Leaders of a support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender current and former Latter-day Saints rallied in San Francisco on Oct. 9 to support queer homeless youth, who nationally make up about 40 percent of all homeless teens and young adults.
Nearly 600 people attended the rally in front of City Hall and participated in the following candlelight march to Milk Plaza in the gay-friendly Castro District, said David Melson, executive director of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. Additionally, “about 15 speakers” from gay and transgender-rights groups such as Equality California and SoulForce addressed the crowd.
“The other organizations in San Francisco all yielded under Affirmation’s banner, so this was San Francisco’s official response to the suicides,” said Melson, referring to the suicides of at least nine teens in September in which anti-gay bullying had played a part.
Although the protest coincided with others held in Salt Lake City against anti-gay remarks made by LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer, the Affirmation event was not inspired by Packer’s sermon, but rather by Affirmation’s attempt to tackle queer youth homelessness and suicide in 2010.
As part of this effort, Melson and two other Affirmation leaders — Senior Assistant Director George Cole, and Assistant Director Micha Bisson — also spent a day on San Francisco’s streets without money or shelter in order to get a taste of what being homeless is like. Although they attempted to panhandle, they did not take services offered to homeless people, such as food and blankets being distributed by charities. At no point did they tell anyone what they were attempting to do.
“We felt if we’re going to put a dent in this [youth homelessness], we should know as much as we can about what these kids go through” Melson told QSaltLake.
None of them, he said, were prepared for what they saw.
“I saw two people die during the night,” said Melson. “One had fallen and hit his head. The other one … I had found a place in a doorway to sleep … and a couple doors down there was another guy who I’d seen earlier. He was still there in morning. It turned out at that point that he was probably dead.”
Throughout the day, Melson stayed in an area of a few blocks (Cole and Bisson were stationed elsewhere). There, he said he met two homeless straight couples with two children each, and three homeless teens — all of whom had been thrown out of LDS families.
“At least two of them were the kind who had gotten good grades in school. They told their families they were gay and that night they were on the street,” said Melson. “That struck very close to home.”
The homeless people he had met, Melson continued, often slept “in 20-minute shifts” in order to guard each other. He also soon learned that they had four ways to get food: “dumpster diving, panhandling, selling sex or selling drugs.”
Cole said he experienced this firsthand. Although the majority of non-homeless people he approached ignored him, one man gave him an offer.
“He offered me money for my time because he said he was lonely,” said Cole. “That’s how he put it, and I have a feeling we can all guess what the meaning was. I was directly propositioned and I told him no, I was not interested. I also sat there wondering after he finally left what my choice would’ve been if I’d been out there for three months needing not only food and shelter but human contact. I’m very glad I didn’t have to make that choice.”
Unlike Melson, who spoke with several people, Cole said that he preferred to observe “what conditions were like on the streets in my area.” There, he noted that the homeless people he had met shared their food and blankets.
“I was amazed at the breadth and depth of kindness and compassion among homeless to other homeless,” he said. “When they were just talking to me, they were friendly, they were offering help on their own. It becomes a community that really looks after itself because they’re the only people they can begin to trust.”
“Even though we knew what to expect and what would happen, emotionally it just brings you home,” said Melson. “You’re finding ways to get food and shelter and places to go to the bathroom, you’re thinking that for these 16 and 17-year-olds, it doesn’t have a definite time it’s going to end,” he said. “They have to do this day after day trying to stay alive. … It must be absolutely terrifying.”
So terrifying, said Cole, that he nearly had a breakdown in the first few hours. In order for anyone to help homeless people, he noted that they first must understand the psychological challenges they face — including fears of trusting people.
“We need to keep them warm at night and get them food and ask nothing else from them. We need to build trust with them,” he said. “And after we have earned their trust I think they’ll ask what more they can get and we can offer more, ideally in terms of mental health and job training services, but we have to start with the basics.”
“We have to help them do so much more with their lives,” he continued. “There’s a lot of potential out there, for these people who are so compassionate and caring.”
To further help homeless queer youth, Melson said he wants to take the executive leadership of other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations through this experience. Only this time, he’d like them to spend 72 hours on the street.
“With that kind of leadership having that kind of experience, we know this is going to be pushed to the forefront of the LGBT agenda,” he said.