• Anibal Santiago

All he had was his dirty laundry basket

“Faggot! I never want to see you again!” was the last scream Andy, 16, heard from his parents before he walked to his friend’s house with a dirty load of laundry in a basket. A walk towards the unknown scared him but his body kept moving.

Andrew Santana grew up in Roslindale, Massachusetts in a religious Guatemalan household. From his Hispanic traditions to his religious standards, he lived in a very tight box.

“I knew I had to mask my true identity or my family would kick me out, no matter how young I was. Me being gay wasn’t that important to me for a long time because I preferred to have a home,” said Santana, who goes by Andy.

He was, by his own account, a very timid church boy who spent a lot of his free time in his room playing video games, alone. But he wasn’t granted too much free time. His parents would gather the family to go to church three times a week, for hours each time. Outside of the church, he accompanied his family on their door to door service, which was a mandatory practice of their religion. A lot of his childhood was in the shadows of his religion.

“My religion was my life growing up. It was more important than school. I could miss a day of school before I could miss a day at church, in my household,” said Andy.

Santana is one of the estimated 1.6 million young people who experience homelessness in the United States every year. He also falls into the 40 percent of them who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer), according to a study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law, in 2012. Similar estimates are used by major advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, as of 2018.

Just as Santana did, many of these youths flee unaccepting and sometimes dangerous environments and end up at a group home or shelter. Some find their way to the shelters through school officials, the Department of Family and Children, or themselves.

“We mostly get our residents through DCF, but we do have a few here and there trickle in other ways,” said Samantha Linnehan, who is the assistant director at The Home Organization that operates The Waltham House shelter.

The Waltham House in Waltham, Massachusetts.

The staff at these group homes try to assist youths with their trauma. But the job is far from easy, and they struggle to achieve their mission, according to staff members, program directors and counselors who spoke about their day-to-day tasks.

Residents often enter shelters and homes with an overload of anger, emotion, energy, and passion. Their complications are compounded by their age. Many of the residents will undergo puberty during their duration at the home, making the job much harder for the staff.

“A lot of the kids don’t want to open up about anything for a while. So all we do is react to their behaviors until we gain their trust and get them to talk about what really happened to them and what happens at the home,” said Meghan Mirabello, the out-patient therapist at Cornerstone Residential.

The programs are designed to heal and assist the residents, allow the staff to understand their story, family dynamic, and personal traumas. Some homes have one-on-one meetings with the residents to give them the undivided sessions with psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and other professionals.

Andy Santana had militant childhood that he did not always consider to be traumatic, but in retrospect, he believes his upbringing silenced a lot of his own thoughts. He was on cruise control, a mode set by his parents who were dictators of their religion.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses religion is a branch of Christianity known for its strict guidelines. It was all Andy knew growing up in Boston, in a family of 5, the middle child and the only male. For Andy, the religion shunned everything he knew he represented.

As the only male child, he was guaranteed most of his family’s wealth. But realistically, to win the family janitorial company and real estate, it meant he had to follow the “correct” lifestyle his parents had planned for him. But he knew that the heterosexual, ‘get married then have children’ story line would take him away from his truth.

The rules were clear. He was not to trust or befriend “worldly people” because they did not practice the same religion. Andy was to only engage in any activity with his “brothers” which included females as well, but the term strictly included only people of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.

He was taught to recruit classmates at a very young age, during school hours. His parents advised him to inform the worldly people of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious practices and why living outside of that religion was wrong.

“The Church would tell us that being in school was a teaching opportunity, to educate the teachers and other classmates why we didn’t celebrate holidays or stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in the mornings,” said Andy.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation does not allow any celebration for holidays or birthdays, due to their interpretation of the Bible. Which meant Andy did not experience wrapped gifts in his childhood. Although his parents often bought him things, the delivery had no reference to holidays or birthdays.

But Andy got his first cellphone at 14 years old because he was at the age where he was walking to and from school, alone. The main purpose of the phone was for safety and for him to remain in contact with his family and his “brothers.” But, for Andy, it gave him access to “worldly people” and the internet.

His curiosity of the world outside his religion began to soar as technology advanced. After he owned a cellphone, he got a personal desktop computer for his room.

These two devices gave Andy a wide access to a new world of ideas that soon exposed his hidden truth and contradicted what he always was taught.

As puberty hit, things started to get more confusing for Andy. Hormones triggered behaviors he wasn’t used to. He was in constant battle between his curiosities and what he knew was right or wrong.

He was caught two times watching gay porn by his parents. The first time he was caught was at 14, in his bedroom, by his father. The second time, at 15, by his mother on the living room desktop computer. It caused hysteria in the family. Several family meetings were held to expose what Andy did, to shame and embarrass him.

“They would sit me down on the couch, and my sisters and parents would sit across from me. Usually my parents were standing up, and they would introduce the Bible and start the conversation with Biblical verses,” said Andy.

As a punishment, he lost his privileges with the devices and was forced to convince his family it was a mistake and that he had no idea what it really meant to watch two males have sex.

Fast forward one year, Andy was now 16 years old. He told his parents he was hanging out with church friends, when he was actually hanging out with a “worldly” friend who was also gay.

He lost track of time and passed his 6:30 p.m. curfew. Waiting for him in the living room, his parents watched him enter the house two hours after his set time. Immediately they verbally attacked him--- they had discovered his alibi was a lie. They demanded for his cell phone, to investigate who he was with.

