Joan Huang ’15 worked as one of the organizers for the banquet and explained the choice to fundraise on behalf of the Ali Forney Center. She said, “Part of what QSA does is try to support important queer issues. [The destruction of the Ali Forney Center] was an immediate thing; it was obviously time-dependent and for the number of queer youth who are homeless, there is a surprisingly low number of organizations that are supposed to help them.”
The banquet featured food prepared by Swarthmore student volunteers, many of whom signed up to contribute following an extensive tabling campaign at the start of the semester. As attendees queued for helpings of delicious glutinous rice balls and couscous, the Swarthmore Mariachi Band serenaded the crowd.
Attendees of the banquet got more than just good food; they heard the stories of local homeless LGBTQ youth and learned of ways to help out and volunteer at organizations devoted to aiding these young people.
After a brief introduction from event organizers Ian Perkins-Taylor ’13 and Huang, Evan Thornburg from the Attic Youth Center spoke to the gathering about his group’s work with LGBTQ youth in Philadelphia. The Attic aids young people who identify as LGBTQ between the ages of 14 and 23, providing free services that range from aid in the college admissions process to counseling, both at the individual and the family level. Thornburg detailed the problem of homelessness amongst LGBTQ youth, explaining that while between 5 percent and 10 percent of the American people identify as LGBTQ, LGBTQ individuals make up at least 40 percent of the homeless population of the United States.
Thornburg concluded his remarks by acknowledging that, sometimes, statistics aren’t enough. “Those numbers have no immediate meaning, so to help people understand on a personal level that this is very real, that this is a real experience for a lot of people, we like to bring some of our youth who have had these experiences to talk to people like you,” he said to the gathering.
Thornburg then introduced Kemar Jewel, a native Jamaican who was raised in Philadelphia. Jewel’s mother had thrown him out of her house at the age of 15 after discovering that he had gone on a date with a boy. Jewel recounted the two and a half years that he spent on the streets and in shelters, giving life to the bleak numbers Thornburg had listed. Despite a recurring desire to drop out, Jewel continued to attend high school during this time. He went to great lengths to ensure that he graduated, waking up at 4 in the morning and commuting for hours to get to school.
Jewel explained that the Attic Youth Center had provided him with connections to housing programs and college admissions resources. Jewel, who now works for the Attic, currently lives on his own and attends college full-time.
His story absorbed the audience completely, causing many in the crowd to express interest in volunteering their time to the organization or working in other ways to bring greater public attention to the issue of homeless LGBTQ youth.
Monica, another person who had benefited from working with the Attic, followed Jewel and shared her story. Though she currently resides in a shelter, Monica remained positive and said of the Attic, “I know have great people helping me to be strong and be who I am.”
Attendee Juliana Gutierrez ’16, who has worked with a social justice organization that aids homeless LGBTQ youth, appreciated the opportunity to hear these testimonies. “I think that it’s very important to show the stats but also it’s good to hear the stories behind them, because they show that it’s a real problem,” she said.
It was Sophomore Class Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center Alina Wong who initially suggested that QSA invite speakers from the Attic Youth Center in order to bring this seemingly distant problem closer to home for students.
Near the close of the banquet, members of the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia (SREHUP) provided further encouragement to students to get involved in helping homeless LGBTQ youth. SREHUP members described their experiences in volunteering at their organization’s shelters and explained that students interested in donating their time could fill out an application available on the group’s website.
One attendee, Joyce Wu ’15, echoed the sentiments of many others present at the banquet.
“I thought the speakers were great,” she said. “It was especially good to hear from the Attic Youth Center because I didn’t really know much about it before and it makes me want to go volunteer.”