on.

The apartment—a comfortable place in the Northeast, though a little far from Center City if you don’t have a car—is financed, in part, by a program offered through the city’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Office that assists HIV-positive people in securing stable housing.

Alvarez (who requested that we did not use his full name) contracted the virus in 2009 when he was homeless—something he’ll never be again.

“They pay the rent for the rest of your life—I will have this apartment for the rest of my life. I won’t ever worry about being homeless again,” he says, his naturally bright eyes narrowing a bit. “Being infected with HIV? It’s both a gift and a curse to me. It’s a curse because it’s HIV. But it’s a gift because of the fact that I can take care of myself so much better.”

According to a report by the Children’s Work Group, one of every 94 youth in Philadelphia experienced homelessness in 2009. A 2007 study by Philadelphia Safe and Sound and the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition found that 36 percent of homeless youth identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Alvarez didn’t leave home because he identified as queer; he was taken from his mother, a drug addict, when he was only three years old. And even though he wasn’t out, growing up in residential treatment facilities—a type of self-contained group home for youth who are identified as having “special behavioral needs”—was torturous.

“They always asked if I was gay, but I always said no. I knew if I was out I would have gotten it so much worse, but it was obvious—that’s why they always came to me,” says Alvarez, who was abused by both staff and fellow residents. “I had sex with adults in those systems, and honestly not all times was it by choice. It was for being protected.”

When he turned 18, Alvarez left the system and became homeless after attempting to move back in with his mother. Before moving into his apartment, he spent nights in shelters and on benches in LOVE Park. He knows the physical pain of not eating for three days, and has checked himself into Hahnemann Hospital’s emergency room with fake symptoms in hopes of getting a meal.

It isn’t supposed to work like this.

Growing Up and Aging Out

Gloria Casarez is the director of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, a department created by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2008 to improve access to city services for LGBTQ residents. Youth who age out of care without a plan, without job skills, without a bed—such as Alvarez—are among the many issues Casarez is addressing with the help of Connect to Protect, a coalition of youth service organizations that act as her homelessness advisory board.

“There’s data on the end that says more of the young people who are homeless after aging out of Department of Human Services care are LGBT youth,” says Casarez. “You can receive certain services technically in our care until you’re 21. But you have to ask for it. If you don’t ask for it, you’re done at 18. What we hear on the back end is, ‘I didn’t know I could request a board extension until it was already too late.’”

Carrie Jacobs is executive director of the Attic Youth Center, a nonprofit social-services provider for LGBTQ youth. While she’s happy that the city acknowledged November as Runaway and Homeless Youth Awareness Month, the problem has been clear since the center opened 18 years ago.

“LGBTQ youth often do not feel safe in the child welfare system because many times child welfare workers aren’t trained to address their unique needs and may have their own biases,” she says. “Gay kids have always reported feeling more safe on the streets. This is what I saw from the day we opened the Attic. Back then, housing was really one of the primary issues. Now, here we are, and guess what? Housing continues to be the issue for LGBTQ youth. It’s kind of like bullying—while you see a lot of attention on it, it’s certainly nothing new. It’s certainly great that people are talking about it, and hopefully it brings some dollars, because that’s what we need.”

Currently, there are only 14 crisis beds for youth not under the care of DHS in Philadelphia. Around nine years ago, the Attic tried to launch its own housing program based on the needs of the homeless youth who stop by—for company, for condoms, for a meal, for video games in the Center City space’s welcoming hangout area—but the money wasn’t there.