"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'" - Matthew 25:40
Chelsea* was asleep on the bathroom floor. She would sleep there because it was warmer with the heater. Her anemia makes her constantly cold, and she didn't mind sacrificing some comfort for warmth. She woke up in the middle of the night when her mother crashed the bathroom door open against her head.
"Get up." Chelsea could tell something was not right; she had left her purse open on the bathroom counter, a mistake that would cost her.
When she realized her error, it was too late; her mother was holding a letter.
Chelsea, then 15, knew she was in trouble, and she really didn't have time to answer the question her mother likely knew the answer to.
Her mother went into hysterics, found a Bible and started to yell at Chelsea about living that "kind of lifestyle" that was wrong.
Chelsea defended herself by pointing to boys she "liked" and from then on had to keep boyfriends as covers to keep her mother's suspicions at bay as she finished high school.
Two years later, after she graduated from high school and started college courses, Chelsea and her mother got into a heated argument about her "friend" who came over constantly (she was Chelsea's girlfriend), and while her mom never said the word "lesbian," Chelsea knew she had had enough this time. She didn't want another sermon, and as their fight escalated, she realized that this time she would probably have to leave for good. A few minutes later, Chelsea was standing in her front yard with a black trash bag and a clothesbasket with nowhere to go.
It was the winter of 2009, and Chelsea would be homeless off and on for the next six years.
A Lack of Resources
It's a sunny October afternoon, and Shelley Johnson and Sonia Harris Carter sound like lifelong friends. Their energies are different but compatible.
Johnson talks a mile a minute with a refreshing candor about the intricate challenges LGBT youth face coming into or out of foster care. Carter is pensive and speaks slowly and calmly about her work and how she and Johnson found one another in 2014.
"I met Sonia, and we clicked completely, and she was willing to allow me to use one of her houses that she had for the LGBT youth home," Johnson said, smiling.
Carter nodded in agreement. They were sitting in Johnson's office, which smells of incense. Johnson runs Rise Above For Youth, an LGBT youth advocacy nonprofit, the Metta Buddhist Center and Engaged Recovery Services out of the same office space off Interstate 55 in a quiet complex. Carter owns her own real-estate company, which helps fund Divine Restoration Community Ministries, as well as Fondren Hair Studio and Hair Gallery. She owns 10 homes as a part of her ministry, and five of them are currently used as homeless shelters for men, women and children.
Young people from outside Hinds County come into Jackson and find her, Carter said, when they need a place to stay. Carter began to notice that a lot of these out-of-county youth were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"We don't discriminate if you're straight or gay or whatever; we just help all people," she said.
Divine Restoration Ministries did not start overnight, and Carter has been patient through the development of her houses. Five of the homes and properties she owns are not developed—yet. She trusts that her real-estate business and donors, both private and public, as well as financial support from her husband will continue to fund her shelters, as they have been for 12 years; she says that God will support and provide her work.
Carter is African American and understands youth homelessness because she used to worked in Jackson Public Schools (as well as her part-time real estate job) as an instructional interventionist, watching students cycle through "pupil placement" when they were homeless.
Johnson is partnering with Carter to open an LGBT shelter for young people ages 18 to 24. Johnson, whose family is originally from Mississippi, moved back to her home state in 2009. Johnson, her partner and her daughter were living in California previously, and Johnson said her family's transition to the climate in Mississippi has taken some time. Johnson changed career gears and moved into the nonprofit sector after years in the for-profit business world.
For her, the work has been slow, especially because the climate for LGBT youth in Mississippi is stifled; finding youth to come to support groups is a lot like being in the woods without a flashlight, she says.
Johnson is white, a lesbian and originally from Mississippi—part of the reason she moved back to the state was to be closer to her parents.
Since meeting and partnering with Johnson, Carter has realized how important it is to be able to reach LGBT youth beyond just providing housing for them.
Many of them become homeless because their family kicks them out.
A 2015 Williams Institute survey of homeless-youth service providers found that the most widely selected reason for homelessness among LGBT youth (as reported to service providers) was "forced out of their homes or running away from home because of their sexual orientation." The study also found that youth of color were disproportionately among LGBT youth accessing services.
Soon Kyu Choi, a policy analyst for the Williams Institute who worked on the study, said that LGBT youth running away or being kicked out for their sexual orientation is a common factor contributing to homelessness, but to what extent has not been explored with research.
"We haven't looked at that factor in relation to poverty or gender or family or relationships," Choi said.
