Tag Archives: Mandi Hawke

LGBTQ youth homelessness in South Florida


Experts agree that LGBTQ homeless youth in South Florida are invisible, which makes them a particularly vulnerable segment of the population. They aren’t standing on the side of the road with hand-painted signs, they rarely congregate among homeless adults, and they learn to stay off the streets during the day to avoid the authorities. Many simply spend most of their days securing a place to sleep in the evenings.

The Trials of Life

Suarez’ situation is not uncommon. National studies estimate that up to 40 percent of all people under age 24 experiencing homelessness in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. Because this population is often undetectable, it has been difficult to count and to track the numbers in South Florida, making local statistics hard to come by.

According to a 2015 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, family rejection is the most common reason providers cite for homelessness among queer youth. Some are forced out of their homes, while others run away from the humiliation and emotional or physical abuse. Substance abuse and domestic violence are the second most frequently cited causes, followed by aging out of the foster care system with no proper support network.

In South Florida, the high cost of living is a significant factor. “For an 18-year-old with a minimum wage job, it is impossible to afford to live in a one-bedroom or studio apartment without assistance,” says Mandi Hawke, director of youth services at SunServe, a social services agency for Broward’s LGBTQ community. “Many LGBTQ young people — and especially our trans youth — often struggle to find affirming employment.”

Once on the streets or housed in emergency shelters, queer youth face myriad obstacles that further threaten their chances of becoming independent. According to a 2016 report by True Colors Fund, a leading organization working to end LGBTQ youth homelessness, these young people struggle with harsher realities in the foster care, school and juvenile justice systems. They are also disproportionately affected by HIV, sexual assault, violence and inadequate access to behavioral and mental health resources, especially if they are of color or come from low-income backgrounds.

Michael Alexander-Luz is the co-coordinator of an LBT support group at Lotus House in Miami, a women’s shelter for all ages, including those with children. Too often he sees the long-term impacts of these struggles. “There [are] a lot of mental health diagnoses present; a lot of substance use history and suicidal ideation. Oftentimes, when they are not here, they are getting hormones off the black market that aren’t safe.”
A Dearth of Resources

In spite of the high rates of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, there are few shelters in South Florida specifically designed with them in mind. Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services provides shelter for children and teens through age 17, but there is no shelter in Miami-Dade specifically for individuals ages 18-24. In Broward, Fort Lauderdale’s Covenant House is the only emergency shelter for youth through age 20.

David Raymond, former executive director of Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, notes that local policies for addressing homelessness focus primarily on housing people who are chronically homeless first. But that’s part of the cycle, as he is quick to mention that the key to stopping someone from becoming chronically homeless is to get them out of homelessness within the first year. Even in the local adult shelter system, it can take weeks to find a bed, and there are no protections in place to keep young people from being targeted or discriminated when they attempt to access these services.

Many LGBTQ youth report having poor experiences in general population shelters, says Landon “LJ” Woolston, homeless youth programs and services manager at Pridelines. “Oftentimes, they don’t want to go back to shelters because they have been bullied by staff or other adult clients,” he says. “For trans and gender non-conforming youth, it is even harder, because they are more likely to encounter systemic violence in the shelter system and to be housed inappropriately based on the sex they were assigned at birth rather than their gender identity.”

An Oasis of Support

In partnership with other South Florida groups such as Aqua Foundation and The Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, Pridelines has helped over 150 young people in less than four years.

The 9,000-square-foot community center that opened in 2016 was built in part to expand services for this population. Free case management and advocacy, warm meals, snacks, showers, washer and dryer, and clothing and hygiene products are all available there. The organization also runs an array of programs for LGBTQ youth and adults, including HIV support groups, educational lectures, holistic therapies and a lending library.

This summer, the nonprofit celebrates 35 years of service improving lives through safety, guidance and unconditional acceptance.

Among them is La’Ruben Dixon, a 20-year-old gay student from a religious home, where homosexuality was considered sinful. At age 15, his mother kicked him out, so he spent the next several years on the streets, “couch-surfing” with friends or at emergency shelters, such as Camillus House.

“It’s stressful; it’s a hard adjustment. But it gave me motivation for wanting to improve my own life,” says Dixon, who is now studying dance at Santa Fe College in Gainesville.
Bright Prospects

It was only after a great deal of pain that Kassidy Suarez, too, obtained services when she received a referral to Lotus House. After she stabilized, she was offered a position there, too. When her mother became homeless, she was in a position to help, and with support and education, her mom began to accept her for who she is. They rebuilt their relationship and they now live together in permanent housing in Overtown.

