Out of the closet and onto the street

Young, gay and homeless in Vancouver

Matt and Jeremy: ‘The city did swallow me whole’

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Matt Piercy spent nearly a year homeless after facing rejection for being gay.

Staring at his apartment wall covered with outside wiring, Matt Piercy decided to take his own life. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried to commit suicide. At 12-years-old he thought to himself that he’d rather die than be gay. Eight years later in 2009 he sat in his cramped room littered with needles thinking similarly morbid thoughts.

“Somebody had stolen my last little bit of heroin and I just wanted to die,” Matt recalls. “I had no money so it was like, you know what am I going to do? I have to do crime or I have to go prostitute on Homer Street and I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Retelling his story, Matt sits next to Jeremy Long, a counsellor from the homeless and at-risk youth resource community Directions Youth Services Centre. The two met while Jeremy worked the night shifts at the centre and Matt would come in to eat the food served each night at 8 o’clock. They bonded over how they’d both experienced homelessness because of their sexual orientation.

Their stories are not unique. A quarter of homeless youth in British Columbia from the ages of 12 to 18 identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in a 2006 survey carried out by the McCreary Centre Society. On the other hand, a 2008 survey of teenagers in British Columbian schools shows less than three percent did not identify as heterosexual.

‘You don’t have to be gay’

Matt’s mom and stepdad kicked him out at 16 after catching him with another boy he’d been hiding in their home. “If you say that to my parents they’ll say, ‘Well you left,’” Matt explains. “And I would always say, ‘Well you gave me no option.’”

Since coming out to his mother at 11-years-old, he found it unbearable to be at home after his parents made numerous attempts to turn him straight.  His mother gave Matt a book called “You Don’t Have to be Gay” and sent him to see a counsellor who told him he must be heterosexual because God doesn’t make gay people.

“I wanted to believe her. So I was struggling inside because I had all these sexual attractions to men and I’m trying to be straight,” Matt says. “I thought whatever’s going on in my head right now, I must be crazy because I am straight.”

In acts of rebellion, Matt began using hard drugs. He ended up stealing and selling sex to support his intensifying drug addiction. “I just fell in love with it,” Matt says talking about crystal meth, a drug that would keep him up for days without having to eat. He moved on to heroin and became instantly hooked.

Not alone

Like Matt, Jeremy found himself in downtown Vancouver and homeless after leaving his parents’ place at 15. Feeling as though he were the only gay kid in the small city of White Rock, British Columbia, he snuck into gay bars 45 kilometres away. Looking for acceptance he began partying.

“They had what I wanted,” he remembers, talking about the guys he saw in the nightclubs. “They were themselves, they were open to being gay. They were happy, they were successful, and it just so happened that they were doing drugs, and I didn’t see that as a problem because I was so young.”

Listen: Jeremy: “It got bad enough quick enough that I got scared enough to stop” (1’40”)

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Jeremy, now in his mid 20s, cleaned up and became a youth counsellor at the youth centre Directions because he wanted to help others get through similar struggles.

“One of the biggest issues is that queer youth don’t feel like they can be open to trust people to support them,” he says reflecting on his own experience and discussions he’s had with young people at the outreach centre.

No home, little help

Homeless teenagers who are gay or transgender don’t have access to many helpful services, Jeremy explains. They often feel out of place at sexual minority youth groups where most teens aren’t struggling with addiction or living on the street. Conversely, resources for homeless teens don’t necessarily provide a safe environment for gay youth to hang out and be themselves.  Prejudice against sexual minorities runs throughout society.

“If all you’ve experienced is negative, you may not be willing to walk in that door to trust that somebody is going to reach out and help you,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, the research director from the McCreary Centre Society who’s studied the lives of sexual minority and street youth. “Pervasive community homophobia or discrimination makes it harder for (lesbian, gay and bisexual) youth to reach out and access other resources, so they don’t know where to turn.”

Saewyc’s research also shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are more likely to do drugs than their heterosexual peers.

That’s why Jeremy started an outreach group for queer homeless youth at Directions that lasted three and a half months in 2010. As part of his practicum in the Youth Justice program at Douglas College, Jeremy held gatherings once or twice a week where youth could talk or go see a movie. He says some told him they felt alcohol and drugs were staples of the gay scene.

“One of my goals was that I wanted the youth to see that you didn’t need to be in the club doing drugs to be normal or okay with being gay,” he says. “I wanted to show them there are people in the community that aren’t like that.”

In total he reached out to about 20 young people who were partying downtown and without a stable home. The group stopped meeting when his practicum ended and there was no funding left to keep it going.

Making it through

Sitting on the couch in his new subsidized apartment blossoming with freesias, Matt’s come a long way since contemplating ending it all two years ago.  Feeling wrecked he’d picked up the phone that day and called his building reception for help. He eventually received it from social workers who showed him that who is matters.

“I don’t hate myself anymore,” he reflects, remembering the times he’s been hurt and called a faggot. “I just don’t love myself.”

Now sober, Matt wants to follow in Jeremy’s footsteps.

“If Jeremy hears this he might laugh, but he’s fabulous. He is a fabulous person,” he says, chuckling. “He inspired me to always keep trying.”

“With all the stuff that I’ve gone through and everything, now it seems like such a waste if I don’t use my experience to help other people, especially queer people.”



Written by Jenna Owsianik

July 31st, 2011 at 10:37 pm

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