Building a Safe Haven
There's a house on Hooker Street in downtown Jackson that's abandoned but not without promise. It's a 117-year-old antebellum-style home, which Carter purchased from a nonprofit organization that used to run a drug and counseling rehabilitation home there. Recently, the City of Jackson was about to put it on the demolition list, but Carter found out in time and is working with AmeriCorps groups who can come paint it out and board it up until she can get the renovation done.
The Hooker Street house is the future home of Carter and Johnson's joint LGBT youth shelter project. Johnson helped run mentor meet-up groups for LGBT youth back in 2009 when the nonprofit began, but things were slow to start. Johnson then created a thick manual of all the LGBT-friendly doctors, businesses and resources for young people throughout the state.
Both women are now working on raising funds to renovate the inside. Carter is applying for several grants for all her not-yet-renovated houses, and progress on the Hooker Street house stalled back in October when it caught fire, for reasons that the Jackson Fire Department has still not shared with Carter by press time. The fire happened a week after Johnson announced the partnership with Carter on Facebook and with a GoFundMe Page.
"The kids that we serve are put through hell, and we expect them to pick it up and keep moving forward," Johnson said. "So if we're going to let a fire stop us from moving forward, we're not walking the walk."
Rise Above for Youth is courting national foundations and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for funding to renovate the shelter and make the project a reality. The 2015 Williams Institute study found that homeless youth service providers with LGBT-specific programs are funded by mainly foundations or public support. In the meantime, youth who are kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation find couches to sleep on. Several families willingly and regularly open their families to LGBT homeless youth in the Jackson area.
Both Carter and Johnson readily admit that the stigma around the gay and lesbian community is still hurting a lot of the young people they work with.
"I've had folks say, you're stepping out wrong supporting (the shelter project), but I believe in a higher power, and if He can support me in my ugliness and allow me to help then why will he not look down and help me support the LGBTQ community?" Carter said.
Working with LGBT youth, both women have found, earns one a lot of sympathetic and empathetic support but not a lot of tangible help in reality.
"(In) the Bible belt, they're told from a very young age that they are sinners and they're going to hell; there's this whole mentality of how wrong you are," Johnson said. "Part of the message I want to share with these kids is that this label is not all that you are, it is a thread in an entire tapestry of things that you are."
'Something Like PTSD'
Jamie* was pacing outside a Chik-Fil-A restaurant, on her phone, an ironic place to come out to her father. Her best friend and her girlfriend watched her with concerned faces from the inside the glass. Her dad had called to confront her about her smoking, but Jamie, a new high-school graduate at the time who had planned to go to Hinds Community College, was tired of her parents nagging her.
The conversation exploded. Jamie had managed to hide the fact that she was a lesbian from her parents for the better part of her middle-school and high-school years. But a few months after graduating from Clinton High School in 2012, Jamie had had enough.
After the dispute with her father, Jamie didn't go home for five days—couch-surfing among friends. When she finally returned home, she walked into an accusatory, screaming fit—her mom was furious. Jamie was her only daughter, and not wearing makeup had been a problem for Jamie growing up, so being a lesbian set off serious discontent. Jamie had planned to move out, and had secured an apartment, but now leaving became a matter of urgency.
She couldn't leave before her parents took away her brand-new car, which was a graduation gift. Her parents threatened to take her phone, which she told her parents they could do and that would not faze her.
Her parents' adverse reaction shocked Jamie because when one of her best friends—who was gay—came to their house in high school when he was kicked out, her parents welcomed him in and let him stay. The 180-degree switch rocked Jamie into several years of processing and vocalizing bottled emotions to therapists.
The first year after she came out, her mother would call her screaming or leave messages crying on Jamie's phone. She said that first year was "literally my hell," and she had to go to therapy as a part of the "deal" with her parents when they finally gave her car back to her about a year later.
Four years later, Jamie still remembers some of the things her mother said to her. She remembers her therapist one time being stunned and asking, "Your mother said that to you?"
Jamie calls it trauma, or something like PTSD. "There's emotional damage, it's like trauma almost," she said. "It's like PTSD; I feel like it's very similar."
LGBT teenagers accessing homeless youth services suffer more from mental and physical health problems, the 2015 Williams Institute study found. There are some times, Jamie says, even today, that she will get upset about something for no apparent reason, a trait she doesn't remember having.
"I used to be happy-go-lucky and super social," she said.
