There was nowhere for 19-year-old Sean Chavez to go when Hurricane Harvey thundered into Houston less than two weeks ago. The homeless teenager, who is bisexual, sat on a sidewalk drenched in rain. It came down with such fury that it got into his lungs. A sick feeling grew in his stomach. He was getting cold.
“I couldn’t really breathe,” Chavez told NBC News. “I was praying I could get a place to get out." Then, he said, a car pulled over and a woman stepped out. She asked him if he had a place to go.
“I told her no, I was homeless,” he recalled. He said the woman handed him a $100 bill and told him to find a motel. He went to a nearby Motel 6, he said, and got a room. He turned on the TV and saw the news.
“There was flooding all over the place,” Chavez said, "and that day I couldn’t leave at all, because it was flooded. I was surprised it didn’t flood into the motel, too.”
Houston officials did not order a mandatory evacuation before the storm that unleashed catastrophic flooding on the country’s fourth largest city, which advocates say has become a refuge for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth fleeing unaccepting homes throughout the South.
A day before the storm, about 20 homeless youth arrived at Tony’s Place, a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. There, they picked up survival kits, according to Al Amado, a homeless youth advocate who operates the center. He said the kits contained rain ponchos, a small flashlight, little sandwiches in plastic bags and granola bars. They also contained a list of nearby hurricane shelters. But Amado worried the majority did not go to the shelters for fear of how they might be treated.
“In their ideal world, they prefer to stay in their element, which is the youth that live on the street,” Amado said. “There’s a certain camaraderie and certain pack mentality — all those things you can imagine that develops. And the idea is, ‘I’m safer here with people like me than if I go someplace else where I have got to deal with people who are not like me.’”
Amado also worried some of the homeless youth would be sexually exploited for shelter.
“They get taken into somebody’s house, and they have sex with them — survival sex — just to have a place to stay and something to eat,” Amado explained. “That’s the other reality is that they become vulnerable to that the longer they are on the streets.”
To date, The Montrose Center — Houston’s LGBTQ community center — has collected more than $420,000 in donations for the LGBTQ Houston community. Amado said Tony’s Place, which is just a short walk away, is also collecting donations and will need volunteers in coming weeks, especially with backgrounds in psychology and disaster recovery.
“I anticipate some of [the homeless youth] may have some issues about the trauma they may have been through if they were out on the street during the storm,” Amado said.
Chavez is one of many LGBTQ homeless youth advocates are concerned about in the wake of the hurricane. As many as 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify of LGBTQ, according to UCLA's Williams Institute.
Amado said some of these youth would rather be on the street or in shelters than with their own families, even in a hurricane.
“There’s one of two things that happens,” Amado said. “Option A is they’re forced out of home by parents who are not approving of their sexual identity. And the alternative, which is B, is they just leave because they don’t want to be in that environment that doesn’t permit them to express their true sexuality.”
That was the case for 21-year-old Diva Richardson, a transgender woman who became homeless after she moved to Houston from Louisiana. She said her family did not accept her gender identity at the time, nor did she find acceptance in the small town where she grew up.
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“I was getting jumped on by dudes — like straight dudes and all that,” said Richardson, who stayed at a local Salvation Army during the storm. “I couldn’t be around kids and family, all that stuff, so it was kind of bad.”
Richardson came to Houston in May. She said she wanted to be in a city that accepted her and where she could pursue her dream of being a singer. She stayed briefly at a friend’s home, she said, but left after they got into an argument. From there she went to a local homeless shelter, she said, where some of the residents verbally abused her. They taunted her with names like “f----t," and "punk," she said.
“They were calling me names and stuff, and they didn’t want to be around me ‘cause I was gay,” she said, noting her harassers did not differentiate between being transgender and gay.
Richardson’s experience is reflective of what many LGBTQ youth experience in shelters, according to Amado. He said many avoid shelters because they typically house older adults, many of whom have drug and alcohol problems, he explained. He said the youth often don’t find the shelters to be accepting of their sexuality or gender identities.
