Many Young Unhoused LGBTQ+ People Are Living On The Streets. Often, Their Families Put Them There
Tryron Ramsey had been living at his grandfather’s house for a week when he walked into his bedroom after a shower. His grandfather stood there, holding the cell phone Ramsey had left unlocked on the bed, and asked:
“Who are all these guys on your phone?”
Ramsey had his phone open to Grindr, a dating app popular with gay men, and a stream of them were getting in touch — most of whom were shirtless. The constant dings from guys on the app waiting for a response from Ramsey had caught his grandfather’s attention. Ramsey stood there silent as his grandfather continued.
“I don’t want this in my house,” his grandfather said. “I love you, but I can’t have this around. You gotta leave today.”
LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness are a vulnerable population within an already vulnerable group. This is part one of a series that looks at the unique challenges faced by unhoused LGBTQ+ people who are between 18- and 24-years-old in L.A.
Stunned, the then 19-year-old Ramsey packed his few belongings in a gray suitcase and a duffle bag. By sunset, he was on the streets. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving 2019.
“I didn’t have nowhere to go,” Ramsey said. “I had to sleep outside. I never thought I would sleep outside.”
My whole family has been destroyed by drugs and gang violence. I’m the only one who wanted a different life.
His first night outdoors, Ramsey slept in his grandfather’s yard, but soon moved to different spots within a few blocks. He said going back to Lancaster, the Antelope Valley city where he grew up, was not an option.
“My father's into drugs, my mom’s into drugs, brothers, sister — you know, it’s a lot,” he said. “My whole family has been destroyed by drugs and gang violence. I’m the only one who wanted a different life.”
A different life is what brought Ramsey from Lancaster to his grandfather’s house in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood of L.A. He was planning on enrolling at Los Angeles Trade Tech College to study fashion merchandising.
“There weren’t really fashion opportunities in Lancaster,” he said. “That's why I came to L.A. — but my family didn’t get a lot of opportunities.”
Ramsey is one of the thousands of youth who end up homeless in Los Angeles each year. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2020 count, there were 4,775 youth experiencing homelessness, which included transition-aged youth (18-24) and unaccompanied minors. Nearly 36% said they were gay or lesbian.
L.A. County’s young people who are homeless have unique needs when compared to the overall unhoused population. They are more likely to be Black, Latino and/or LGBTQ+, and also suffer from not having a job, support system or positive adult relationships, according to LAHSA. Finding support can be difficult, especially since the experiences of lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals and queer people are different and each group has specific needs.
In 2019, three-out-of-five young people experiencing homelessness became that way for the first time, according to LAHSA. Ramsey was one of them, but said he only lasted four days before deciding to reach out to the Los Angeles LGBT Center in Hollywood, which has been around since 1969 providing services that include healthcare, social services and housing.
Before going to the shelter, Ramsey said he ditched most of his clothes — including his favorite red, white and blue windbreaker — stashing them behind a dumpster in an alley. He worried they would be stolen, but he didn’t want to carry everything to the shelter until he knew he could secure a spot.
When Ramsey arrived at the Anita May Rosenstein Campus of the LA LGBT Center, he said he was out of his comfort zone.
“I’d never been around people who were going through the same exact experience that I was going through, and it was hard to open up,” he said. “I was just coming from a crazy experience of my own family doing me wrong, my own family kicking me out.”
Ramsey was able to secure one of the 40 emergency shelter beds available to LGBTQ+ people, but it’s usually a process that can leave someone waiting for weeks for an available spot. Before the new campus was completed in 2019, the Center only had emergency beds for 20 people.
Gil Diaz, media and public relations director for the LA LGBT Center, said the number of homeless LGBTQ+ people they provided beds for decreased during fiscal years 2020 and 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Center had been on track to meet and potentially exceed its 2019 number, which was 1,518 people — a 2% increase from fiscal year 2018.