She still is today, but Jamie said the first couple years of emotional damage took time to work through.
Today, Jamie, now 22, feels confident in who she is—despite the verbal abuse she put up with when she was younger.
"I'm not going to apologize for being gay," she said. "I was 11 or 12 when I knew."
Religion and family values play an intricate role in how families perceive their LGBT teens and children. Jamie grew up in a not-very-religious family, she says, but as soon as she came out to her parents, they started going to church weekly. When she was growing up, her family had attended church once a year. Her parents made her to go to only Christian therapists at first, which Jamie thought was odd.
When Religion Hurts
Chelsea grew up in church, so being gay was considered a sin that warranted punishment, at least in her mother's eyes. Chelsea tried to hide it for a while: she was secretly bisexual for five years, during middle and high school. She dated young men to appease her mother, who thought she was straight, but saw women on the side. Chelsea always knew she was a lesbian, but she tried to live a bisexual lifestyle so that she could stay at home and make her mother happy.
She graduated from Bailey Magnet High School in 2009 and started classes at Hinds Community College. Her mother had given her a car to drive to work and classes and was helping pay for school—until she realized her daughter was a lesbian and kicked her out that winter. Chelsea's mother cut her off completely: no car, no school, no roof over her head.
Chelsea dropped out of Hinds after struggling to pay for tuition and started working in 2010—at one point she had four jobs at once—just to survive. Over the next six years, she lived on friends' couches and in girlfriends' cars, moldy subsidized apartments, rented houses and both of her grandmothers' homes. She was hospitalized several times due to her poor health; sleeping in the moldy apartment set off severe allergies and her asthma. Other times, sheer exhaustion prevented her from going to work, and if it got bad enough, back to the hospital she would go.
"My mom thought the only reason I was sick and going through what I was going through was because I was leading this lifestyle," Chelsea said.
"(She would say), 'If you leave this lifestyle where it is, you can come back home.' But that's not me; I can't do it."
At one point in Chelsea's six transient years, her mother switched churches just so she wouldn't have to see Chelsea and her then-girlfriend go to church together.
Chelsea, however, still attends church and sings in the choir.
Resistance, especially in evangelical Christian circles, to the Obergefell U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage last summer has created rifts in some religious communities and circles. Other churches realized the need to distinguish that they were open to all, with the LGBT community included in that "all."
One of those local churches, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, got a lot of calls after the June U.S. Supreme Court decision to do weddings because it is on several lists as a "welcoming" or "open" congregation.
Rev. Justin McCreary, who leads the church, said he struggles to answer the question of "Why" his church is welcoming.
"Why is my church so open? Because we believe that to be right," he said. "And if we believe that to be right and don't do it, then we are frauds."
McCreary is not out to pick fights or point fingers, and while he says he cannot support when someone else's rights come at the cost of others people's rights, he also doesn't want to argue or debate with other churches.
"We (Unitarian Universalists) have always asserted that we want you to come as you are and be who you are when you come to our church," he said. "We don't want you to pretend that you're someone that you're not."
When the System Takes Over
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as living "in a place not meant for human habitation—including the streets or in a car, emergency shelter, transitional housing and hotels paid for by a government or charitable organization." The department has several categories of homelessness but considers any unaccompanied person under 25 years of age as "youth."
Youth homelessness is a large and under-studied part of the American ecosystem. States' foster-care systems are supposed to step in and help children who are in need of safe homes, but such efforts often fall short.
Currey Cook, national director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care project at Lambda Legal, works with communities to stop LGBT youth homelessness before young people have to consider foster care or running away. He said that LGBT youth homelessness is a public health, community wellness and economic issue.
"They (LGBT youth) are a part of our community, and we cannot throw them away if you don't agree with it," he said. "We're at the point where there is enough social-science support and legal support where we can stand up a little taller on this issue."
Educating and supporting parents of LGBT youth is an important way to curb youth homelessness, Cook said, and framing youth homelessness as "family rejection" is not about demonizing parents. The Youth in Out-of-Home Care project works to bring parents who are struggling with acceptance information or assistance finding family therapy.
"We're not great at doing true prevention-type work," Cook said. "But we see those kids anyway—ultimately coming into foster care or juvenile-detention centers."
In Mississippi, the number of young people in the state's care has steadily grown since 2012, and the (now separate) Division of Family and Children's Services is playing catch-up. Due to a pending lawsuit, filed on behalf of the state's children initially in 2004, if Mississippi's system does not drastically improve by May, the federal government will take over.
