By Sofia Pham
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the subject.
An invitation to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin. A foundational high school plan focusing on cuisine. For a 12 year old boy in Aldine, Texas, becoming a chef was a one-way ticket out of a home with an absent father, a mom he no longer talks to, and a constantly moving household.
But the day before his 21st birthday, *Austin woke up at 5:30 a.m. on the streets of Houston.
Instead of rush hour and restaurant openings, his daily routine is centered around the closing times of public centers and daily street-cleaning schedules: he wakes up early to let the city sweepers clean the areas where he sleeps. He walks two hours to the local public library to browse for jobs. He crashes at a local LGBT-based drop-in center for meals. He leaves at 4:00 p.m. to volunteer.
According to Coalition for the Homeless, the 2014 Houston Homeless Count indicates that approximately 5,351 individuals in the Houston area identify with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of “homelessness,” with 2,291 living unsheltered and 3,060 finding refuge in facilities.
Aiding a fraction of these individuals is Tony’s Place, a Houston-based drop-in center that supports LGBT+ young adults up to the age of 25. Although they identify themselves as a day center and therefore don’t provide housing, the center gives out free access to numerous services, including hot meals, group therapy, laundry service, showers, computer use, and gender-neutral bathrooms for the 20-30 people they help everyday, according to program coordinator James Valincano.
“This is a structured environment,” Valincano said. “It is considered a program because we utilize an hour during our scheduling to do something productive. On Fridays we have a therapist that comes in, so they utilize that time for any counseling or therapy services they need. Sometimes we will have a guest speaker. We want to make sure that they are utilizing their time here and they’re not just here to hang out.”
The center currently shares a space with the Salvation Army’s Young Adult Resource Center (YARC) following a series of financial issues, and they hope to grow their operation enough to move out into their own place. They’re located on 1621 McGowen St. in an easily-overlooked building – a few rooms, a rainbow sign outside, and a basketball court out front – but for Valincano, the goal isn’t just to expand – it’s to increase the number of success stories they produce.
“While there are some success stories out there, there’s not enough, because enough would be everybody, and it’s not everybody at this time,” Valincano said. “I’m a member of the LGBT community myself, and in my early twenties, I shared a lot of the same life experiences that they did. I was homeless for a period of time, so I felt that this was a good opportunity for me to give back, to remember where I came from. There were times where I really didn’t have anywhere to go. You can say it’s just survival.”
For Austin, the success story Valincano believes in is difficult to achieve, but not impossible. His primary motivator? His little brother, a kid he’s raised since the age of 14.
“My little brother used to be what I would use [to keep myself going], because I love him,” He said. “I’ll love that little boy till the day I die. I’ll always love him. But I guess nowadays – just making sure that I’m happy and making sure that I’ll be able to provide my little brother with something just in case my mom does the same shit that she did with me. Cause I want to be able to have my own place, making money to provide for him in case he needs it.”
He’s cut off ties with his mother, who he described as “different” after she was attacked and shot on the freeway when he was 12, forcing him to stay with his aunt for a month during her recovery. As for his father – the man lived only a few apartment complexes away from Austin growing up, and he didn’t even know.
“I just tried to handle it as best as I could,” Austin said. “You know, a fourteen year old kid, with a mom to take care of and a little brother. I was just a kid. I didn’t try to rob people, didn’t try to steal things, didn’t try to do drugs or anything. I found my muse in food. I was actually going to go to the Escoffier school in Austin. The application was 60 dollars, and I didn’t even go to the orientation. They invited me, but that was like 16,000 a year. I was not about to do that.”
His father’s absence, however, didn’t stop the man from kicking Austin out after finding out he was gay. He’s found Tony’s Place as a refuge, but even with the drop-in center providing aid to homeless LGBT individuals in the area, discrimination isn’t unknown to them.
“It’s not really the best, because they share the building with the YARC, so some of the kids from the YARC still come to Tony’s Place,” Austin said. “And some of them are confused by it. It’s supposed to be LGBT based, and some of them have issues with it because they don’t like gay people or whatever, but you just try to avoid drama and try to just keep a positive attitude. Here they have trans people, they have me – I’m gay – they have lesbian, bi girls. It’s a good atmosphere, definitely. Gotta just try not to spark problems.”
Today, Austin spends his time applying for jobs, fighting to get back on his own feet. The future is unknown, but he’s awaiting the results from two big interviews at a security center and a nearby Walmart.
“Don’t give up, ever,” Austin said. “One day it might feel like, ‘Damn, man, I’m on my last leg. I just can’t do it anymore,’ and the day after you might get a call from a job saying, ‘Hey man, we need somebody right now, can you come up?’ That’s how I felt the other day, and sure enough, the next day I got a call from the security people saying they looked at my resume. It’s going to be hard. You’re gonna think that it’s gonna be a lot easier just to give up and just sit down in a hole and die, but you gotta just find something, man. You gotta find something to keep you going.”