by: Adam Guerino
Note: Adam Guerino wrote this piece as an introduction to the queer spoken word event Word Is Out, a co-production between In Our Words and OutLoud Chicago. The monthly event recently focused on queer homeless youth this month to raise awareness for Guerino’s fundraising series We Are Halsted which takes place Wednesday July 25th. Proceeds from the fundraiser benefit the queer-inclusive youth shelter The Crib. For more information, www.facebook.com/wearehalsted.
Hi, I’m Adam Guerino and I’ve been homeless several times in my life. The first time was when I didn’t have an apartment to move into in time when I was supposed to be out of my dorm at DePaul University. I was 18. One of my friends who lived in a student town home let me stay with her for almost a month. The second time was when I was 19 and living in Hawaii. A complete stranger I had met online said I could stay with him for a month. He lied. I slept on the beach with all my earthly belongings for weeks until I slept with a guy then moved in the next day, cutting him off from sex and paying rent. I had my own bedroom and bathroom and lived there for the rest of my time in Hawaii.
The scariest time I was ever homeless was when I came back to Chicago and was staying with a friend while I looked for a place and job. She was living with her boyfriend essentially and had a vacant studio apartment for a month and a half. When her landlord asked who I was she unwisely explained she no longer lived there and he said I had to go because that was breaking the lease. I explained, through tears, how he misunderstood the situation and that she still lived there and I was just visiting. I was terrified of being homeless again. She told me I was being ungrateful and could leave my things at her place but wouldn’t have access to them and had to leave that day. I was 20.
So, I put on my nicest clothes, a Giorgio Armani second-hand button down, white with cream vertical stripes, black slacks and shoes. I even ironed all my clothes beforehand, like I was trying to impress someone, I guess. I thought, if I’m going to be homeless again, I wanted to look good doing it. I don’t wear that shirt anymore. I haven’t put a lot of thought into why. I packed my bookbag with resumes, books, journals, underwear, a cell phone charger and I left.
Over the next several weeks, I lied to my boyfriend and told him the reason he saw me in the same shirt numerous times was because it was my “job-hunting shirt.” One time, we had a romantic walk in the park after dinner and when it was time he had to go, he asked if I wanted to come home with him or stay at my place. I told him I wanted to stay and enjoy the weather. When he left, I slept on a park bench. I was afraid that if I stayed at his place, he’d figure out I had no place to go. I was homeless, sure, but pride was what made me choose to sleep outside as opposed to in a bed and in the arms of a loved one.
When I did tell him I was homeless, I didn’t use those words. He asked me what I wanted for my 21st birthday that week and I told him I’d like lunch, dinner and a place to stay that night. It… took him a moment to understand what that meant. When I met him for lunch on my birthday, I was wearing the same shirt. He asked about it. When I explained it’s the only shirt I had, he told me that I needed a friend more than a boyfriend. It was a scary thing, he was the first person, other than my friend, that I told I was homeless and he responded by dumping me. I learned never to tell people and it’s a lesson I try not to listen to.
Before I was 21, if I wasn’t at my boyfriend’s, which happened two or three times over the course of several weeks, I’d stay up all night. The average amount of sleep I got was four or five hours spread over two or three days. I’d order a coffee at Clarke’s or Melrose and spent the night writing furiously. I’m sure I looked like a well-dressed over-achiever at first but even they had to wonder after a while why I was always wearing the same shirt. I’d sit on the stoops of the Chicago Diner, churches and make the employees of Jewel and Walgreens nervous. I’d always avoid taking the train. It was too unsettling to be surrounded by other homeless people at 4 am. And I knew it was dangerous if I fell asleep there. And some nights, I was deliriously tired, probably seeming drunk because I was so sluggish. After I was 21 and newly single, I’d go home with guys from the bars. I wasn’t a prude before this by any means but I never counted “has bed with roof” as an attractive quality till then.
I was job hunting, always. I scored a gig filling in for someone on vacation at a dog groomers shampooing rich people’s dogs before the dogs got their hairs cut. I had fine dining experience from Hawaii so finding restaurant work should have been easy but I kept ruining interviews by saying things like “Is there a way to get a second interview today?” and “I need this job.”
I know what you’re wondering and even in hindsight I wonder it too: where are this boy’s parents? Well, pride had a lot to do with not asking for help. But also, I ran away from home. Not in the middle of the night with a bag over my shoulder but by graduating early and never asking for money and rarely calling. There was a lot of abuse in my house growing up and the closest thing to dealing with it at that point was distance. I was determined not to ask them for help. But when I went home with a guy who deduced I was homeless and he gave me $20 in the morning, I felt like a prostitute. Naturally, this wasn’t an exchange of sex for money. Rather, he felt bad about having to go to work knowing I had no place to go and thought he’d buy me lunch. Even still, I called my mom in tears and asked for money because I didn’t need lunch, I needed a place to stay.
After getting a little over two hundred dollars from mom, I risked telling more people I was homeless. Of course I didn’t use those words. Instead I asked friends from college, “Can I crash on your couch for a few weeks?” and paid couch rent. One of my good friends let me stay for two weeks for free and then I paid for a month’s rent. He was surprised I hadn’t asked sooner. During that time, I got a job at a hotel and moved into an apartment by the end of the month. That’s a period of my life I like to think of as “Happy 21st.”
Writing this isn’t pleasant. It’s not quite like re-opening a wound, more like remembering a wound you tried to forget. That me was a different person. Nobody told him to be quiet and stoic but he was all too glad to be replaced by somebody who was better equipped to take care of themselves. Indeed I’m all too relieved to forget about him but when people in Lakeview started accusing queer homeless youth of being criminals, I had to speak up. A good friend and I started a fundraising series for youth homeless shelters. It was uncomfortable for me because I was still closeted about having been homeless and I was meeting youth, administrators and generally talking about how horrible it was for “them.” In a meeting with a personal hero of mine from The Night Ministry, I told her I was homeless for “a while” and my co-producer looked at me stunned. Soon, I was writing about it and using my personal stories, albeit non descript, to try and get people to realize that they could have been the queer homeless youth. I was interviewed by newspapers, magazines and blogs. I went from my closest friends not knowing to being known for it almost overnight.
I’ve been criticized in the last year for belittling the struggles of homeless youth by sharing my experiences. My hardships weren’t viewed as hard enough to relate to those who had it much, much worse. And I’d be the first to agree. I have no concept of what it’s like to be kicked out at 14 for my sexuality and to live on the streets of Chicago. But that’s not why I’m sharing my story. I’m sharing it to explain that queer homeless youth has many faces. Sometimes they are what you’d imagine. And sometimes they wear an ironed Giorgio Armani shirt.
Adam Guerino is a writer in Chicago who works nationally as a stand-up comedian and event producer. He is the creator of OutLoud Chicago which brings queer entertainment to the mainstream. For more from Adam Guerino,www.adamguerino.com is a great place to start.