Andre Cooley and his four siblings moved to Mississippi in 1995. He was born near Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1986, and when his grandmother died in 1995, Cooley and his siblings moved down to Laurel, Mississippi to live with his great-aunt due to family issues involving drugs and prison time.
Cooley then entered the foster-care system in 2002, from what he can remember, and had multiple home placements in his first months.
Foster-care kids are always on the defense, Cooley says today, and as a part of protecting himself, he never came out to any of his foster parents. He is gay and has been since he was born, he says, and although he is an outgoing and forthright person, he never felt the need to disclose his sexual orientation to his social workers or foster parents—at first.
By the time he was in his fourth house placement, Cooley's social workers, he says, all for the most part knew he was gay. His foster mother, however, had never brought it up until one day when Cooley came home from high school.
He was a sophomore at Laurel High School, working at Domino's. When he got home around 4:30 p.m., he went to his room and closed the door. He immediately got on the phone, a habit he continues to enjoy to this day, talking on the phone to avoid silence sometimes. Cooley said she heard him talking and told him to come in to the front room.
"Andre, come in here and have a seat!" she said.
Cooley did, and he remembers thinking, "Oooooweee, she's calling me out."
"You've been doing a lot of lying, lying, lying, about what?"
Andre knew he was caught; she had heard him telling someone that his mother had been working in a different city.
"You don't know where your mother is, do you?"
Andre started tearing up, and ended up confessing all of his lies to her—including the fact that he was gay. His foster mother, who has since passed away, did not get angry, and instead told Andre something he remembers to this day.
"Don't feel like you have to justify your life to anybody."
Cooley knew he was fortunate because previous foster parents had tried to pray for him or implement their religious beliefs on him. Even his last foster mother's son teased and harassed another foster child living in the house who was also gay. Cooley stood up for himself and learned what resources the foster care system offered, so when he found out about an independent living preparation program through Southern Christian Services, Cooley jumped at the opportunity and was living in his own apartment before he even graduated from high school in 2004.
Building a Shelter
The foster-care system helps with a part of the youth homelessness puzzle, but shelters and independent programs also serve an important role for runaway youth. But the problem, nationally, is too few resources and shelters to take care of them all.
Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, says that youth have the highest rates of being unsheltered of homeless populations, largely due to a lack of resources.
Mississippi has 247 homeless young adults and children (24 years old and younger), based on the 2015 point-in-time count. Roman says this number is likely a gross underestimate. Mississippi Department of Education data confirms this.
MDE tracks homeless student statistics (only K-12 aged students) to help provide services and federal grant dollars for students who need it. In their most recent count from a 2014-2015 report, there are 10,131 homeless students in the state's public K-12 system.
Roman said this is due to a lack of resources for youth to access when they become homeless. Despite this knowledge, statistics rarely tell the complete story.
"We don't have a lot of information about the scope of the problem. A lot of the people who become homeless self-resolve pretty quickly," Roman said.
In Hattiesburg, the Spectrum Center, a community center for the LGBTQ population in the area started by L.B. and Sara Bell, opened in mid-2014, and the couple plans to make the space at least an emergency shelter for LGBT homeless youth once they are finished renovating it and bringing the house up to fire code. The Spectrum Center passed the fire code inspection recently.
The Spectrum Center is a single-story charming house off Highway 49 in Hattiesburg. One of the paneled walls in a living room-type space is painted all the colors of the rainbow. The largest open space is in the middle of the house for dinners and activities, and there are rooms on the right side of the house that will become bedrooms on one side of the house. The left side of the house holds the kitchen and what Sara Bell hopes will be sort of a business center with computers for people to use to apply for jobs or housing—a great screen porch sits off the back of the house.
The Spectrum Center is a nonprofit organization, and the Bells own the house and pay the mortgage on it. The work toward getting the legal classification necessary to become a licensed shelter is daunting, Sara said, and the work is slow. For now when crisis calls, "there's nothing we can legally do," Sara said, but the couple has taken couples in for a few nights or reached out to their friends in the community to find couches or spare rooms for homeless youth to stay at—just like in Jackson.
The Bells are facing the same challenges with funding that Johnson and Carter are in Jackson. Everything costs money, but the donations don't always come streaming in when the words "LGBT-friendly" grace the cover of an application.
