Changing What Homeless Looks Like

March 24, 2014—Jimmy Ramirez (C’15) is well aware of the stereotype of what being homeless looks like. But most of the nation’s homeless youth are hidden, he says. A government major with minors in justice and peace and film and media studies, Ramirez sat down to talk about his own experience and the work he is doing as an advocate for homeless youth.

Georgetown College: In your recent TEDxGeorgetown talk, you talked about your experience being homeless for a period during high school. You said that at first you didn’t identify as homeless, how did you come to accept it?
Jimmy Ramirez: It was really gradual. People need to almost own this issue. Culture fixates shame onto different identities. You’re meant to be shameful if you identify as [homeless]. Through a group project I did, I found the California Homeless Youth Project. As a policy intern there, I saw the courage of other youths who had stepped up and told their stories. I realized that I was doing an injustice to a population that stays in the shadows by not talking about it.

GC: You say that you don’t meet the stereotype of what many people think of as a homeless person. Why are homeless youth so hidden?
JR: It’s the way we gauge the demographic. When we count homelessness in America, volunteers with clipboards go out and count. You’re depending on surveyors to determine if someone looks 16 or 22 years old. It’s really an imperfect system.

Youth are also excellent at hiding themselves. When you’re walking down M Street, you’re not going to see kids panhandling on the street. They’re going to be in school, trying to mask it or hiding in the metro. They are very skilled at blending in just because—based on research that we’ve seen—youth do not want to identify with the term homeless. Because of this stigma, youth don’t often go to shelters.

GC: How many homeless youth are there in the United States? What do people not understand about the homeless youth population?
JR: Between 1.6 and 2.1 million youth are found to be homeless over the course of a single year within the United States. There is a popular misconception that in order for someone to be labeled as homeless, they have to be living on the streets. That is not the case. The federal government defines homeless as those individuals or families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This can include youth who stay in shelters, abandon buildings, cars, or who couch surf.

GC: What projects would you like to see more work done on in the future?
JR: As far as a long-term projects, I hope to see a push in the direction for programs that are preventive and intervene early—for example, allowing youth to more readily access mainstream safety net programs. Dealing with the immediate problem, I feel that school administrators across the country need to educate themselves and their students on benefits under the McKinney-Vento Act.

GC: You’ve continued working with the California Homeless Youth Project while at Georgetown, but how else have you been advocating for the homeless youth population?
JR: I’m producing a documentary through Associate Dean Bernard Cook’s class Social Justice Documentary. It’s the story of a homeless transgender youth. Her story is incredible, and she is inspiring.

She lives in the Wanda Alston house, which is the only house in Washington, DC, for LGBTQ homeless youth. She engages in survival sex, which is the exchange of sex for food, shelter, or other basic needs. We have found the engagement of survival sex to be a huge issue affecting homeless youth. Her story demonstrates that youth are struggling to survive everyday. She touches a lot on gender norms and the plight of youth homelessness as well as her experience as a prostitute in DC.

GC: How do you hope to continue your advocacy work in the future?
JR: I want to focus on telling the stories of people who have experienced injustice, highlighting these issues in a way that is presentable for people to associate with, to deal with, or to process.

There’s only so much I can do by telling my story. It is one story, and it’s not at all representative of all of the youth who are homeless in this country. I have never experienced discrimination because of my sexual orientation, nor have I ever been denied services because of my immigration status, nor had to engage in survival sex in order to find a warm bed. However, youth everyday in this country struggle through that.

That’s the difficult thing I’ve had to grapple with. How can I be an advocate for an issue that has so many layers and identities? How do I truly bring empathy to youth who experience injustice everyday? I have to be the best ally I can be. I hope to continue telling the stories of these injustices and see the day where homelessness is a phenomenon our society has overcome.

—Elizabeth Wilson