Queer Secrets

Queer and Homeless in PVD

I first met Samantha (not her real name) in late 2019, mere months before the pandemic would cause perpetual change and adaptation. At the time, a career promotion left me with some free time and a desire to give back. I had coached Little League in the summer and handed out backpacks in the autumn to Providence Public School students. Then, in November, I decided to pack brown-bag lunches, 20 to 30 at a time, to hand out to folks downtown in the evening. My evening walks were concentrated around Waterplace Park, where clusters of hunkered-down, unhoused people gathered. The lunches I brought never lasted more than an hour.

Admittedly, my intentions were twofold. Sure, the sense of feeding a few folks in need felt rewarding, but I also wanted to practice approaching strangers and sparking small talk. I managed to talk with several people around the Kennedy Plaza/Waterplace area. There was a young couple, neither older than 20, one visibly pregnant. There was a tiny, shriveled woman in her 60s. Frail and hunched, but who could swing wildly from sugary sweet to belligerent. There was a lean man in his early 30s who took one of my lunches, inspected it, and tossed it in the trash before peppering me with questions.

Samantha sat along the steps around the basin of Waterplace Park, a lone figure using an overstuffed duffle bag for back support and with her feet propped up. She appeared to be dozing, but as I approached I noticed she was casually taking drags from a cigarette. She gladly accepted one of my lunches, assuming I was some sort of church group volunteer, and offered up conversation in between anxious bites of a ham sandwich. The glow of the looming Providence Place Mall cast a warm shadow over us.

Assigned male at birth, Samantha has felt like a woman for as long as she can remember. Less than a year before, at the age of 17, she’d mustered the courage to come out to her parents. A fiercely Catholic family left her shunned and unwelcome in the house. This cast her into limbo, alone and without housing in the capital city. Here and there, friends let her crash on their couches, but otherwise she was left to navigate through the maze of shelters where she was housed with men.

While talking, she wondered aloud about the approaching frost of December, this would be her first winter on the streets. She reflected briefly on a half dozen fistfights in her time outdoors. She felt her assailants targeted her because she was queer. She told me she was the victim of two violent sexual assaults; she’d never spoken about these instances and it was as if she was breathing a sigh of relief in simply being heard. “I wonder,” she said, “if I’d just repressed who I was, maybe I would still have a home, a family.”

I became aware that within an already marginalized homeless community, there existed an LGBTQ+ subculture further disenfranchised because of homophobia and transphobia. While concrete numbers are hard to come by, it’s no secret that members of this community are more likely to suffer acts of violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Estimates vary widely, but it is believed that up to 40% of the unhoused in Rhode Island identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community in some way. And then there are other forms of discrimination, like not respecting pronouns and identities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community denied housing. Since my first meeting with Samantha, her life has substantially stabilized. She has connected with a network of like-minded friends who all share an apartment in the city’s West End. She works in retail and, while she did not want to be identified, she wants readers to know that anybody going through similar hardships is not alone.

There are local resources out there for anybody in need. There’s the Providence Queer Housing Facebook group “aimed to aid queer folks in Providence to safe and affordable housing.” Then there’s Rhode Island Queer Exchange, also on Facebook, made “by and for the trans and queer communities throughout RI for the purpose of sharing ideas, information, upcoming events, medical and mental health resources, items for sale/trade, apartments for lease, rooms for rent, etc.” Youth Pride Inc. in the heart of downtown PVD can be a vital portal to resources as well, from legal services, to the spiritual, to housing and support groups.

For this article, I spoke to Julio E. Berroa from the Haus of Codec, which Berroa describes as “an organization helping LGBTQ young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. We provide them with emergency shelter services, if needed and as a space allows. We have a transitional housing program. We started our emergency shelter in 2021, taking only six individuals. We are adamant about growing because the services we provide are crucial. We provide our young people with case management services, access to mental health services, access to gender-affirming care and medical services, as well as a way for them to find jobs through a workforce development program, and ultimately a place to call home. Our mission is to build community through the arts and educational empowerment. Based in the creative capital, Haus of Codec is committed to ensuring an end to transition-age youth homelessness, in Providence, through the arts and workforce development.”