Ramsey said he was grateful to the center for providing him a place to live, but it opened his eyes to the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people who are unhoused, which include overcoming substance abuse and running away from traumatic experiences, much of it brought on by family.
“Some of them grow like a flower, and some of them don't really grow and get worse because of their situation,” Ramsey said. “It’s hard to be in a space with all that going on and you’re still trying to navigate your life and make the right decisions.”
According to the National Runaway Safeline, a hotline established in 1971 to provide crisis intervention for young people, the most common issues it dealt with in 2020 were related to family dynamics, followed by abuse and neglect. The data found that 71% of crisis calls came from young people still at home.
We have little doubt that LGBTQ incidents are more common in terms of outreach to our organization than we capture in annual data
Jeff Stern, chief engagement officer for the safeline, said the organization only knows if a person is LGBTQ+ if they say so, but he believes it’s “very likely” that more people are reaching out from the LGBTQ+ community.
“We have little doubt that LGBTQ+ incidents are more common in terms of outreach to our organization than we capture in annual data,” he said in an email, adding that they rely on the data of True Colors United, an organization co-founded by Cyndi Lauper that works to prevent youth homelessness.
“With their data showing the disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ youth who are homeless as compared with the general makeup of the population, it also leads us to expect we have more such folks reaching out to us even if they don’t disclaim it in a crisis contact,” Stern said.
When Ramsey called the LA LGBT Center, he said he had no idea what to expect. A case manager told him to come charge his phone and have a meal so they could talk. When Ramsey arrived, someone else had left the shelter that day — leaving a spot open for him. He couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Ramsey is also aware that his youth played a big part in why he was able to seize what he calls the “miracle” of getting a bed that he called home for eight months before moving to another shelter where he lived for a year.
“I’m right at that age group where I’m about to be cut off,” he said. “I realize that. I need to get in as much as I can before I really have no help.”
Much of the LA LGBT Center’s programming is focused on young people such as Ramsey, or seniors — both seen as particularly vulnerable groups within an already vulnerable population. For younger people, the Center’s programs are focused on those between 18 and 24 years old.
The center says it provides services for more LGBT people than any other organization in the world, and it relies heavily on the kindness of others. The Anita May Rosenstein Campus, where Ramsey was able to get an emergency shelter bed, was 10 years in the making and a significant portion of its funding came from philanthropy. The new complex was designed specifically for youth and seniors.
I’m right at that age group where I’m about to be cut off. I need to get in as much as I can before I really have no help.
During her first address to the L.A. City Council in January 2020, Council President Nury Martinez acknowledged the need for resources that address the needs of young LGBTQ+ people.
“Our LGBTQ youth who are shunned sometimes by their own family members also have a high percentage of homelessness if we don't assist them,” Martinez said. “We absolutely have to do everything in our power to make sure these young people don't end up on the streets.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened two months later, causing priorities to shift.
But the circumstances that cause so many young LGBTQ+ people to be in crisis haven’t changed much. An analysis of Los Angeles Police Department data by Crosstown LA found that between Jan. 1 - May 15, 2021, there was a nearly 18% increase in bias reported against gay men, lesbians, bisexual or transgender individuals in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period last year. Bias against gay men specifically jumped 45% during that same time period.
On a particularly warm Saturday morning as we drive down the street in Florence-Firestone where Ramsey’s grandfather lives, he reflects on his short time living there.
“It’s bittersweet because my grandfather, we don't really have the best relationship because of my family’s history of doing drugs and gang banging,” he said. “My grandfather is a Jehovah's Witness, so he isn't playing any of that.”
While we were chatting, his grandfather appeared at the front door, unaware that we were standing outside. They’ve had infrequent communication since Ramsey was thrown out.
After some small talk, the conversation shifted from why Ramsey was there in the first place to discussing being kicked out when he was 19-years-old. Ramsey’s grandfather said he didn’t approve of Tryron's choices, but that he still loves his grandson. After pushing a bit further, his grandfather told me that he was dealing with his own issues at the time, but he believed his grandson would be okay because he’s a “survivor.”
