Kadeem Swenson looks forward to graduating from D.C.’s Ballou STAY High School in June and is applying for admission to college. He gets good grades and his principal considers him a promising student with a good future.
But the strapping, six-foot-tall 18-year-old, who came out as gay at age 16, says he spent most of the past year hiding a part of his life that became far more difficult to deal with than his sexual orientation.
Forced by his parents to leave his home in Waldorf, Md., two years ago after he told them he’s gay, Swenson stayed with friends and relatives in D.C. and North Carolina for several months. He and his grandmother then prevailed upon his mother to enroll him in Ballou STAY, one of the D.C. public school system’s vocational and academic high schools that offer classes at night.
He stayed at the D.C. home of a student friend and her mother until the family moved to Chicago last year, leaving Swenson without a place to live. Believing a return to his mother and stepfather’s home in Waldorf wasn’t an option, Swenson said he set up residence in abandoned apartment buildings in the city’s Congress Heights section near Ballou.
With some financial support from his grandmother, he managed to get through his junior and part of his senior year at Ballou while hiding the fact that he lived a secret life as a homeless person. He stayed most of the time in a debris-strewn abandoned apartment building a few blocks from his school with no electricity or running water.
“I never really told anybody because I didn’t want anybody to have pity on me,” he said.
In what school officials and LGBT homeless youth advocate Earline Budd call an extraordinary story, Swenson told the Blade how he maintained a positive outlook and an overarching desire to succeed at school under the most trying circumstances.
“I want to go to college and study business,” he said. “And I don’t want to just run a business I want to own it.”
Through the help of one of Ballou’s guidance counselors and its principal, Swenson hooked up last month with Budd and Transgender Health Empowerment, a private, non-profit group that operates the Wanda Alston House for LGBT youth.
Last week, T.H.E. placed Swenson in the Alston House, ending a chapter in his life that he says has made him a stronger person but which also has created “considerable stress.”
“His story is specifically why we opened up the Alston House, because kids are still being put out of their house because they’re gay,” said Brian Watson, T.H.E.’s director of programs.
“And he’s a really good kid. He was going to school despite the fact that he was homeless,” Watson said. “That says a lot about him.”
With the help of one of his Ballou teachers, Swenson says he has applied for admission to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, which offers the type of business program he says he’d like to enter. Earlier this year he had an interview with one of the college’s recruiters who came to the D.C. area to talk to local high school seniors.
He showed a Blade reporter and photographer the abandoned building that became his home, leading his guests up a debris-covered stairway to a third-floor, one bedroom apartment with carpeted floors that were well preserved, suggesting the building had only recently been abandoned.
He pointed to the area where he placed a small mat that became his bed. The kitchen and bathroom plumbing fixtures had been ripped out and lay on the floor in the small apartment. The unlocked apartment door was still in place, enabling Swenson to secure a small degree of privacy while staying there.
“I thought a lot about going to college in Colorado and getting away from D.C.,” he said later, recounting his thoughts while huddling at night in the abandoned flat.
Swenson said he followed a routine to get by in his unusual living arrangement. He washed at his school and used the bathrooms at nearby fast food restaurants. He cleaned his clothes at a neighborhood laundry.
He tried to sneak in and out of the abandoned building located on the 100 block of Wayne Place, S.E., through an unlocked outer door out of fear that someone might follow him inside and attack him if he were to be seen entering and leaving.
He occasionally stayed at the homes of men he met at gay bars or clubs, he said, enabling him to take a short leave from the abandoned building. But his visits to the homes of his newfound acquaintances were usually short. And a few older men he met at the clubs made it clear they wanted sexual favors.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Swenson said.
He managed to maintain a cell phone through money he earned in a part-time job as a busboy in a restaurant. But an on-the-job injury from a fall prevented him from continuing to work, he said.
In early October, running low on money and realizing he had reached a point where he might not be able to continue without a safe and more stable place to live, he approached a Ballou administrator and asked for help.