His truth was revealed in the most recent text message thread with the gay male. The conversations, the language and the flirtations between the two, set fire to Andy’s home.

“I just remember as they took my phone, that this was it. This was the day I knew would come but at the same time wish didn’t. I honestly, remember feeling numb and faint,” said Andy.

Santana says his parents physically started attacking him, screaming profanities and degrading words. His mother’s words do not fade with memory:

“Faggot! I never want to see you again!”

They threw him out. He managed to grab the first thing he could from his room—his dirty laundry basket. He figured whatever was in there was enough to get him through a couple days.

A couple days turned into never.

The intersection Andy Santana walked through when he got kicked out of his house, in Roslindale, Massachusetts.

Eventually, after moving from one friend to another, Andy found his way to a group shelter for LGBTQ youths. It was welcoming, but hardly ideal.

The Waltham House is a shelter that houses 12 homeless youths between the ages of 14 and 18, specifically those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. This organization offers 24-hour staffing for its residents, and one staff to every four residents. It also provides programs and assistance to treat each client with the proper attention to evaluate and medicate.

“We don’t always have a full staff due to funding,” said Allyson Montana, the program director at The Home Organization. “Eventually the employees want to get paid more to keep up with the cost of living. We rely heavily on self-promotion for sponsorship but it’s tough to get. So, we end up losing staff more frequently than we would want,” she continued.

Allyson Montana the Program Director at The Home for The Waltham House.

The short-term goal of this program is to find permanency once the youths graduate out of the home at age 18. This does not an easy task and at times requires the staff to research distant family members who may live out-of-state.

“I was sort of open with the staff at the shelter, but I told them to hold back on reaching out to my family because I knew it would go nowhere. The staff didn’t really understand the religion I was brought up on, so it was hard to get them to understand that religion came first for my parents,” said Andy.

Santana kept his job at Old Navy, which allowed him to keep his same routine that he had prior to entering the home. He knew this was very temporary because he was at the age that he was able to hold a part-time job to save up and eventually move out.

There was tension between residents like Andy and the staff or professionals. They all wanted the same outcome but walked different lives. They both play different roles that was difficult to envision crossing. But in order to progress, the conversations must remain flowing.

Santana remembered the activities getting very redundant. Although the sessions with counselors and therapists did help him through his confusions, he did not want to feel like he was living in a mental home. He described the weekly routine between group activities and sessions with therapist getting less and less exciting.

“Thank god, I had a job. The older I got, the more hours I started to receive at Old Navy, which meant the less time I spent at the home,” said Andy.

Other shelters and homes in the state struggle with similar difficulties to operate a successful program for the youths.

The lack of training for the staff at many homeless youth programs and homes, puts a leash on the success stories. Staff in group homes are only able to go so far, train just enough, in order to assist the youth in their homes.

“I don’t remember an extensive training, and we only revisited trainings once a year,” said Kelly Olsen.

Olsen, now a family and children psychologist, was studying psychology at Salem State University when she was given the home counselor position at Cornerstone Residential Home. With no degree or quality experience, she applied for a secretary position at the group home when she was 20 years old, just to make some money.

The hiring director called her in and offered her the home counselor position, simply because she once worked at the YMCA when she was a teenager, Oslen says. The employer interpreted those skills at the YMCA, as a staff member who just monitored kids during activities, as qualified group home experience, according to Olsen.

Olsen was hired and given a one-week training orientation and then thrown into the home with nine residents. She said she experienced severe levels of abuse from the residents, from having her hair being pulled out, to kicks, bites, and more. The director would coordinate minimal trainings classes on de-escalation, but it was not enough, she says.

Olsen continued to work at Cornerstone for five years while completing her undergrad degree in psychology. But the lack of resources, compensation, and overall work environment forced her to seek other job opportunities. She was making $11 an hour to provide therapy and assistance to youths.

Some were under-privileged kids sent from the Department of Family and Children, who were taken out of their homes because of their rebellious behavior. Others were sent from their home for being misunderstood by their family members because of their sexual orientation and identity.

“I remember wanting to do activities with the kids, but the funding they said was put aside for it, always felt unattainable. I would never be able to use it but the directors at the residential home always insisted it was there,” said Kelly Olsen.

The residents grew a tight bond with Olsen after some time, she says, but the turn-over rate in the group home was high. Often, as soon as Olsen gained the residents’ respect and trust, they were shifted back into their permanent residence. She says kids were given minimal care, and then thrown back into families that had not changed. But funding didn’t allow the counselors to bring parents into the therapy sessions, so the staff had to focus on the youths.

“I can remember more times not working with parents than working with them. It was so important but between having no money to schedule me in to meet with them and parents not being open to talk to me. Eventually I just worked with what I had and what was available,” said Meghan Mirabello, the out-patient therapist.

The residents at her shelter were given medicine, two one-hour sessions with a therapist and a psychiatrist. The rest of the time was left to home counselors to involve them in activities and outings. Olsen says she did what she could to try to make a difference in the lives of the residents while they were there.

“You don’t know how many hikes and mall trips I did with the kids just to get them out of the home,” said Kelly Olsen.

Santana has been on his own since he was 16. There was no family that took him in at age 18, when he graduated from The Waltham House, but he secured an apartment in Dorchester with a roommate from work. The out-patient therapists popped in monthly, but he remembered those visits fading quickly.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Massachusetts and currently holds a manager position at T-Mobile. He maintains a distant relationship with his parents, primarily through the phone, but he said he rather have something than nothing.

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