In October, the Spectrum Center hosted a PRIDE event that they hoped would be a big push for fundraising to get it to emergency shelter status, but selling sponsorships was not as profitable for the nonprofit as the Bells had hoped. The event did draw way more people than Sara or L.B. were expecting, and they said the LGBT community in Hattiesburg seems to have grown because more people are openly out and attending events like PRIDE.
Once a month, the Spectrum Center holds a "Gender Benders" meeting, which is a support group for transgender and transitioning individuals. In mid-November, the meeting was not too crowded. One Hattiesburg native who was in town visiting stopped by, but otherwise the Spectrum Center stayed pretty quiet.
An electrician was in the building working on parts of the kitchen as Sara, L.B. and their son, Cameron, sat around the table and talked with a few people who floated in. Sara said the meeting attendance varies, and they've had as many as 18 people at a meeting one month. The center also holds a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
L.B. and Sara hope to expand the amount of support groups that the Spectrum Center provides and increase participation. Sara said they are working on reaching out and advertising to the Hattiesburg area, so LGBT people can reach out and find support.
"We are trying to get into the community and let them know we're here—and we're just like them," Sara said.
The Bells have one son, Cameron, and live outside Hattiesburg in Petal on their own farm. Sara said she and L.B. are often mistaken as a heterosexual ally couple, but Sara is a lesbian, and L.B. is transgender. The couple says the state has seen a lot of progress in recent years on awareness and reducing its stigma against the LGBT community, but more progress will take time.
"On the one hand, it is slow but on the other, things have changed so dramatically compared to other issues," L.B. said.
For Chelsea, stable housing was key to her turnaround, as it is for most homeless youth. Last June, she left her second long-term girlfriend and former fiance and managed to find and afford her own apartment. She said it's taken a while to furnish it—but it's been so worth it.
"I am back in school, I'm in my own place and have been there since June. It was my birthday present to myself," she said, smiling.
Valencia Robinson, executive director of Mississippi in Action, works closely with the Jackson-area LGBT community. She said housing is the key to success for anyone, but especially at-risk young people who are gay.
"When you're not stably housed, you have nothing; my whole mission in life, honestly, is to help people get housed, be safe and live a good life," Robinson said. "If your basic needs aren't met, you cannot give people a decent job because (they) don't have nowhere to stay, even people who are homeless find a way to make it through."
Chelsea is back in pre-nursing classes at Hinds Community College. She still sings in her community and church choirs and works three jobs: in child care, food service and at school. Almost seven years later, she is back to where she could have been at 18. She admits that she's a bit behind, but she's thankful to be in her own place and above all, happy. She can afford her classes, rent and work two jobs. She's still running these days, but this time it's by choice.
Andre moved into his own two-bedroom apartment when he was 16 years old through the foster-care system's collaboration with Southern Christian Services program. Cooley says he was the first person in Mississippi to try the program, which made him nervous. He had to set the bar high. The program gave him a stipend to buy furniture, including a bed and a couch, for the apartment, and although he was finally living in his own place, he said his first night alone was scary.
He burned a microwave pizza he put in the oven while he was in the bathtub and then ended up just going to pick up Domino's to eat for his first meal alone in his own apartment. The dining-room table wasn't completely assembled—it was in two parts—so Cooley sat on the floor to eat. His Dell laptop was hooked up to the dial-up connection to get Internet, and he watched several DVDs that night, he says.
"I turned the heater on because at night time I tend to get cold, then the machine wouldn't turn off, and I was so nervous I didn't sleep."
Living alone did get easier for Cooley who left the state's custody when he was 23 years old. He got to keep the furniture, and he says over the course of his time studying at Jones County Junior College and the University of Southern Mississippi, he probably let 20 or so LGBT high school and college-aged students who had nowhere to stay crash with him on that same couch.
Cooley lived in Hattiesburg, working as a Forrest County Sheriff (and settling a discrimination lawsuit against the department to keep his job) until recently. He moved back up to Michigan for law school in 2014; Cooley, now 30, will graduate from Western Michigan University Law School this coming December. He still has to hustle to make things work; he is currently working three jobs seven days a week, but he is happy. Housing, Cooley says, provided the structure he needed to pursue his education and career goals.
"People are lost without structure," Cooley said. "Housing is literally the foundation of it because you have to have a stable environment to be able to take a bath and do life in that space. Without it you have nothing."
*Names have been changed.
Read more about LGBT life in Mississippi at jfp.ms/lgbt and email reporter Arielle Dreher at [email protected]