“I just walked to her office and didn’t tell her I’m homeless,” Swenson said. “I told her that my parents kicked me out and I just need somewhere to stay for a little while. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
In what turned out to be a lucky break, the administrator, Sharon Edwards, knew Earline Budd, the longtime transgender activist who has met with Ballou faculty and administrators on transgender and homeless youth issues.
Budd serves as an outreach official with Transgender Health Empowerment., a D.C. transgender advocacy group that, among other things, provides services to homeless youth who are gay, lesbian and bisexual as well as transgendered.
With the consent of Ballou STAY School principal Wilbert Miller and school guidance counselor Helene Miller, Edwards sent Swenson to T.H.E.’s North Capitol Street offices to meet Budd.
“Miss Edwards gave me a brochure and said I want you to call these people. She said I don’t want you to be offended by the name, Transgender Empowerment, because you don’t have to be transgendered to get services,” Swenson said.
“So I was like, O.K., I’ll go there, and I just went. And when I got there I spoke to somebody else and they introduced me to Miss Budd,” he said. “They said she’ll help you with anything you need help with, and she has.”
Budd, upon meeting Swenson, immediately sprung into action on his behalf, calling city agencies and members of the City Council to help find an emergency youth facility to provide Swenson a place to stay.
“I have a youth in crisis and is age 18, currently homeless to the streets and is sleeping in abandoned buildings,” Budd said in an Oct. 7 e-mail to Council members, city officials and members of the news media.
“I have been working with this youth since Oct. 5, 2010 and he is a very bright young man who deserves more than just talk,” she said in the e-mail. “He is currently enrolled at Ballou Stay, where he is on the honor roll and is said to be in school every day. When asked about his living conditions, he states, ‘Well, I have got to get an education and sleeping in abandoned buildings is not going to kill me.’”
Through Budd’s calls and e-mails, the Sasha Bruce House, a youth shelter in Northeast D.C. near Capitol Hill, arranged to provide Swenson with a room on a temporary basis.
Budd and Watson arranged a short time later for Swenson to be admitted to T.H.E.’s Alston House, which is located in a renovated, multi-bedroom house in Northeast D.C. Swenson moved into the Alston House last week.
Swenson said he hopes to remain in the Alston House until he completes his course work at Ballou in January and enters college in September 2011. He will participate in Ballou’s graduation commencement ceremony in June.
At a reporter’s request, Swenson said he made an attempt to reach his mother through a family friend so the Blade could offer her an opportunity to comment on her son’s plight over the past two years.
“I just talked to my godmother and my godmother got in touch with my mom,” Swenson said. “And she said she doesn’t want any part of this,” he said.
Asked if it was his understanding that his mother did not want to talk to a reporter, Swenson said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
Miller, the Ballou STAY School principal, said he had no idea Swenson was homeless during most of his two-year tenure at the school until Swenson told Edwards about his situation in early October.
“He’s one of our most cordial and interactive students,” Miller said. “He has a great rapport with the staff and the students, and he’s always been interested in college.”
Miller said Ballou STAY High School’s teachers and staff are familiar with LGBT-related issues as they relate to the school system and would have taken immediate steps to help Swenson find a place to live had they known about his homeless status.
“He always looked well groomed,” said Miller. “He said, ‘I took care of my hygiene things before I came to school.’ He said ‘I couldn’t go around looking like I was homeless.’”
Ballou STAY High School shares the same campus but is a separate entity from Ballou Senior High School. Miller said the school system created STAY schools as an alternative educational environment to meet the special needs of a wide range of students at any age who wish to complete high school. The school offers both vocational and academic, college preparatory courses.
He said about half of the students, like Swenson, are between 16 and 18, with many in their 20s and early 30s and others as old as 60. The college-like class system allows students to take as few or as many classes each semester to accommodate their need to work or, in many cases, to raise children, he said.