A point made by Carl Siciliano, Executive Director of the Ali Forney Center which helps homeless LGBT youth, may be counter-intuitive, but still true: The home can be a dangerous place for some young people, especially if they are gay, lesbian or transgender.
“I wasn’t dealt the best cards in life,” she says with a bucketful of euphemism. “My parents were drug addicts, so I was put in foster care at age four.”
Her mother managed to regain custody, but then died two years later of Aids. Both her fathers too died soon after, and she ended up living with her grandfather.
“At 13, I felt really confused about who I was; at 14, I was tiptoeing out of a deep closet.”
“I first came out in high school, telling my best friend,” recalled Tiffany. “But she said, ‘I knew it the whole time.’” Word spread, and bit by bit, the whole school knew. Not that it was a good thing.
“One day, I went to the bathroom. Some of the popular girls were in there. The bathroom had just two stalls and I went into the first one. I noticed that the conversation among those girls got lower.”
Then when she came out to wash her hands, the other girls went “dead silent.”
One of those girls called her a dyke. “You don’t belong in here,” the pack of girls said as blows rained on Tiffany.
“I fell onto the floor and instinctively raised my arms to protect my face.” Fortunately, another girl raised the alarm and the attack was called off.
“I avoided the bathroom altogether after that.”
Tiffany went to her guidance counsellor asking for transfer papers to another school. The counsellor did not fully believe her story and refused to provide them. “So I dropped out of high school at 15.”
Although she managed to enroll herself into another school, her rebellous phase began, a way of preemptively coping with expected discrimination and hostility. “My second high school didn’t work out either, and I began to make a living selling illegal substances.”
With the money she made, she was the one putting food in her grandparent’s house.
However, her uncle, who paid the rent and some of the household bills, saw in her someone who was neither in school nor working. He warned her: “If you’re not in school and not working, get out.”
When one day, her sister discovered illegal substances in her room and told the uncle, this proved to be the last straw. He kicked Tiffany out.
“I was seventeen,” she said.
She would stay homeless for seven years. At first she said she lived with her ‘mentor’ though she did not explain who exactly that person was. But after she overstayed her welcome, she reluctantly moved to Covenant House, a shelter for homeless kids run by the Catholic Church.
When that didn’t work out, she lived in abandoned buildings around the block, but there was a lot of moving around. One of the buildings burned down. In another, she was arrested for trespassing. She also stayed briefly at Sylvia’s – another shelter for homeless youths. Finally, she found herself living in trains. In New York, some subway services run all night, and for a price of a ticket one can keep riding the trains to get some rest. It’s a slightly warmer place to be in the winter when temperatures drop below freezing.
Still, she knew it was no solution. “It is hard to get a job when one is sleeping on the streets and looking like me.” So she applied to stay at the Ali Forney’s shelter, but the waiting list was long. In the meantime, she picked herself up and enrolled in a culinary training school.
“When I finally got a place here, and got a job too, I just did better,” she said, summing it up. Tiffany is now working in a restaurant and thankful for a new start in life.