by Laura Kwerel
Jermaine Edwards, 22, remembers one of the first times he stayed at a homeless shelter in Chicago. The beds were a foot and a half away from each other, and most seemed to be occupied by drug addicts. Many people lie in bed for just a few hours before getting back up again. And if you weren't careful to hold onto your belongings, someone would surely steal it.
'It was complete hell,' he recalls. 'All I kept thinking was like…my life was not supposed to be this way.'
Edwards is tall and muscular with a tattoo of his college fraternity letters, Delta Sigma Phi, on his left arm. He wears a white undershirt, plaid shorts and a necklace made of conch shells. Recently someone handed him a card and said he should be a model, but he never called the number.
'Everybody has their own story,' he says, explaining how he thinks teens become homeless. 'Most people think, well they're homeless because they ran away. That's not the case. A lot of kids, they're homeless because it's not their choice. Their parents threw them out.'
Which is exactly what happened to Edwards, five years ago, when he sat down at the kitchen table in his Arlington Heights home to tell his parents he was gay. He was about to leave for college, so he figured it was the best time to break the news. But when he finally told his parents, they just stared at him blankly.
'They pretty much disowned me from the minute I told them,' he says. 'My dad told me to pack my bags and never call them again.'
Daria Mueller, a policy specialist at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says Edwards' story is typical. 'For a lot of families, it's unacceptable for these youths to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered,' she says. 'They often get thrown out or feel compelled to leave because they don't feel accepted.'
Mueller points out gay youth are overrepresented among the homeless population—up to 38 percent of homeless youth identify as gay, compared to 10 percent in the general adult population.
Edwards says he never imagined he'd be living on the streets. In grammar school he was placed in gifted classes, and he graduated a year early from his high school in Arlington Heights. When Illinois State University offered him an academic scholarship, he accepted and enrolled there.
After spending some time in college, Edwards couldn't find a job. With no support from his family, he became homeless. He stayed homeless for two years, sleeping in parks and doing drugs to take his mind off his situation. Eventually he became clean and found an administrative job at a substance abuse rehabilitation program.
Finally, things seemed to be going OK—he had a steady job, a place to live and some college classes under his belt. Then one day, after over a year on the job, everything went downhill again.
'I didn't mean to do it,' he says, recalling the night he hit the young man attacking his friend at a party. His friend had gone outside to smoke a cigarette, and out of nowhere, some guys outside started beating his friend with a bottle. As soon as Edwards hit his friend's attacker, the cops showed up. 'And just my luck, I got arrested,' he recalls. 'I was locked up for three weeks, and I ended up losing my job. That's when everything really started to crumble.'
He began walking the streets again, trying not to stay in one place too long so the cops wouldn't pick him up. He spent a lot of his time at the Broadway Youth Center, which provides food, showers and activities for the city's gay homeless youth. Like many in his situation, he hung out on the corner of Halsted and Belmont, in Boystown, waiting for the Night Ministry van to come by with food. But when nighttime came, he had trouble finding a place to sleep, since the city's overcrowded shelters work on a lottery system. Then again, he didn't really like being there anyway.
'It's hard, and people don't understand that,' he says. 'I hate people that are like 'well here, here's a dollar, I really understand what you're going through'—but you can't possibly understand what I'm going through.'
Many people don't realize they walk by homeless youth all the time. 'There's the stereotype of an older gentleman with a substance abuse problem, sitting on an off-ramp with a cardboard sign,' says Joe Hollendoner, director of the Broadway Youth Center. 'But young people try to blend in with their peers, and most homeless youth are successful with that.'
These days, Edwards works at a restaurant as a cook, where he flips hamburgers most of the day for seven dollars an hour. He dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but fears the older he gets, the harder it will be to make that happen. Many of the city's homeless services, like youth outreach centers and separate shelters, are cut off once you turn 21. And he says he's too tired after work to think about fashion.
Edwards mentions a lot of reasons for not finding a better job, including not getting a full night's sleep, not appearing polished and not having a place to put his stuff.
'I don't have proper attire to go into interview and be like, 'Look, I'm a professional person,'' he says.
Recently, his older sister offered him a place to stay in exchange for chores and baby-sitting, but he says she changed her mind when he told her he didn't want to become 'her personal flunky.'
Though he may not have finished college, it doesn't matter to him. As Edwards likes to say, when you're homeless, a college degree doesn't buy much. He's seen homeless people downtown with master's degrees and even Ph.D.'s in their bags. 'They probably made bad decisions,' he says, when explaining their homelessness. As for Edwards, though, there may be no satisfying explanation.
'Life is going good, and then something happens…and I just lose everything,' he says. 'And that's how my life has been for the past five years; it's just been gaining and losing. I would love to just gain and just keep on a steady pace, but it's like, there's always something happening to me.'