“A lot of times they’re reluctant for the reason they fear they are going to be prayed upon, or that they’re going to be beaten up for their sexuality — those are a lot of their fears,” Amada said.
But Richardson, who doesn’t have any family or friends in Houston, has no choice but to stay in the shelter system or live on the street. Hoping she would be treated better somewhere else, she discharged herself from the shelter and checked into the Salvation Army Family Residence. She said she was afraid people at the new shelter would also call her names, but Richardson said she was placed with a male roommate who has been friendly toward her and other people in the shelter have been respectful.
“They pretty much accept me for who I am,” she said.
LGBTQ hurricane survivors are likely getting the same treatment from Houston agencies as everyone else, according to Alexis Melvin, president of the Houston-based Transgender Foundation of America (TFA).
“We feel strongly that will change as things get back to normal as we start to rely on federal and state help, because this is all local,” she said.
Melvin explained that Houston’s local agencies are generally LGBTQ friendly. She fears that as state and federal agencies take charge of relief efforts in coming weeks, LGBTQ survivors may see a shift in attitudes.
“We started raising money specifically for that reason, and we basically started a trans, genderqueer and intersex fund, so we can do some things to support people who start having trouble getting access to various state and federal facilities.”
Melvin said TFA is also raising money to help transgender people who lost their ID cards during the storm. “We have heard from a lot of people whose IDs are gone,” she said. “Basically, they lost everything in the flood. They have no IDs, no paperwork.”
Melvin said this is a particularly challenging problem for transgender survivors who have spent a significant amount of time and money getting their ID cards updated.
“We’re going to start by assisting with that if necessary, because you can’t get anything if you don’t have an ID these days,” Melvin explained.
Chavez took back to the streets after Harvey’s rains eased. He avoids the shelters, he said, noting they have strict rules and have many residents with drug and alcohol problems. He said he feels safer sleeping on the pavement, near the drop-in centers like Tony's Place and The Montrose Center, where he can get food and a hot shower. He’s currently sleeping on a sidewalk in an area that didn’t flood much, he said, and where there aren’t too many people.
The teenager said he has been homeless since his father kicked him out after a fight almost two years ago. He was homeless once before, he recalled, when he was five years old.
“I was homeless with my mom and my sister,” said Chavez, who has lived in Houston all his life. “We lived in a car, and it was excruciating. It was hot — it was summer.”
“It’s tiring going through the same stuff,” he added. “I went through this when I was 5, and I’m back in it again.”
Chavez has a few possessions: a backpack that he sleeps on, a few books, toothpaste, a toothbrush and deodorant. He likes going to Tony’s Place, he said, because he can relax and go on the internet there. He enjoys watching YouTube videos about engineering and physics. He wants to be a NASA scientist someday, but he doesn’t have a high school degree or any work experience.
“I have plenty of job applications sent out,” he said. “It’s just every time I apply for them they always say, ‘When you get a residence, come back and talk to me.'"
He explained that without a job he cannot get approved for an apartment and vice versa.
“It’s kind of like it’s like a catch-22,” Chavez said. “I can’t get a job, and I can’t get a house.” The teen said a housing agency was trying to find him a place to live but isn’t sure how the flooding will affect his prospects.
Richardson, too, is hoping to get an apartment soon. “ASAP, as soon as I get a chance to,” she said.
Richardson, who said she receives social security, said a housing agency was helping her get a one-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston. She hadn’t heard yet about whether or not it’s been flooded, but she is optimistic.
“Words can’t say — I’m excited,” she said, noting that she wants to go back to school.
“I’m kind of scared that I might not get accepted for this apartment,” she added. If she doesn’t get the apartment, she plans to continue living in shelters while she looks for another one. If she gets it, she’s going to invite other homeless youth stay there, she said.
“I won’t charge you nothing ... because you don’t have nowhere to go, and I been through the same thing you been through," Richardson said. “I have a good heart like that."