Pariahs amid the rainbow | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Pariahs amid the rainbow

Young, queer, and homeless in Boystown

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Late last year Chicago Public Schools reported 15,580 homeless students age 14 to 21, 10,684 of whom were living on their own, without a legal guardian. Those statistics aren't comprehensive, though, since many students don't report their homelessness. Nor do the stats include all of the kids who, like Donahoe, migrated to Chicago. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless youth has increased by 24 percent over the last two years—yet there were only 209 beds available for them in the city's centers and shelters during 2011. And a 2007 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force states that 40 percent of Chicago's homeless adolescents identify as LGBTQ.

Homelessness, however, can trump such distinctions as sexual preference. Prostitution is often among the fastest ways for homeless youth to secure food, find shelter, and build community—however precarious. As a result, sexual orientation takes a backseat to fulfilling basic needs.

For all its perils, homelessness can be monotonous. Many of those afflicted by it find themselves stuck in a daily pattern. "Every night I try and get into the Crib at 8:30," says 23-year-old Apollo Jones. There are only 20 beds at the Crib, a queer-friendly emergency shelter run by the Night Ministry, and those who don't get one have few options. They might call friends, ride CTA trains, visit a bathhouse, head to "Ho Stroll" (a sex strip near Belmont and Sheffield where they can make quick cash), or just walk around until a drop-in center opens in the morning.

Homeless on and off since 2007, Jones usually doesn't check on the availability of beds at adult shelters, where LGBTQ youth are often targets of violence and sexual abuse. "If I don't get in [to the Crib]," he says, "I find a Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, and hopefully I have some money to buy something so they don't bother me. I wait until the morning when the Center on Halsted opens for breakfast club at 9 AM." Jones visits the drop-in program at the Broadway Youth Center (run by the Howard Brown Health Center) on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, and attends its Wednesday community meetings. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he goes back to the Center on Halsted to talk with social workers and use the computers to search for jobs.

Temara Jazmyn became homeless last fall and spent six months on the street. - TODD DIEDERICH
  • Todd Diederich
  • Temara Jazmyn became homeless last fall and spent six months on the street.

Jones keeps most of his worldly possessions (hygiene products, a change of clothes, notebooks full of poetry and song lyrics) in a single backpack, which he either carries with him or stores for days on end in Dumpsters around the city. "It's really hard" when his backpack gets stolen, he says. "I just have to start again."

Jones tries to appear put together and says the same is true of most of his friends. Good grooming makes them harder to pick out as homeless, as does the vitality they exude by virtue of being young. The Boystown residents and workers I talked with were often unaware of any problem with homeless youth in particular, tending to fixate on the older street people instead.

But if Jones and his friends aren't identifiably homeless, they're unmistakably present. On any given summer afternoon, bus stops, storefronts, and parking lots along Broadway between Belmont and Addison are crowded with flamboyant teens and twentysomethings wearing everything from oversize T-shirts to wigs and four-inch heels. They gather in public spaces, yet seem to exist in a parallel universe.

Walking along Broadway, Donahoe points out several shops where she does business. "The manager here is one of my clients," she says, pointing to a by-the-slice joint. "I can always get free pizza from there." Donahoe says she sees some johns several times a month and builds a rapport with them. A few even bring her breakfast.

Donahoe started doing sex work because it was the quickest way into the Boystown LGBTQ community. "One of the girls gave me a wig, put some makeup on me, and I became passable. You work your way up, too. At first I could barely make 100 bucks a night. I didn't know my worth." She notes that her white skin is an advantage. "I'm not racist—it's just how it is. I was blessed in that way." She figures that now she can easily earn $600 on a weekend night. And she uses the cash to fund her ongoing sex change. "I'm two years into my transition, and I've paid for all of it through street work," she says with pride. To hear her tell it, Donahoe's story isn't about being forced into sexual slavery but about choosing a destiny.

She claims that achieving that destiny involves servicing a regular rotation of Chicago police officers. She says it started last year when she was approached by a cop in uniform. "I thought I was about to get arrested," she says. "Instead, he told he had a 30-minute break and asked me to meet him in the Dunkin' Donuts parking lot." Donahoe claims she now sees him about twice a month, and that her roster of customers includes a few other officers as well. She says she doesn't view the relationship as an abuse of power but as a silent, protective contract. "Having police clients benefits me on the street. They need you to keep your mouth shut." She's not alone in her allegations. The police-as-johns narrative is ubiquitous among homeless kids in Boystown.

The Chicago Police Department did not comment on the allegations.

"Street-based young people are the ones who experience the worst police misconduct, leaving them with very little protection," says the Night Ministry's Bradley. "Things are set up so that a police officer can have sex with a minor, pay them or not, and decide whether to arrest them or not . . . It's completely common."

Despite her swagger, Donahoe faces innumerable hazards. A study published in 2006 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force shows that all street-based youth, and primarily those who identify as LGBTQ, are severely affected by mental-health problems, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and abuse and violence.

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