August 4, 2011 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Once homeless, gay youth is college bound

Last November, Kadeem Swenson posed in shadow for this Blade photo, homeless and fearful of being recognized.

Today, Swenson is off the streets, interning in Mayor Gray’s office and preparing to start college full time in the fall. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Kadeem Swenson, a 19-year-old gay man, is far more interested in talking about his future than he is about his past.

Last week, at the Blade’s request, Swenson talked about what his activist friends and city officials are calling an extraordinary journey over the past two years from his status as a homeless youth to his current role as a college student and intern in the office of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.

“There are still good people in the world,” he said, when asked what lessons he learned from his recent experiences.

Swenson is taking summer courses at the Community College of the University of the District of Columbia. He will begin a full-time class schedule at the community college as a freshman in September.

He’s doing his internship under a city youth leadership program in the Mayor’s Office of GLBT Affairs, with the office’s director, Jeffrey Richardson, acting as his supervisor and mentor.

Richardson said he was pleased to allow Swenson to take a few days off two weeks ago to attend a student leadership camp on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. The event was organized by Campus Pride, a national LGBT organization working with students that invited Swenson to attend through a scholarship.

“I got a lot out of it,” Swenson said. “There were a lot of workshops and some real great keynote speakers. They work on action planning to build relationships and bring about change, not only on campuses but just in general.”

Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride, said he invited Swenson to attend the event after reading about Swenson’s plight as a homeless gay youth in the Blade last November.

“I was quite inspired by his story,” Windmeyer said.

Those who know Swenson in the LGBT community in D.C. have said they’ve been impressed by how he made the best of the circumstances he faced, including the circumstances that led to his becoming homeless.

That two-year period began when his parents kicked him out of their house in Waldorf, Md., after he told them he’s gay. He responded by coming to D.C., where he temporarily moved in with a student friend and persuaded his mother to enroll him in D.C.’s Ballou STAY High School.

A short time later, his friend and her family moved to another city, leaving him without a place to live. Without telling his teachers and schoolmates at Ballou, he moved into an abandoned apartment building in the city’s Congress Heights neighborhood near the school.

“I never really told anybody because I didn’t want anybody to have pity on me,” he told the Blade in an interview last November.

He managed to get through his junior and part of his senior year at Ballou with some financial help from his grandmother while living a secret life as a homeless person. He said he stayed most of the time in the abandoned apartment building, with no electricity or running water. He used nearby fast food restaurants and his school for eating and cleaning and other personal needs. He used a nearby self-service laundry to clean his clothes.

Last October, running low on money and deciding he wanted to find a safer and more stable place to live, Swenson confided in a school administrator that his parents “kicked me out” and he was looking for a place to live.

The administrator put him in touch with activist Earline Budd, whom the administrator met through Budd’s work in LGBT youth homeless programs. Budd, an outreach official with Transgender Health Empowerment, took immediate steps to find Swenson a temporary place to stay at a private shelter.

She and Brian Watson, another official at T.H.E., then arranged for Swenson to move into the Wanda Alston House, which T.H.E. operates with the help of city funding. The multi-bedroom house in Northeast D.C. was opened to provide a place for homeless LGBT youth to live while they seek a more permanent living arrangement.

Swenson said he stayed at the Alston House from November of last year until shortly after his graduation in June from Ballou, when he moved into a dormitory on the UDC campus to take summer courses in English, math and philosophy.

He says he has big plans for his education, with an eye on eventually landing a career in the international media industry.

“I haven’t decided what I want to do within international media, but I want to do something that deals with music, television and movies – on the business side,” he said.

He’s starting his studies at the UDC community college in the liberal arts area, with a plan to transfer to a four-year college in another state.

“I’m looking at UCLA among other schools,” he said.

His college plans will depend on a means of obtaining financing, hopefully through a scholarship, he said.

Windmeyer of Campus Pride said his organization helps promising LGBT students find scholarships and financial aid, and he plans to work with Swenson on that front.

Swenson said his discovery that good people exist in the world has come about through what he says has been the help he has received from people he’s met over the past year through a network of contacts in the LGBT community and the D.C. government.

He received a scholarship from an association representing Korean grocers through a contact he met from D.C. gay activist and Ward 8 community leader Phil Pannell that is helping him pay his tuition at UDC.

Through other local activists, Swenson met education advocate and local community philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who has provided him with a grant to help him with his education and living expenses.

In September, Swenson will be featured in a report on the LGBT public television series In the Life, which is scheduled to air on D.C.’s WETA-Channel 26 at an as yet to be announced date. A camera crew from In the Life followed Swenson around in the mayor’s office and traveled to Vanderbilt University in Nashville to follow him as he attended seminars and other events at the Camp Pride.

“I can say I’ve learned a lot in the last year,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of stuff in the community, I spoke at Youth Pride. I was a speaker at Black Pride.”

Among the highlights of his activities associated with his internship at City Hall, Swenson said, was the opportunity to march in the city’s Capital Pride Parade with the mayor and his contingent of city officials.

“I made a lot of connections and I’ve had a lot of help on the way and I know that I’ll be OK because I have so many resources that I can turn to,” he said. “And I’m in a position now that I can help other people by telling them about these resources.”

 

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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