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Out of the closet and onto the streets

I met Robert Mullins by chance at a bus stop in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, California. It was hot, and we had both crowded in the only slice of afternoon shade the tired blue bus stop had to offer. He introduced himself to me, and because we seemed relatively close in age, I asked him if he went to school in the area. He did not – not at the moment at least – because he was homeless after being forced out by his parents shortly after his sixteenth birthday.

Robert is transgender, and a little over a year ago he decided to come out to his parents. He saw it as a gateway to a new, authentic life. It would give him the opportunity to live more honestly as his true self. But when he told his parents that he was transgender, the “new life” that awaited him was one plagued by emotional abuse and threats of violence. Robert’s “new life” was a life on the streets.

After packing a duffel bag of his most important possessions, Robert was on his own. At first, he sought entry into one of Oakland’s few homeless shelters, but it was not long before he began to reconsider his options. After days of sleeping on a foldout army cot, Robert had encountered drug dealers, thieves, body lice, and bed bugs. He knew he had to leave, but he didn’t know where to go. Fearing foster care and the possibility of his family finding out his whereabouts, Robert had little choice. 

Within weeks, he had moved from friends’ couches to alleyways and public parks. While he had found and befriended several others on the streets, he became worried about his worsening mental health, the fear of substance use, and the possibility of sexual assault. He was forced to drop out of high school, and he felt helpless and misunderstood. This was not the life that he had been promised.

Life as a young, African American transgender person, in Robert’s words, meant living a life he “could not possibly have been prepared to live.” It meant living in a constant sense of fear and insecurity, unaware of where he might sleep or who he might encounter there. It meant living on the edge, and has at times felt like “a life not worth living at all.”

When talking about trying to find home in crowded shelters and abandoned storefronts, Robert said that he only realized the severity of the “homeless problem” when he began to experience it. It was only when he was “on the street himself” that he recognized the hardship of life without permanent shelter, and he became painfully aware of how overlooked and underserved homeless people are today.

Robert’s story – while heart-breaking – is unfortunately common.

More and more young people like Robert are becoming homeless. Within the last year, Southern California cities have seen an astonishing 40 percent increase in the rate of youth homelessness, attributable largely to unsafe and hostile conditions on the street and in adult shelters. These conditions often transform what otherwise might be temporary displacement into chronic forms of homelessness, as youth frequently have to move to avoid sexual exploitation and the destructive tendencies of their chronically homeless elders. 

Racial minorities are also disproportionately represented among homeless populations. As an African American youth, Robert was born 83 percent more likely to become homeless than his white peers. He was likely to earn far less than his white peers, have fewer housing opportunities (and at a higher cost), and face less favorable outcomes in the health care and the criminal justice systems. He, like many others, lacked a social safety net, ensuring that what would have otherwise been a momentary displacement instead was prolonged physical and social exclusion. 

This exclusion was magnified dramatically by Robert’s gender identity. He, like many others, had been rejected by his family and suffered physically and mentally because of it. From the beginning, he was 120 percent more likely to become homeless than non-LGBT peers. He was less likely to feel safe in shelters and on the street, more prone to sexual assault and gender-based discrimination, and filled with understandable fear and disorientation. He was subject to a near-permanent state of crisis. 

For Robert, each of these factors coalesced to prolong and intensify his homelessness. He had suffered racism, transphobia, predation, and social stigma, and yet had still retained a sense of undeniable warmth and honesty. He spoke candidly and referred to his story as a response, a critique, a tragedy, and an autobiography.

Both for himself and others, his story is both unique and shared, under-considered and over-generalized. It acts as a description of injustice and a prescription for reconciliation, both reflecting on the past and providing insight into the future. Robert’s story is shocking, complex, and far from over. 

But perhaps most simply, it is about the search for home.

 

— Anthony Hackett ’20

Contact Anthony Hackett at arh2020 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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