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Homeless LGBT Face Even Greater Problems Than Do Straights

Charley James: Even though America has become far more accepting of non-straight lifestyles over the past decade, for those who are living on the fringe of society, being "different" can add to their woes.
transgendered homeless

Photo: Samantha Box

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Mark Twombley and Craig Richardson, a committed gay couple who found themselves homeless after Mark became injured on his job and Craig getting laid off from a middle management position.

Mark and Craig are luckier than many homeless gays, lesbians and transgendered people because their orientation does not compound their problems. Others are not as fortunate. For many homeless LGBT individuals, sometimes their sexuality complicates the predicament of not having their own place to live.

For one thing, violence often is a daily part of their lives. Several activists who work with social issues confronting the LGBT community in different parts of the country say that gay bashing is a particular problem for those living on the street. Todd Belamy, a former Catholic priest who now counsels homeless gays and lesbians in Chicago, states that "it ranges from something relatively simple, like being shoved out of line at a soup kitchen, to things that are horrific like getting beat up so badly the target ends up in a hospital."


Indifferent Cops

Sometimes, the problem is exacerbated because in many smaller cities and towns, the police don't think of gay bashing – especially if committed against homeless homosexuals, lesbians or transgendered – as a real crime. Belamy says "a cop downstate (in Illinois) told me once that he has too many 'real crimes' to deal with so he doesn't sweat a homeless person getting beaten up unless they die. A homeless LGBT victim of a violent crime might as well be invisible to the police."

Perhaps not surprising, a community affairs officer in the central Illinois town Belamy was complaining about denies that police look the other way at any crimes that get reported. Yet similar attitudes by cops towards the homeless in general and LGBT people specifically without a place to live are reported across the nation.

"They're too fucking busy with 'stop-and-frisk,' hassling black and Hispanic kids who didn't do nothing, to worry about whether someone like me is getting himself hurt by some dude beating on me," Rubio Del Gaddo insists. Del Gaddo, who is gay, was homeless for more than a year, starting in mid-2010.

"But when I got caught stealing a fuckin' 89-cent can of tuna 'cause I ain't eaten in three days, man, I was on Riker's (Island, the city's prison) faster than shit goin' through a sick dog," he says, anger at the injustice he faced when living on the street evident in his voice. "The fuckin' tuna was on sale, man, 'cause the can had a big dent. No one wanted it and I fucking needed it."

The unfairness followed him even after he'd served eleven days of a 30-day shoplifting sentence – the only time in his life he was arrested. "So now I got a record and can't get into lotsa' shelters or city housing."

Todd Belamy says what happened to Rubio is fairly common. "A homeless gay man gets beaten and cops don't bother showing up even if somebody calls 9-1-1. But every cop in Manhattan comes racing with lights flashing and sirens blasting to bust him for trying to get food when he's almost starving on the city streets.

"If Rubio had an address, he'd have gotten probation for a first offense and never gone to jail," Belamy maintains bitterly. "The 'system' just doesn't care about people like him."

Rubio's complaints are echoed in other ways by LGBT homeless.


Sex Worker

For instance, 29-year old Hillary Donovan knew when she was six or seven that although born a boy, she should be a girl. When she decided to come out to her parents and begin her transition at seventeen, her father threw her out of the house although Hillary's mother kept in contact and helped as much as she could. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York from Dallas and got work where she could find it. Hillary was a waitress for a few years before spending two years as an escort and professional dominatrix where she earned enough money to pay for laser hair removal and implants.

"I hated sex work even though the money was decent," Hillary says. "The hours were awful and the clients were creepy but I had to pretend each guy was my boyfriend that I'd love forever.

"It wasn't glamorous and I didn't feel like Belle," the high priced escort played by Billie Piper in the British-made TV drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl. "I sure as hell didn't live like her."

To change her life, Hillary attended school to become a make-up artist so she could work in the theater and on movies. But jobs in show business are hard to find and the gigs she landed on low budget, independent films or way-way-off-Broadway shows barely paid for the subway ride in from the one bedroom apartment in a six-floor walk-up she shared with two roommates in the far upper reaches of Manhattan.

Hillary says she was just barely making it but recalls that things became really bad when "One day I came home and my two roommates had moved out. They took everything except my dominatrix clothes."

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She found herself with almost no money, no roommates to share the rent and no real job. After qualifying as a make-up artist, she had quit sex work and was determined not to go back even though cash was tight. She sold what she calls the "costumes" from her dominatrix days to a woman she knew still in the business and got a little cash. But when she didn't have enough money to pay the rent, the landlord began eviction proceedings. Hillary became homeless and ran smack into the ferocious problems of a transgendered person living on the street.

"I signed up for emergency housing but there wasn't enough to go around," she states. "Anyway, families get first priority. And the city didn't know how to classify me. Even though I live as a woman, because I hadn't had SRS (sex reassignment surgery) I couldn't get into facilities for women. When I went to men's shelters, I got turned away because I'm female."

For two weeks, Hillary lived on the street spare changing passersby for money to buy food and sleeping where she could find a place: Bus shelters, doorways and, one night, in a subway tunnel.

"Somebody I'd met showed me how to get in," she states, "but that was a nightmare. Between the rats, the roaches and the creeps living down there, I'd rather be in a doorway."

After the city found a room for her at a motel in Queens, Hillary had a roof over her head but discovered she traded one set of trouble for another. "Women living there who were no better off than me hated me because they thought I was after their men. And every guy who was just a bit homophobic turned on me.

"I was called names every time I left my room and if I came back at night, I felt like I was in danger," she remembers. "Somebody was always threatening me. A few times I got shoved around."

"It was because I have tits and a dick," she insists, probably with good cause. "No one else got hassled like I did."


Hillary finally got off the street when she met a hair stylist on a two-day job at a movie set who offered to let her become his roommate. "It was a dump of a place but it was finally a home. And my roommate is gay so I don't have to worry about him."

That was three years ago. She now lives in a Manhattan bedroom suburb of New Jersey, sharing her boyfriend's condo with him and doing make-up in a nearby salon. Hillary is almost gleeful when says, "My life was hell for a long time. OK, so I'm not the all-American girl living everybody's idea of a dream. But Geoff adores me, I have a good job and we're building something that might actually last. From where I was a few years ago, that's seems pretty dreamy to me."

Few Happy Endings

Yet stories with decent endings like Hillary's, or Craig and Mark's, are few and far between among the LGBT homeless. Even though America has become far more accepting of non-straight lifestyles over the past decade, for those who are living on the fringe of society, being "different" can add to their woes.

"It's much easier now living in the mainstream if you are gay or a T-girl or lesbian than it used to be," states my transgendered friend Helen Bissett, who has lived as a woman for nearly 20 years. Although she has had some tough times during her life, she's never been homeless but knows some LGBT individuals who have been. "For most LGBT people, it's even rougher if you're homeless than it is for straights."


As a straight man who knows first-hand that being homeless is no picnic, it must be a living nightmare for LGBT people who don't have a roof over their head.

Charley James

Author and journalist Charley James’ next book is about his experience becoming homeless. When published, Charley will donate a percentage of his advance and royalties to homeless organizations.

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Posted: Sunday, 5August 2012

Charley's next book is about his experience being homeless. When published, he will donate a percentage of his royalties to homeless organizations.