Please join me in welcoming author and youth worker Ryan Berg to The Novel Approach today. Ryan’s book, No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions, brings to the fore the subject of youth homelessness and the percentage of those kids who identify as LGBTQ.
Ryan was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for me. I hope you’ll take a moment to read and comment.
And now, here’s Ryan.
Lisa: Hi, Ryan, welcome to The Novel Approach. I’m so glad to have you here with us today. Before we get into the heart of the interview, why don’t we begin by having you tell us a bit about yourself?
Ryan: Thanks for having me. I’m a creative nonfiction writer and youth worker based in Minneapolis. I’ve been doing youth work since 2004 and have been writing my whole life.
Lisa: Your book No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions deals with the subject of homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City, but do you see kids from all over—kids coming from small towns and other smaller cities thinking they’ll be better off in a big city like New York? What sort of odds are these kids up against in terms of finding help?
Ryan: LGBTQ youth homelessness is a national epidemic. 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ but make up only 8% of the general population. That’s a horrific statistic. Most youth end up migrating to urban centers because that’s where youth-specific services and shelters are located. But those youth are left to navigate unfamiliar streets leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. In the state of Minnesota, where I now work, there are over 4,000 homeless youth on any given night and only 500 shelter and transitional living beds for them. And Minnesota is considered one of the states providing the most comprehensive services for young people. The vast majority of homeless youth across the country are left to fend for themselves. So much more needs to be done in terms of federal, state and local support.
Lisa: The statistics are staggering and heartbreaking, and I’m sure every story you’ve heard about how these kids ended up on the streets is as heartrending as the next. Will you share some of your more memorable experiences working with the teens you’ve met and mentored?
Ryan: What always amazes me with these youth is no matter how dire their pasts have been or how much trauma they’ve experienced, they show unyielding resilience and determination. When we as a society have turned our backs on them, they soldier on. Although I’ve been tasked with providing support and services to young people experiencing homelessness, they teach me way more than I could ever hope to give.
Lisa: What are some of the greatest challenges these kids face once they hit the streets? And as caseworkers, what are some of the greatest challenges these helpers face in providing aid and services to homeless teens?
Ryan: Young people become homeless for a variety of reasons: under-resourced communities, generational poverty, lack of affordable housing, family or personal addiction, family or personal mental health issues, family rejection due to gender identity or sexual orientation. Poverty has its collateral consequences: greater rates of depression, experiences of violence, lack of access to resources and equitable education. The barriers really begin to pile up. Once homeless youth are at greater risk of being exploited, they may have to resort to survival sex–exchanging sex for food or place to sleep–and many LGBTQ youth are turned away from shelters due to their identities. Often times shelters aren’t safe for LGBTQ youth because of discrimination or violence. Youth would rather risk the streets than stay in a shelter that isn’t affirming of who they are.
Service providers struggle to find affirming shelters for LGBTQ youth. There is no federal mandate for LGBTQ cultural competency training. This means many youth who turn to shelter workers for support may be discriminated against, and face greater trauma. The greatest struggle is dealing with the scarcity of services. Most youth-specific shelters are full 100% of the time. Most youth are couch hopping or fending for themselves. Providing a safe and stable environment is essential to help them move forward. Unfortunately those spaces are few and far between.
Lisa: As a parent myself—and I’m sure many of those reading this interview feel the same—it absolutely enrages me to think that these kids have been thrown away solely because of their parents’ archaic fear and prejudices. I’m going to ask this, probably rather naively, but why aren’t their laws on the books that allow for these deadbeat parents to be punished to the fullest extent our judicial system should allow for disowning their children?
Ryan: Family rejection is definitely a big factor with LGBTQ youth homelessness but not the only cause. For many families there may be a cultural misunderstanding of LGBTQ people. There are initiatives across the country such as The Family Acceptance Project in California to help support family education, provide therapy and guidance to help reconnect LGBTQ youth and families. There are, of course, situations where that isn’t healthy for the youth. The work I do tends to come from a restorative justice lens, rather than a punitive approach. By that I mean we work towards repairing what has been broken. That can mean emotionally, personally, or within relationships. Many times the cause of rejection isn’t personal, but systemic or generational. Part of the work we need to do around LGBTQ youth homelessness is not demonize families, but rather look at the full complexity of the situation and advocate from that vantage point. That being said, we always work within a youth-determined framework. Youth let us know if family reconnection is something they’re interested in or not. We don’t push it or suggest it. We meet youth where they’re at emotionally.
Lisa: I think one of the most important questions I can ask you at this point, Ryan, is what can we do to help? How do we raise awareness of this issue and then go about helping to house, feed, clothe, and educate these kids? And most of all, to make them understand they’re valued and that there are people out here who care about them and their future?
Ryan: LGBTQ youth homelessness is often referred to as an “invisible issue” – because no one is talking about it. In order to make a difference, we need everyone to know it exists.
With NO HOUSE TO CALL MY HOME I hope to raise awareness about this issue and help evoke some change in these young people’s lives. Statistics can be numbing. I think we operate from a place of empathy. With this book I hope to humanize their stories. First step is awareness and building empathy. Secondly, find out who in your community is doing work with youth experiencing homelessness. Are they using LGBTQ Best Practices and cultural competency trainings? What do they need? Donations? Can you provide some skill they could utilize? Next, government officials don’t sway public opinion, they respond to it. People need to make some noise about this subject so elected officials know how they should vote. And communities need to be creative in finding ways to support young people in need of resources. In Minneapolis we have the Host Home Program where people in the community provide food and shelter to young people experiencing homelessness to help them stabilize and move forward. We need to care across differences and not assume this isn’t “my problem.”
Lisa: As I’m sure you’ve watched some of these kids grow from teens into adults, and seen your share of setbacks and successes, what do you count as some of your best success stories?
Ryan: Despite all the barriers there are youth who have come out the other side. One person I worked with now runs a literacy program for all of Greater New York City. Another works for a progressive think tank. I’m in regular contact with both of them. In fact, during my book launch in New York, they both read with me, sharing their amazing stories.
Lisa: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us, Ryan. Are there any websites/organizations you’d like to link to, to help spread the word and educate, including your own?
Ryan: Thanks so much for allowing me to share about this important subject! A few websites:
There’s also a national and local resource guild in the back of my book!
Blurb: In this lyrical debut, Ryan Berg immerses readers in the gritty, dangerous, and shockingly underreported world of homeless LGBTQ teens in New York. As a caseworker in a group home for disowned LGBTQ teenagers, Berg witnessed the struggles, fears, and ambitions of these disconnected youth as they resisted the pull of the street, tottering between destruction and survival.
Focusing on the lives and loves of eight unforgettable youth, No House to Call My Home traces their efforts to break away from dangerous sex work and cycles of drug and alcohol abuse, and, in the process, to heal from years of trauma. From Bella’s fervent desire for stability to Christina’s irrepressible dreams of stardom to Benny’s continuing efforts to find someone to love him, Berg uncovers the real lives behind the harrowing statistics: over 4,000 youth are homeless in New York City—43 percent of them identify as LGBTQ.
Through these stories, Berg compels us to rethink the way we define privilege, identity, love, and family. Beyond the tears, bluster, and bravado, he reveals the force that allows them to carry on—the irrepressible hope of youth.