Feature photo by Ed Negron

Paseo Boricua–a mile-long stretch of Division Street in Humboldt Park, marked by massive Puerto Rican flags at each end–was buzzing on a warm March afternoon. The doors to nearly every business were propped open, and groups gathered by trees and benches to talk, listen to music, or call out to passersby. Men played drums outside of a barbershop. In front of Vida/SIDA, two young women smiled and offered me free condoms and safe-sex pamphlets.

Vida/SIDA, a branch of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, opened at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1988. Zenaida Lopez, director of Vida/SIDA, said, “Who knew at the time that you could put those words together? AIDS and life… That was the vision, that someday you could put those two words together, and it could mean hope.”

Since then, Vida/SIDA has grown. It now operates a drop-in center, health clinic, and outreach and advocacy services for LGBTQ youth and HIV-positive people. And as of last month, it operates one of the very, very few LGBTQ youth shelters in the Midwest. El Rescate, as the new shelter is called, currently houses a small handful of residents. Lopez says they are planning on gradually increasing that number to about ten. The housing is meant to be temporary, with residents staying for four months to two years, and for 18- to 24-year-old homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ or are HIV positive. Lopez hopes to someday expand the number of beds and use the entire building’s three floors as housing.

Besides providing room and board, El Rescate offers case management, job and educational resources, counseling, independent living skills, and health services.  Lopez mentions that some of the businesses on Paseo Boricua have even offered potential internships to residents.

It’s estimated that approximately 26,000 youth in Illinois experience homelessness each year, 15,000 of them here in Chicago. On any given night, there might be up to 3,000 youth on the streets, in shelters or squats, or couch surfing.

For these thousands of youth, Chicago has 189 beds.

About 20-40% of all homeless youth self identify as LGBTQ, a worryingly disproportionate number. Activists and writers have speculated that the origins for this new epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness has its roots in the fact that kids are coming out at younger ages. This new pride is meeting a wall of resistance and homophobia in parents and communities. Kids are kicked out of their homes, or suffer such abuse or negative reactions to coming out that they leave. There’s an undeniable intersection between economic instability and family conflict. When combined with latent homophobia, it’s resulted in growing numbers of kids on the streets.

Lopez, who has lived for more than fifty years in Humboldt Park, recalls her own inability to come out to her mother. Though she now openly identifies as a lesbian, she was closeted to some of her own family members for years. “I know what it’s like to have to hide,” she says. “To be embarrassed of who you are. And I say ‘embarrassed’ because people would look at you, and you’d think, God, do they know? What if they tell my mom?”

LGBTQ youth in shelters, on the streets, or in the foster care system are truly disenfranchised; they have no lobbying power, no votes and no way of organizing. Even now, in in the era of supposed equality, they remain invisible victims. There have been reports of LGBTQ youth being forced to wear orange jumpsuits identifying them as gay, being placed in segregated rooms, or forced to wear gender-normative clothing. Homeless LGBTQ youth are more likely to be sexually assaulted, to engage in risky sexual behavior, and to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Here in Chicago, there are reports of endemic abuse at the hands of police officers, who have targeted youth because of their skin color, perceived gender identity or sexual orientation. Despite the rising numbers of homeless youth, the city’s 2012 budget cut funding to the Department of Family and Support Services, which operates much of the city’s available emergency housing.

More than anything, Lopez wants El Rescate to be a safe space for youth. The walls are colorful; the lounge is comfortable. She wanted to avoid making the shelter look institutional. She and Vida/SIDA volunteers and employees instead decorated it to reflect the vibrancy of Humboldt Park. Lopez, herself a mother and grandmother, admits that she’s driven by an emotional need to protect and nurture. “I have that maternal instinct that says, we’ve got to protect our children. That’s our future; that’s the future of this country.”

More than offering clean beds, meals, or counseling, El Rescate offers community, ties to a family that won’t judge or reject them. “The biggest thing,” Lopez says, “is nurturing them, providing stability and giving them love.”

She continues, “Trust me, here at Vida/SIDA, there’s a lot of love going around.”

Further Reading:
An Epidemic of Homelessness (PDF) by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Wherever I Can Lay My Head: Homeless Youth on Homelessness (PDF) by the Center for Impact Research and The Night Ministry.
A Broken System: Police Abuse & Harrassment of Homeless Youth in Lakeview by the Lakeview Action Committee

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