Young, Gay, Homeless: Where to Go for Help; Agency Helps Teenagers Find Foster Care, and Deal with Issues of Sexual Orientation

By Aasen, Adam | The Florida Times Union, October 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

Young, Gay, Homeless: Where to Go for Help; Agency Helps Teenagers Find Foster Care, and Deal with Issues of Sexual Orientation


Aasen, Adam, The Florida Times Union


Byline: ADAM AASEN

In just four years, Jonathan Wilcox has been in 48 foster homes.

The 17-year-old is openly gay and sometimes like to dress up like his female alter ego, Madame J. When his Baptist preacher grandmother didn't approve of his lifestyle, he entered the foster care system at age 13.

His short temper ensured his stays wouldn't last long, Wilcox said.

A kid at school might make a rude comment to him and he'd end up trading punches.

He'd get into an argument with a foster parent who didn't approve of him wearing a skirt.

"Being gay in foster care is very hard," he said. "It can be very difficult to find someone willing to take you in."

This summer, when it looked like Wilcox might have to leave Jacksonville because he couldn't find a foster home, he turned to a trusted ally for help - his friends at the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network, also known as JASMYN.

Krista Girty, a licensed social worker and director of programs at JASMYN, talked to Wilcox's foster care caseworker. They were able to find him a home locally. He's happy with his new foster mom, Linda Johnson, and he hopes it's his last stop.

It's not the first time JASMYN has helped a teenager in crisis. The local nonprofit, which is a support network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, deals with issues of depression, discrimination and substance abuse all the time.

But one of the biggest challenges it faces is displaced youths.

Of the 300 to 400 youths that JASMYN serves, about a third fall into this category, said Cindy Watson, executive director of the center. Some are kicked out by their parents when they come out, others run away from home and some are placed in the foster care system.

PATHS OF THE REJECTED

According to a nationally recognized study by the nonprofit Road Island Task Force on GLBT Youth, about 25 percent of gay youths are forced to leave home before age 18 because of their orientation. The study also estimated that 20 to 40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT.

Watson said those teens, who are rejected by their families, can end up in difficult situations. She said a few teens live in homeless shelters, but more stay at friends' houses. She's seen about 10 teens living in a one-bedroom apartment because they needed a place to stay.

In the worst cases, she said, some youth resort to "engaging in survival sex" where someone sleeps with another person just so they have a place to stay.

Lynne Carroll, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida and author of a textbook titled "Counseling Sexual and Gender Minorities," said coming out at a young age can be tough because all teens - gay or straight - want to be accepted.

If their family or their church tells them, "that they're wrong, they might feel the need to escape that environment," she said.

But with help from groups such as JASMYN, Carroll thinks these teens can often emerge as stronger people.

"Sometimes these kids who are marginalized, who are beat up, who are dislocated from their families, they develop strength that carries them through their lives," she said.

FROM PLACE TO PLACE

Wilcox faced years of struggle, trying to find a home.

His mother had issues with drugs, so he was adopted by a family at birth. He eventually lived with his adopted grandmother, a very religious woman from Gainesville.

Wilcox said he always knew he was gay, but it didn't become a conflict with his grandma until he was 12. As a result of problems at home, he entered foster care a year later.

"I know she loved me," he said, "but I sometimes had doubts because she was preaching against what I am."

The first year, Wilcox was in dozens of foster homes. At times he'd stay at a place for only two weeks. A foster care official confirmed that Wilcox has indeed been moved 48 times, an unusual case. …

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