Like many runaways, Dee’s childhood left much to be desired. When you ask the Detroit 19-year-old about her father, she says, “What father?” Her mother wasn’t much of a permanent fixture either. Dee spent most of her life in foster care — in her case a sentence of alienation and abuse.
“I went through a lot of things that young girls shouldn’t go through,” she says. “A lot of bad stuff happened to me.”
Dee, whose name Metro Times has changed to protect her identity, says she was “locked in closets, left on the porch in the rain and stupid stuff like that. … I was treated like an animal.”
Being gay made life harder. One foster parent in particular, Dee says, stood out for her cruelty.
“She told me I was gonna grow up to be a dyke. I never understood what she meant. I just knew I was different,” Dee says.
Dee ran away at age 11. She sums up street life as “lonely … cold … depressing … hard.”
Staying alive was a battle every day. She almost lost the fight when she was beaten and raped at age 13.
“At the time, I was thinking if I ever make it out of this, I am going to make my life better,” she says. “I laid there for hours and hours and hours until I pulled myself up.”
Today, Dee works about 30 hours a week and plans to start college next fall. She’s looking at Wayne State University, where she hopes to become a drama or computer science major.
Dee was lucky. She’s one of the thousands of gay teens every year who’ve found their way to Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center. Since February, she’s been enrolled in an 18-month residential program that aims to equip 16- to 21-year-olds with the know-how to live on their own.
A Detroit gem
The Ruth Ellis Center is the only nonprofit organizations in the Midwest providing shelter and social services specifically to homeless LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) teens, and one of four nationally, says Grace McClelland, executive director of the program. In Detroit, the center estimates there are 5,000 homeless people under the age of 21, and that about 40 percent of them are LGBTQ.
“Their needs are just not being met by mainstream services,” says Beth Bashert, the Ruth Ellis Center director of development and public relations. “These are kids that have been discarded by their family. That is part of the problem. That leads to low feelings of self-worth, and there is this feeling that they are not going to succeed even if they try, so we have to work on the issues of self-worth. There are also issues of safety and homophobia. They are coming out, but they need to learn how to handle that in order to keep themselves safe. We really have difficult challenges with some of these kids.”
Founded in 1999, the center is visited 6,000 times a year by youth seeking help and companionship, and has a staff of 12 full- and part-time workers, says Bashert. The center gives LGBTQ youth not only a safe place to sleep, but a place to be themselves.
The nonprofit, funded almost entirely by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with local grants, is named after the lesbian activist who opened her home to the gay black community in Detroit during the 1930s and 1940s. Though Ellis, a photographer, printer and jack-of-all-trades, never made more than $10,000 a year, she was known for giving all she had to gay youth for school, food or whatever else they needed, according to Bashert.
“We get to carry her name and her work into the future, and that’s truly an honor,” says Bashert.
The center’s shelter has a 24-hour on-site staff that provides everything from food, drug-abuse counseling and medical attention to life-skills counseling, education planning and job-prepping — all things McClelland says are virtually nonexistent for local homeless youth. The shelter, with residencies up to a year and a half, opened earlier this year, and by year’s end the center hopes to add a short-term shelter.
“What we are working on is a short-term shelter which would be for 15 to 30 days, so the kids could just walk up to the door, come in and get a bed,” says McClelland.
In the long-term shelter, the teens “direct their own plan and treatment,” says McClelland. “They set out short-term goals, first for 30 days, and then for every three months at a time. They work their plan, and we make adjustments.”
Dee says the shelter wasn’t what she expected.
“This program has forced me to get to know myself, my limitations. It has not been a walk in the park, but it has taught me a lot. It’s taught me that I need some type of structure in my life,” says Dee.
McClelland says it’s challenging to deal with the countless problems faced by homeless LGBTQ teens, including prostitution and drug use.
“Homeless young people nationally do what they need to do in order to survive. Some of those things include stealing, typically shoplifting things like groceries,” she says. “They also engage in prostitution to try to survive. It’s problem for homeless youth across the board.”
McClelland also runs a drop-in site at McNichols and Woodward that provides hot meals, community support, clothes, shower and laundry services, as well as life-skills counseling. It’s open Monday through Friday from 4 to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 8:30 p.m. Dozens of young people a day receive aid from the drop-in center.
“A lot of the folks that come into the drop-in center come because this is the only safe place they’ve got. There’s a young transgendered woman who is squatting in a house nearby,” Bashert says. “She comes into the drop-in center, finds a couch and falls asleep. She can’t sleep safely in the house she’s squatting in. She’s not getting any rest.”
Outreach staffers also go into areas with transient youth populations.
“Whatever is popular for the kids is where we try to be. We pass out safe sex kits and information about how to find our house and how to access services,” McClelland says.
Bashert says every year more than 1 million kids fend for themselves on the streets of America.
“It sounds like a shocking number, like we’re inflating it, but we’re not. I wish we were inflating it,” Bashert says.
With the insurmountable needs in southeast Michigan, the Ruth Ellis Center needs as much support as it can get, Bashert says.
“It all comes down to money,” says Bashert.
“We are going to do whatever we need to do to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth,” McClelland says.
You can learn more about the Ruth Ellis Center at ruthelliscenter.com or by calling 313-867-6936.Anthony Martinez Beven is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]