By Kristopher Sharp
In the summer of 2010, Nina was just shy of her 18th birthday. She had been in Houston for almost two years—the longest she’d been in a single city since she entered foster care. “For me, Houston was home,” she says. “The school I went to, the neighborhood I lived in, the people I seen on the streets every day—they all knew me, you know?”
Nina came to Houston when she was 16 to live at a group home in the north side of the city called L’Amor Village, which is off of Kuykendahl and FM 1960. Nina says that for the most part she liked the group home. “The staff were really nice,” she says. “I was kinda a bad kid though—I fought a lot and got into trouble at school.”
Nina entered the foster care system at the age of eight and lived in almost 12 different placements before moving to Houston. “It was really hard moving so much—no one wanted me, and I knew it was because I was gay,” she says.
Like many LGBT children in the Texas foster care system, Nina was forced to spend her childhood growing up in group homes. “Honestly, it was never an issue for me until I moved to Houston and started to go to Westfield,” she says. “That’s when everything changed.”
Knowing that she would soon be on her own after aging out on her 18th birthday, Nina decided to join a gang—a decision she says she deeply regrets. “I knew that I would have to do something to get in, but I didn’t know that it was going to be so bad,” she says. Nina was lead to a trap house after leaving school where she was gang raped. She says she lost count after the ninth person. “I became so empty inside after that,” she says. “I feel like I’ve been empty ever since.”
Nina says that when she tried to return to L’Amor Village later that night, she was told that she needed to leave. She was treated so badly, she didn’t even tell them about the rape. “I was in complete shock—I would have never expected them to treat me like that,” she says.
Nina would spend the next 13 months living on the streets in Houston. She says that she had trouble accessing any of the patchwork services that exist for Houston’s homeless. “I was able to get into a shelter for the first few nights, but I didn’t ever feel safe,” she says. “The youth programs wouldn’t take me anymore because I couldn’t prove my age. I didn’t have the energy to try to fight through the red tape—I was too exhausted just trying to survive, trying to process everything that was happening in my life.”
The HAY Center, a drop-in center that exists to serve foster youth who are getting ready to—or have already—aged out of the foster care system, provided Nina with almost no support. “I called my caseworker there back-to-back from different people’s phones,” she says. “She never answered. I remembered them telling us there would be help after we left the system, but it was a lie. I went to the center one day—and yeah I was pissed—I asked to see someone, sat in the lobby area for over an hour waiting, and got upset. They ended up having a security guard remove me. I didn’t go back after that.”
So she turned to the street economy and the gang she had joined for support. “It was all that I could do—use my body. It’s shameful, but it was the reality I had to live with,” Nina says. “It was what we all did to make it.”
Nina says that eventually she was taken under the wings of a pimp. She got pregnant and ended up spending about a year in jail for possession in 2012. After she got out, she tried to go back to the streets but decided that she needed to better herself and try to be a role model for her daughter.
Nina’s story is all too common—sadly—especially so within our community. Houston is on pace to surpass Chicago as the third-largest city within the next decade, yet our city still lacks the infrastructure needed to fully address the needs of Houston’s homeless youth population. San Antonio, the seventh-largest city in America, recently opened a shelter dedicated to homeless LGBTQ youth. Houston, however, struggles just to maintain the resources needed to connect youth to the places they can go to receive what little existing services are available within our community.
The fundamental problem our city faces is its size. There are various agencies doing great work within our city, but almost all of them do that work in a silo making it challenging for youth to easily access services and even more of an obstacle for existing providers to fill service gaps across the city.
Time and energy are privileges that are not afforded to the homeless—not when you have to spend every waking moment worried about basic survival. If Houston is to truly tackle the issue of youth homelessness, our community has to begin to meet youth where they are at physically, mentally, and spiritually. The hard truth is that right now, that simply is not happening, and we are allowing hundreds of young people to fall through the cracks in the process.