Filled with gratitude, Suarez wants to share her story with vulnerable gay and transgender youth. “Stay focused, stay in school, just don’t let go of you,” she says. “There are so many speed bumps — and so many hurtful ones — but don’t let barriers bury you. A person can upgrade rather than self-deteriorate.”




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The “C” Word

FurFam-IMG_0157I was 14 years old and living in South Florida with my father and step-mom. One night we got in a really bad fight, there was screaming and things got physical. What we were fighting about I cannot remember but I know the last stinging words I uttered were “I hate you.” That night I packed my bags and moved to live in Texas with my mom.  I did not talk with my step-mom or father for over a year.

After almost 2 years I got an urgent phone call from my aunt. With a shaky voice she shared that my step-mom had lung cancer and had been admitted to the intensive care unit in the hospital. I was in shock; I had no idea that she was sick, my entire family kept that from me.

With the help of my mom I booked the soonest flight possible and I was on my way back to South Florida. As my flight landed and cell phones could be turned on again, I frantically called my aunt to find out where I was going to meet them. With a deep sigh and a barely audible whisper she let me know that my step-mom had just passed; I didn’t even get to say goodbye or that I was sorry, or that I really did love her. I collapsed in one of the airport chairs and cried for what felt like hours.

For years this pain tortured me, I felt guilty for never being able to apologize and I blamed myself endlessly. I was a total wreck, taking Tylenol PM to fall asleep and NoDoz to function in the morning. I refused counseling, pretended I was fine, stuffed my pain deep down and held a strong front because “big girls don’t cry.”

It was not until my early 20’s that I began to work on healing. But as you know when you don’t heal from something painful it has a way of recreating itself over and over until you do.

I found myself in a long-term relationship with my first girlfriend. After about a year together she was diagnosed with what doctors called an “incurable disease”. Crushed and with a hopeless desperation I tried to push her towards every holistic healing method I could find.  When nothing was working I pushed her away because I could not bear her being sick.  We had a messy breakup and even now we still have a difficult relationship. For years I have held onto this guilt and pain.

It’s been about 3 years and here we are; the same pain has been coming back up again, asking to be healed. My grandpa has been suffering with cancer and my best canine friend Arya has been diagnosed with Lymphoma and was given at most a few months to live.

During the last few weeks our family has watched as Arya slowly got worse and worse.

On Christmas Eve this year she took a rapid turn for the worse, she wasn’t able to breathe and could hardly walk. We made an emergency call to our mobile vet.

As we sat together I told Arya how much I loved her. I thanked her for her unconditional love, friendship and joy she shared.  I told her how grateful I was for her being there for me during every broken heart and emotional time I had. She kissed my face and with her eyes told me she was ready. She laid her head down on my leg and peacefully drifted off.

I finally healed a part of me that was so afraid of death, so afraid of sickness. This time I overcame; I loved her till the end without pushing her away.

I still hurt, but I know everything is going to be all right – I still feel her presence and am grateful she is no longer suffering.

To everyone suffering with pain and loss: Hold strong, there is a gift in the beginning and ending of life.

Arya taught me that







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A Hopeful Beginning

humanitylogo-242x300A recent blog I wrote for The Humanity Project

(Editor’s Note: Mandi Hawke is Program Coordinator of Youth Services at SunServe, an agency committed to improving life for the LGBT community in South Florida. She also is the author of “PROUD: emPOWERment for LGBTQA Youth.” Ms. Hawke wrote this blog especially for the Humanity Project.)

By Mandi Hawke

As you know, there has been a great deal of discussion about 2012 being the end of time. We’ve all heard about the Mayan calendar ending, seen the Hollywood blockbuster movies or perhaps overheard the evening newscasters sharing some fear-based theories. It feels very similar to the Y2K insanity, remember that? The fear bug is so dangerous and contagious that it spreads like wildfire, but you don’t have to accept it into your consciousness. Along with many spiritual folks and light seekers, I believe that 2012 represents the tipping point of a global consciousness shift. Not to say that we’re going to have a sudden complete change in human behavior overnight, but that it’s coming.

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Mandi Hawke Raises Awareness for LGBT Youth with Her Life Story

Mandi Hawke was in the fifth grade writing “I love Stephen” in her notes, only to casually drop them off her desk for her classmates to find.

Mandi Hawke

He was the one person in the classroom that every girl liked,” she remembers. “I thought it was a safe name to write.” In a small private school classroom of about 24 kids, playground crushes grew and Hawke was suddenly accused of not dating anyone.

It wasn’t until her freshman year of high school that Hawke came out to her friends and family, only to be told it was a phase and a trend. But she didn’t know that then.

via Mandi Hawke Raises Awareness for LGBT Youth with Her Life Story.

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