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Life for Homeless Gay and Trans Teens in New York City

Twenty percent of America's homeless youth are gay or trans.

Photos courtesy of Elegance Bratton

If you’re gay in New York City, you’ve probably been to Christopher Street in the West Village to get drunk or visit the historic-landmark-turned-gay-tourist-trap known as the Stonewall Inn. Chances are that you’ve also seen what director Elegance Bratton calls the “pier kids”—the homeless LGBT youth who congregate at the Christopher Street Pier, looking for everything from food to drugs to potential johns. According to statistics from the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20 percent of homeless youth are gay or transgender (roughly 320,000 to 400,000 young people according to one conservative estimate). 

Filmmaker Elegance Bratton was one of these kids for ten years. To teach his family about his experience, he has spent three years filming the lives of three homeless kids—Krystal, DeSean, and Casper—for a documentary called Pier Kids: The Life. Recently, I went to the pier to sit down and talk to Krystal, one the film’s stars, about the movie, the Christopher Street Pier, and being homeless in New York City. 

VICE: How did you end up homeless in New York?
Krystal: It was a choice between going back to Las Vegas or staying in Philadelphia. I went to my brother’s house in Philadelphia after being kicked out of the house at 16 by my mother. After I had spent six months there—he had a family, and I didn’t want to impose my lifestyle on his kids—I just went out on my own after that. After two or three years, I came to New York City and found the pier.

Once you arrived in New York, how did you discover the pier and Christopher Street?
I had heard about some of the history about the riots, but I never really knew what the street was. But when I got here, I went to the food stamp office, and they gave me a pamphlet that told me that there was an LGBT community center that had programs. Some of the kids there said they were going to the pier after some of the support groups, so I went with them. It gave me a sense of being back on the west coast, with the water and people just hanging out, playing Spades and talking to friends, just finding some sense of normalcy in a situation that wasn’t normal.

What’s a typical night at the pier like for you?
I don’t come down here as much as I used to, usually only for performances now. I come down and say hello to all my family at the pier, and see what their situations are like. Some of them have housing now, which is a blessing, and they help the other ones out during the wintertime, letting them stay on their couches. But still, at nighttime, if they can’t go to that friend’s house, they come here. You can leave the pier, but you never really leave it. I feel a need now to come check on my old friends, to make sure that they’re not dead.

How dangerous is life at the pier for young queer people?
It’s very dangerous with the NYPD. I don’t care if you’re down-low or whatever—if you’re not Caucasian and you’re not going to one of these stores or restaurants on the street, you’re down here because you know the gay bars are here. So the NYPD is trying to clamp down and use fear to keep them away, but you can’t scare people away from a comfortable place to be homeless.

What have your experiences been with the NYPD?
I got stopped for walking down the street here by [an undercover NYPD member]. He approached me and tried to proposition me for sex work. I thought he was just a drunk guy, and I turned him away, and he ended up taking me to jail, saying that I was trying to solicit sex work. Sometimes just because of what [Christopher Street] is known for, they use that as a reason to arrest kids, especially when they aren’t educated enough to know the law. It’s just another way of profiling. I told them that I wouldn’t accept the prostitution charge and that it was entrapment, and it eventually got dropped.

Have you noticed a lot of drug use and addiction on the pier?
Yeah, that’s how you numb yourself. I haven’t seen it to the point where people are killing themselves, but I’ve seen situations where people feel like every day they need to be on a certain type of drunk or high or on molly, stuff like that. You also get introduced to certain things when you’re doing certain professions. Crystal meth is a big thing for a lot of the people who [work] in sex work—mostly men. Usually when we see somebody dwindling away, we call it reading or shade, but we just give them tough love and tell them that they’re slipping, and they’ll wake themselves up.

What has your experience of the shelter system been like, as a black transgender woman?
Right now, in the SRO [a single room occupancy that typically doesn’t have a bathroom or kitchen in the room] that I’m staying in, there are actually four trans women, but it’s a men's and couples shelter, so they have to be there with men. If you don’t have your sex legally changed on your ID, you have to be subject to being stuck with a whole bunch of crackheads and ex-felons that don’t mind dealing with trans women or try to force them, like they would in prison, to do certain things. That’s the type of shit you have to deal with. And they have to call you by your [legal] pronoun, because that’s what your ID says, and so now all the staff members and clientele know your business, and you can’t stop them from when they walk around the corner and tell people on the street. It’s a dangerous situation—I know people who don’t go through the SRO or shelter system because of the fear of being outed as trans.

How did you become involved with Pier Kids: The Life?
I met Elegance two months after I arrived in New York. I was at the pier, and I saw him with a camera, and I was trying to ask him why he was recording some of the other kids out on the pier. That’s when he told me he was making a documentary about people who come to the pier—the different demographics and the reasons why they come to the pier. Ever since then, he was one of the first people I considered a friend here in New York.

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