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Friday, July 22, 2011

Gay and Homeless? Hate and Discrimination may Cloud Compassion

By Chandra Thomas

In April 2008, Brian Dixon (photo) was 18-years-old and homeless. Being gay, he says, only exacerbated his predicament.

After years of mental and physical abuse, at age 14 Brian left home to live with his grandparents. Within a year, they placed him in Georgia’s foster care system. From there he bounced around to several group homes. By the time he turned 18 he had earned a GED before officially “aging out” of the foster care system.

Brian fervently prayed to be granted an extension to remain in the foster care system a bit longer while he worked on his nursing degree. His new caseworker, whom Dixon describes as a “devout Christian,” was not in support. She had convinced her superiors that he was not “a good candidate” for that privilege. He thinks it’s because he’s gay. Within two weeks, Dixon was dropped off with his few belongings at a Southwest Atlanta homeless shelter.

“I was scared; I had nowhere else to go,” recalls Brian. “That first night they sent me to Covenant House and I just could not handle it. I was still in the foster care mindset. It didn’t really register in my mind that I was actually homeless.”

He also tried traditional adult shelters briefly, but ultimately ended up living on the streets of Atlanta. That catapulted him onto a yearlong emotional and heart-wrenching odyssey of illegal drug use, prostitution and “couch-surfing” from one friend’s house to another. In the summer of 2009, he fell victim to a brutal roadside rape at the hands of two strangers.

Atlanta-based licensed counselor Tana Hall says Dixon’s experiences are common among displaced gay youth.

Hall suggests Dixon is among legions of gay teenagers and young adults kicked out of their homes and out of foster care homes primarily because of their sexual orientation. Many claim that the discrimination they face – often rooted in religious conviction – even extends to homeless shelters and into the foster care system. Halls says she’s heard staffers at local Christian-based shelters make homophobic comments and it’s upsetting. [It’s unfortunate], but she often tries to avoid sending her clientele there because she fears discrimination, but sometimes it’s the only option available.

“The majority of calls I get on our helpline are young people who have run away because they did not feel that they were accepted in their home,” Hall says. “The primary reason that these young people are homeless is not because of issues like substance abuse or mental illness; it’s due to a lack of acceptance about who they are [from others]. It’s a societal issue.”

Brian acknowledges the only facility he’s ever formally been kicked out of was one touted as a “Christian group home.” Upon arrival, he says, he was required to sign a form agreeing to never disclose his sexual orientation. He tried unsuccessfully to conceal his sexual identity there.

“People kept asking me about it and I wouldn’t answer them; once they found out I was gay, it was pretty much downhill from there,” recalls Brian.
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