The Unseen World of LGBT Homeless Youths
In his new book No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions, Ryan Berg tells the stories of some of the residents of the New York City group home for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths where he worked in the early aughts. As is true for many LGBT youths in the foster care system, the teens he profiles face a stunning and terrible array of challenges, homophobia and transphobia among them but also racism, family abandonment, drug addiction, unsafe schools, lack of access to job training, poverty, and—last but decidedly not least—the underfunded and badly broken foster care system itself.
These are youths like Benny, the 19-year-old who spends his days maxing out credit cards by talking to men on phone sex lines while trying to graduate from high school and deal with the recent death of his mother from AIDS complications. Or Bella, a young transgender woman nearing “aging out” (the time when she will no longer be able to stay in the foster care system) with no concrete plan for where she will live or what she will do next.
Berg enters this world as a “man from the Midwest with no social service experience” who finds himself “wholly unprepared for the myriad personal and social issues” the youths present. The book is told in discrete but connected chapters that focus on one or two of the youths at a time; over its course, we see them struggle and Berg struggling right alongside them—to understand their issues, to stay motivated in the face of overwhelming difficulties, and to figure out his role as the part-time state-mandated authority figure in their lives.
No House to Call My Home opens and closes with a litany of statistics and stories that attest to the structural nature of the problems; the point is to make clear that these are not the issues or failures of individual youths (or their families or communities) but rather the fruits of structural oppression and our society’s general disregard for poor young people of color, and especially poor, queer young people of color.
TakePart called Berg, now the program manager for a youth services organization in Minnesota, to discuss the lives of LGBT foster youths and the difficulties that come with trying to write nonfiction about marginalized and underrepresented people.
TakePart: What compelled you to write No House to Call My Home?
Ryan Berg: I was doing work in the LGBT unit in foster care in New York in 2004, but it didn’t feel appropriate to be writing about the youths while I was working with them. It felt exploitative.
After I left the position, I went into an MFA program, and their stories were still with me. I really felt an urgency in telling them. There was nothing being said about the youth experience of homelessness. We know the statistics. They’re out there, but people really operate from empathy. I was trying to help by opening a door into an unseen world, to focus on the lives of the young people experiencing the hardships that were addressed in the book.
The inherent challenge was how to do it while honoring their stories and their privacy. It’s really such a power, and I wanted to make sure that I was exercising that power as justly as I could.
TakePart: What does that mean to you, making sure that you’re exercising the power as justly as you could?
Berg: I mean that I’m interrogating my motives for writing the story. I’m aware of my own privilege and power in that moment and not shying away from it. Within the book I tried to acknowledge places where I can’t comprehend or understand their experience, because I haven’t been there. When they’re experiencing family rejection or abuse or systemic failures, I acknowledge that, but I’m not really able to grasp all of that. It’s about operating with as much empathy as possible.
TakePart: That makes sense, but there were a number of moments in the book where I felt we were veering more toward pity than empathy. How did you navigate that?
Berg: It’s a challenge, right? I kept hammering at these stories and talking about them because it does feel insurmountable. It does feel like it’s something you can’t navigate. You can’t steer against the tide—it’s just too strong. I think that was something I was honest about when I was writing.
I hope that people would be able to come up for air and gain perspective, but also I wanted to be real about the challenges and realities that many people face. In this mire of hopelessness, or a situation that maybe I saw as hopeless, they were able to find hope within it. There were little glimmers of hope that were peppered throughout, regardless of situations that they were up against, but they were still persevering and pushing through.
I think there is an American myth that if you just put enough effort into something you can make it work in life, and I was watching a lot of the youth working, and that was obviously not the case. It seemed like they were working constantly, and they couldn’t break out of this insurmountable past. What I didn’t have words for, and what I don’t really acknowledge necessarily in the narratives by name, is that the system is working against them. I was watching a system that works for me and not understanding in the moment why it did not work for other people.
There was a frustration around that, because it is a litany of tragedies and letdowns, and obstacle after obstacle, and challenge after challenge, that from a white man’s perspective seems incomprehensible. There’s frustration that came with that. I won’t say I felt pity for anyone. I definitely felt empathy. There’s heartache there. You grow relationships with people, and you care about them, and you’re working with them in order to help them navigate systems, but you’re getting to know them as individuals and as people, and they’re nuanced and complex. You want them to succeed in life because you care about them.