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Homeless and Transgender: Searching for Shelter and Acceptance

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Kennedy, Jaden, and Wolfgang are three young people who found their way to Los Angeles in their teens. They each have real life “La La Land” dreams, from being a writer to an airline pilot to a tattoo artist. They also have two other experiences in common: each was homeless and each is transgender.

Youth are often described as the “hidden homeless.” They are unseen, often couch surfing, staying with friends or riding busses.  

“No youth chooses to be homeless,” explained Mark Supper, Executive Director of Los Angeles Youth Network (LAYN). “They are really an invisible population. They are not the ones you see in the tents down the street.”

LGBTQ homeless youth are among the most vulnerable, fighting early traumas, bullying, and coping with finding their identity. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported that in 2016 there were 3,447 homeless young people ages 18 to 24 in Los Angeles County, a 12% increase from the year before.* But there are no specific numbers on how many of these young adults are trans.

Kennedy Portrait

Kennedy: From Kazakhstan to Los Angeles

Kennedy, 19, was adopted at age five from an orphanage in Kazakhstan. She bounced between two adopted families by the time she was 18. During her junior year of high school she came out as trans. She found little support from her family or her community in Ohio. Last July, she decided to come to Los Angeles and stay with a friend.

“It is like, okay, my adoptive parent gave me an eviction notice. I had 30 days to leave my house. And I was like, okay, I don’t want to stay in Ohio,” Kennedy said “I was anticipating being homeless either way. I’m either going to be homeless when I’m getting kicked out of my house or I’m going to be homeless when I move to a different city.”

Eventually, Kennedy found herself in the shelter system and finally found her way to LAYN.

Jaden Portrait

Jaden: Family Support but Still Homeless

Jaden, 18, grew up in New England and came out as trans in his early teens to his family. He found support from them. But when his father lost his job, they were forced to look to their extended family, who didn’t approve. The family decided to move to Los Angeles, where they felt it was more progressive. They spent their days and nights on the street with no place to go.  

“We stayed on the street for two days. I could not handle that. It was way too much.” Jaden found his way to LAYN.  “This was also the first time I was really out being able to express my gender,” Jaden explained. “I technically came out when I was 14, but I went to LAYN when I was 15 or 16, and they actually respected my name. That’s when I picked my name, that’s when I decided I wanted to be called Jaden.”

Jaden’s father remains homeless, but they are still in contact and working on their relationship with the help of the folks at LAYN.  

Wolfgang Portrait

Wolfgang: Overcoming Depression

Wolfgang, 24, grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. From an early age he knew he was in the wrong body. Even his parents knew. When he came out, he was greeted with a sigh of relief.

“So, when I finally came out to my mom as ‘I think I’m trans’ ‘Finally,’” Wolfgang recalled laughing warmly at the memory.

But even that support couldn’t counter the heavy depression. He moved to California to go to school and live with his aunt. Eventually school fell by the wayside as Wolfgang was overcome by depression, and depression gave way to alcoholism. Wolfgang recalled living in a winter shelter in downtown Los Angeles before starting his transition and staying in female wards. Sometimes, when there were only beds available in the female section of an LGBTQ shelter, he would deny his identity just to have a place to stay.

“One of the biggest challenges was my identity," explained Wolfgang. “I’ve had to sacrifice my identity [as a trans male] to feel safe.”

The shelters would respect his preferred pronouns and Wolfgang finally found his way to Covenant House, a shelter in Hollywood for homeless youth. There he received support and encouragement to pursue the career goals and personal goals he wanted to achieve, including the opportunity to explore his art.

Kennedy and Jaden at LAYN offices
Kennedy and Jaden at LAYN offices

Compounded Challenges

Aside from easing the pangs of homelessness, there is the continued fight against discrimination from a society that does not completely understand them.

“Not a lot of people understand what it means to be transgender. What it means that you are not in the right body,” Kennedy explained. “How do you use a bathroom you don’t identify with, but you can’t use the opposite because there are no laws that will support you or people who will support you?”   

Wolfgang says there needs to be more acceptance and flexibility in spaces that shelter trans youth. “I wish for more funding or more space just to make sure everybody’s identity is accommodated for when it comes to shelters. That you don’t have to choose between being in the female ward or the male ward, that there could be a bigger co-ed ward.”

“You fear going into a shelter that is respectful. You fear respecting your pronouns, your access. I know it was difficult for me to get on hormones, especially under 18,” Jaden said.

“You are at an age, a normal teen, that is difficult,” says Supper. “Now take identity, or your sexual identity, and add that to the equation and how terrifying that could be. Who do you trust with that information?”

The support and services that Jaden, Kennedy and Wolfgang need are as unique and complicated as the journeys that brought each of them to Los Angeles. They will need mentoring  and education. But by telling their stories Jaden, Kennedy, and Wolfgang are developing the confidence it will take to live in a world that is often less than welcoming.  

* This figure excludes Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.

Lata Pandya wrote this story with support from New America Media.

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