Ramsey said he understands he was kicked out because of his grandfather’s religious beliefs. But the once-fractured relationship also underscores a generational divide about perceptions of LGBTQ+ people that are hard to overcome, and leave many young people unhoused each year with limited available resources.
As we leave the house, Ramsey chuckles, acknowledging that his grandfather is set in his ways and nothing would probably change his mind about feeling that being gay is wrong.
“What I'm thinking ... is how far I've actually come,” he said. “I came a long way from sleeping outside of his house to having my own apartment in West Hollywood.”
Making LGBTQ Youth A Priority
Ramsey says his favorite memory at the LA LGBT Center was on Thanksgiving Day in 2019 when he found himself surrounded by volunteers, staff and people he bunked with at the shelter. Thanksgiving dinner was prepared and donated by strangers who stayed and shared the meal.
“It was people that I knew grew up very different from how I grew up,” he said. “My own family, my own blood, was like, You gotta sleep outside because I don't like your lifestyle. So it was bittersweet. It was really bittersweet.”
I came a long way from sleeping outside of his house to having my own apartment in West Hollywood.
That act of kindness from people who brought food to the shelter is likely how Ramsey said he was eventually able to forgive his grandfather and move on with his life. He said he’s forgiven his grandfather because “that’s what Jesus would want.”
Aside from finally moving into his own apartment, during his time at the center Ramsey made new friends and successfully completed a 300-hour culinary art program. Although he still wants to be a streetwear designer, he believes it’s all part of God’s plan for his life and he hopes to work as a fashion assistant one day to gain experience — much like the culinary program he took advantage of.
Shelly Rosenblatt, an intake and crisis specialist at My Friend’s Place, a nonprofit in Hollywood that helps unhoused youth between the ages of 12 and 24, said young people show up at their doors everyday asking for showers and help with housing, food and clothing.
Ramsey was able to adjust to life at the shelter, which allowed him to move forward, but Rosenblatt said queer youth who are non-binary or gender non-conforming have it much harder.
“There are no non-gender specific shelters, at least not in L.A,” she said. “The only options are only-male or only-female, which is a bit of a struggle. We haven’t figured out a way to create all-gender shelters. So, youth will end up staying on the street, and that may be more risky or harmful because there isn’t a place for them.”
Rosenblatt said resources did shift as the pandemic hit, which was “unfortunate” because there was already a lack of resources for queer youth experiencing homelessness. Beyond the issue of finding it hard to place queer youth in shelters where they feel safe, she said that a lot of shelters are “high barrier,” which also causes problems.
“A lot of them have a curfew of 9 p.m.,” Rosenblatt said. “Or, you can't bring any substances in. That's also hard because some youth who are on the street have substance abuse issues. It's easy to say not to bring any substances in, but if you're already addicted on the streets, how are you supposed to quit cold turkey with no support? If more shelters are opening, hopefully, they are more low-barrier.”
Sophie Gilchrist, a spokeswoman for Nury Martinez, said in an email that the L.A. City Council president is proud her colleagues have been supportive of organizations such as the LA LGBT Center, and that the city is working with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority to create more interim shelter beds for 18-24 year olds across the city, with a focus on LGBTQ+ youth in Martinez’s district, which includes neighborhoods such as Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Panorama City.
“Citywide, there are a variety of programs and initiatives we are investing in to ensure we reach this population ... we developed and enacted our Enhanced Comprehensive Homeless Strategy that contains components with a focus on vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ youth,” Gilchrist said. “We have taken strides as a city to ensure that LGBTQ youth who are experiencing, or on the verge of experiencing, homelessness are recognized and supported.”
Tryron Ramsey said he accepted the situation at the shelter because he didn’t want to seem ungrateful for help he needed to get back on his feet. He acknowledged that some people at shelters might not have the strength to keep going, but for him it was a matter of life or death.
“I didn't care who done me wrong, I just knew I wanted something better for myself,” he said. “I just wanted to move forward.”