Resisting Erasure: Ryan Berg and How a Book Becomes Outreach

No House Side By Side

Of the nearly 2 million youth experiencing homelessness in the US, over forty percent identify as LGBTQ even though LGBTQ youth make up only eight percent of the total population. Though they make up such a large percentage of homeless youth, LGBTQ youth are significantly more likely to experience victimization and harassment than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. One in five transgender women report having experienced homelessness at one time or another in their lives and many would prefer to sleep on the streets than face the discrimination and violence found in some shelters. Ryan Berg, author of No House to Call My Home, is all too aware of these staggering numbers. His book, which was published last year and appears in paperback this August, chronicles the years he spent as a caseworker in two group homes for LGTBQ youth in New York City. The memoir revolves around the stories of eight youth who whose struggle to make ends meet is compounded by the trauma and abuse they experienced at the hands of their families and communities. It also demonstrates, on a heartbreakingly intimate level, how systemic racism, economic injustice and the failures of the government and the foster care system intertwine to make mobility, safety and financial stability nearly impossible to attain for homeless youth.

In 2015, No House to Call My Home won the Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction and the ALA listed it as one of their Top 10 LGBTQ books of the year. However, Berg says he continues to be surprised by how little news coverage and mobilization he’s seen around LGBTQ youth homelessness in general.

“Where’s the community outrage?” he wondered. “People often don’t want to read about tragedy unless there is redemption in the end? Then we need to create that redemption. If we mobilized half as much and showed half the ingenuity as we did in the fight for marriage equality, the LGBTQ community, and their allies, could make a real impact on LGBTQ youth homelessness. These young people have had to face enough indignities. They shouldn’t have to face erasure and neglect from their own community.”

Despite the lack of media attention, Berg continues to receive requests to speak nationally about the book and about youth homelessness. He uses these opportunities to do stage something very different than the traditional literary reading.

“In each city I visit I invite community organizers, service providers and youth to join me. I encourage a community conversation about the unique challenges that that city is facing in relation to LGBTQ youth homelessness. I find that people are typically wanting to engage. They have questions about how communities can begin to fill the gaps in services for young people.”   The readings also give young people who have had experiences similar to those of the book’s protaganists the chance to speak with Berg and share their stories. It is this kind of intimate connection that makes Berg feel like the work he’s doing is worthwhile. “Recently, a high school student came up to me after the reading. She told me her parents refused to accept her identity. She came home one day to find that they had moved away without telling her, leaving her homeless. She said she saw herself reflected in the story I read. Not only in the family rejection, but in the resiliency… She said, ‘I just wanted to thank you. I feel so invisible in my life. Listening to you felt like being seen.’ If this book touches one young person and helps them rediscover their value, I feel it has done its job.”

The release of Berg’s book has also changed his relationship to writing in ways that he didn’t expect. Initially, he says, he had no interest in journalism, but, after No House to Call My Home, he found himself writing more op-eds and short essays about the LGBTQ homeless youth crisis. “I learned over time that the work I do in direct service and my writing life are not mutually exclusive. In fact they’ve become intrinsically intertwined. Each influences the other. Both are done through the lens of social justice. My youth work is about taking actionable steps to evoke change in my community; my writing (hopefully) is about how the power of stories can become transformational and build empathy and understanding for those of us who have historically been marginalized.”

Since the book’s publication, there have been some positive strides in training child welfare professionals to pay attention to the “unique needs and challenges faced by LGBTQ youth,” and more data is being collected on the dangers that LGBTQ homeless youth experience. But, Berg cautions, there is much that remains to be done. The Runaway Homeless Youth Act, for instance, which would have provided crucial government funding for street outreach, shelters and transitional housing and “is designed with LGBTQ cultural competency in mind”, was introduced in January of 2015 but never passed the Senate.

Berg now works at Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis. Their GLBT Host Home Program is a unique, nationally recognized model because it remains small and volunteer run, circumventing many of the systems that created such disfunction for the youth in his book. The host home program matches GLBT-identified and ally adult hosts with GLBT-identified homeless youth. Unlike traditional foster care, the hosts are not paid to house youth and youth choose the host they would like to be paired with based on an application the host fills out, not the other way around. One of the young people Berg works with at Avenues is a writer and was excited to connect with a published author. “I’m trying to help her find creative writing classes that suit her needs. She blogs and writes beautifully. The fact that we have writing in common seems to strengthen our bond a bit. We can talk about the craft of writing, and I don’t think she has anyone else she shares that with.”

Ultimately, Berg hopes that No House to Call My Home will continue to carve out a space for homeless youth in which they feel safe enough to write their own memoirs. “Personal narrative is a corrective to history, a way for marginalized populations to resist erasure. We tell our stories and collectively we reshape the narrative.”