Ari clearly remembers his first night in a homeless shelter. It was November 2019 — his 20th birthday. He had been camping on Vancouver’s streets for about four months.
“It was pouring rain, and the ditch I normally camped in near where I was working was completely flooded,” said Ari, whose last name has been withheld for privacy reasons. “Since it was my birthday and it’ll start being cold, I decided to treat myself.”
He called 211, a federally designated phone line that refers people to social services, and was connected to the Share House men’s shelter in downtown Vancouver. But as a transgender youth staying in a shelter of primarily older men, Ari soon ran into difficulties.
“The houseless population, don’t get me wrong, it’s just like any other population,” he said. “I made friends, there were people who protected me. There were also people who wanted to exploit me and treat me like an object.”
Men at the shelter would inappropriately touch him in the common areas, he recalled, and he didn’t feel safe using Share House’s communal showers. “The staff did what they could for me, but I still faced far more sexual harassment, and even assault, and more verbal abuse than any kid should,” he said.
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Sometimes he would sleep outside just to avoid the mental and physical stress of being in the shelter. He caught walking pneumonia from sleeping in the cold, and quit his job at Taco Bell when the stress and lack of sleep became too much. He had suicidal thoughts as he endured the deaths of other houseless friends who lost their wills to live, as well as the 2019 murder of Nikki Kuhnhausen, a transgender teenager who Ari said he knew personally through Janus Youth Programs.
“There is more death and injury on the street than you can possibly imagine,” Ari said. “That is something that I feared every single day of my existence — if I’d just be another statistic in the newspaper, another body.”
Pathway to homelessness
Ari became homeless at 19. He and his mom had been splitting the cost of rent for a Vancouver apartment, which he paid for through his full-time job at Popeyes. Then he was hospitalized with necrotizing tonsillitis, making it impossible to keep his job, he said.
His mom, who was visiting Ari in the hospital and couldn’t consistently get to work, lost her job, too. She then went to visit Ari’s stepdad in Canada, and ended up staying when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I can’t fault her for that,” Ari said. “I’m glad she ended up spending the last few years of his life with him.”
Without a way to pay their Vancouver rent, Ari and his mom abandoned their apartment rather than get evictions on their records. Ari found himself $1,700 in rental debt. “How can I possibly be prepared for that as a 19-year-old?” he said.
He couch surfed at his older brother’s apartment, but he couldn’t stay long due to the apartment’s guest policy, so he began camping near Vancouver Mall. “I had no idea how to be homeless,” he said. “All of a sudden, I was looking at videos on how to camp without being harassed by police, how to find shelters, how to find food, how to keep yourself clean when you don’t have running water.”
His family stepped up when he needed them most, such as on the coldest nights or after a particularly bad sexual assault, but many of his siblings were living paycheck-to-paycheck and there was only so much they could do, Ari said. He told his mom little about his experience, not wanting to worry her.
He hung out at The Perch, a daytime drop-in center for homeless youth run by Janus Youth Programs. With The Perch providing for his basic needs, he managed to get a job at 360 Campaign Consulting, a community organizing nonprofit in Portland.
“They’re really amazing,” Ari said. “I just straight up admitted, ‘Yeah, I’m homeless.’ They were like, ‘Can you shower? Do you have an ability to wash your clothes? Then you’re hired.’ ”
HOW TO HELP
Janus Youth Programs
Janus Youth Programs is accepting donations at https://bit.ly/3geWiDP. You can choose where to direct your donation within the online form.
Janus Youth Programs is seeking volunteers to help address youth homelessness and other issues. Volunteers can sign up at https://www.janusyouth.org/how-to-help/volunteer.
Clark County Youth Action Board
The Clark County Youth Action Board is seeking youth ages 15 to 24 with lived experience of homelessness or housing instability to join its advocacy efforts. The board meets at 2 p.m. every other Tuesday via Zoom. Stipends and transportation assistance are available.
If you are interested in joining the Youth Action Board or want more information, contact Clark County Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator Terrell Berry at 360-518-3854 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a young person experiencing homelessness and are seeking help, contact the Council for the Homeless Coordinated Outreach Team by leaving a voicemail at 360-450-0802 or emailing email@example.com.
‘Just normal kids’
In May 2020, Ari’s housing situation began to look up. Because the pneumonia from a few months before put him at risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms, his Janus Youth case manager was able to get him a hotel voucher. “I was so happy,” he said. “I will always be grateful for the bed I had at the Share House, but getting your own queen-sized bed after a while is really nice.”
Janus Youth then helped him sign a lease for his own subsidized apartment in Vancouver. Now that he’s stably housed, Ari advocates for homeless youth on Clark County’s Youth Action Board.
“There are things that you see on the street that you never forget,” he said. “Sometimes I’m grateful because it brought me in a place where I can use my voice to help everyone else.”
He wants others to know not to fear the homeless. Though he faced assault and abuse while homeless, he said the perpetrators were often housed people.
“I just want people to understand that the homeless population is full of people struggling,” Ari said. “And however that manifests — whether they’re screaming to themselves, going around breaking windows or just generally being by themselves, not really interested in society — there’s always a reason.”
This is especially true for homeless youth, who, in Ari’s experience, tend to come from abusive or unstable homes.
“They’re just normal kids,” he said. “Just like anyone else.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.