Houselessness in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

When I was in college, living in Pittsburgh, my friend interned for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Turns out, that show was filmed in Pittsburgh, and my friend got to meet Fred Rogers and eat her lunch under that famous tree, the one in which the puppet X the Owl lived.

That world was a lovely one, in which the worst people (or puppets, like Lady Elaine) were simply grouchy, and the most houseless you got was living inside a tree like X the Owl. Owls usually live in trees, so it was probably NBD.

‘Round about the same time, I interned at Scholastic, Inc. in New York, and temporarily living there afforded a substantially darker picture. I was staying in a residence hotel on the Upper West Side, terrorized by 3-inch-long cockroaches and someone with punked-up hair and pleather pants who was always—always—using the single payphone in the hotel’s hallway and would crab fiercely about EAVESDROPPING at anyone who dared to pass by them.

The only thing that could have made it more dramatic was puppets which, thankfully, were not a feature of that life.

According to some recent statistics, however, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood—by that I mean Pittsburgh—isn’t much like the Land of Make-Believe. About 1/3 of Pittsburgh’s population currently lives at or under the poverty line (according to H.U.D.). More than 13,000 people in Pennsylvania are experiencing homelessness (says the US Interagency Council on Homelessness).

My latest novel (Luckmonkey, coming March 9) features a small group of houseless young adults squatting in an abandoned building in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Even though I lived there in the 1990s, I had to actually research homelessness in the city. I recognize how lucky I was that it was just something I rarely saw as a young adult.

Perhaps it was because it didn’t affect me directly—I was a student at a major university, I had an apartment and a job (well, three jobs cobbled into one living wage, but still, the point is that I had a means to support myself). I had a family who, while not able to pay may way through life, would step in to help me if I ever got into a situation of real need. Perhaps it is because I didn’t go to the places where I might see houseless life in the open. Perhaps I simply chose not to look—or chose to look past—houseless people, as so many people seem to do.

Whatever the reason, my memories of Pittsburgh do not include the houseless.

In graduate school, I had a friend who lived with her boyfriend in a converted factory—her spot was a large, loft-like studio (she was a poet, he was a sculptor, it was perfect for them) in an uninhabited corner of Brooklyn (those really did exist back then, I swear). The place didn’t have a bathroom, so they used the toilets and bathed in the sinks of the gas station across the street, but the rent was very cheap. It was romantic, chic, New York Artist Life, not true need, but it was the closest I got to understanding how so many people live, unromantically, without other options.

The recent pandemic has likely increased rates of houselessness, and also presents increased risks of COVID-19 contraction and complications for those who are houseless, according to experts at Vanderbilt University. Fact is, living without stable, safe shelter puts you at all kinds of risk to your physical and mental health, and we fail to protect people properly from such risks.

Moreover, being a queer/trans person automatically puts you at greater risk of houselessness and makes finding shelter and services much more difficult. Very often, young folks find themselves houseless (and booted from their families) exactly because they are queer or trans. And many services for the homeless are dangerous or unaccepting of queer/trans people in need. The picture takes on greater dimensions when you consider that, according to one study (by the UCLA School of Law Williams Institute), 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. In other words, houselessness is a significant queer concern.

I don’t mean this essay to be all sturm und drang, truly. I’d like it to underscore the dire crisis of LGBTQ houselessness, but this is not to say that the experience of queerness/transness is all terrible, or automatically leads to instability. Part of the reason people have begun to use the term “houseless” instead of “homeless” is to emphasize that the problem is a lack of physical housing and not a lack of (or inability to form) close relationships, intimate spaces, stability or a sense of belonging. A “home” is so much more than a “house,” and many people make a “home” in places that are, by most accounts, unlivable or unsafe.

So please don’t mistake me. By writing about the increased risk of houselessness among queer and trans folk, I don’t mean to suggest that this is somehow related to our identities so much as it is related to treatment of us by the culture at large. And I don’t mean to suggest that this treatment is all there is, either—I live with my wife in a stable, loving home, surrounded by a supportive community, family and friends, and I know that I am not the only queer person who can say this.

I do mean to say that social conditions make it so that the population to which I and my wife belong—queer and trans folk—is made more vulnerable to houselessness. And I do mean to suggest that this is a problem worth fixing.

I’m using the upcoming release party for Luckmonkey to raise money for one organization supporting houseless LGBTQ people in Pittsburgh, where the novel takes place (www.proudhaven.org). I hope you’ll (virtually) attend the release party online and give a donation. But if not, please consider donating to an organization for LGBTQ houselessness in your community.

To attend the book release party for Luckmonkey, at which I’ll be raising funds for Proud Haven, please see the invitation here. To donate directly to Proud Haven, please visit their website.

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