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Homeless gay teen survives streets, eyes college

Youth lived in D.C. abandoned buildings while on honor roll

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Kadeem Swenson says his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay two years ago. He spent a year living in abandoned buildings in D.C. while attending Ballou STAY school. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. The Washington Teacher

    November 13, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Kadeem is a resilient young man and certainly a role model for his peers. He has a story to tell and should be proud of his accomplishments. Being homeless, staying in school and maintaining honor roll status is no easy feat. I can’t imagine what his parents were thinking when they kicked him out. Hopefully they will make amends with him later on in his life. Any parent should be proud to claim a young man like this. It is great that the Ballou staff were able to refer Kadeem for housing. It is so refreshing to read some positive stories about our DC public schools with all of the public school bashing that is rampant in the media. I wish Kadeem the best as he plans to head off to college. He is off to a good start already.

    Candi Peterson
    AKA The Washington Teacher

  2. Maidhc von

    November 13, 2010 at 8:08 am

    That’s incredible…What a brave kid!!!! Staying calm & focused on his goals even after being kicked out for being gay & being homeless! Just incredible…God Bless him.

  3. Tony

    November 13, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Is there any where we can send money to to help this young man with expenses?

    • dj

      November 15, 2010 at 11:21 pm

      try getting in touch with ballou stay

  4. The Loyal Opposition

    November 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

    Very inspiring story.I just hope,that he accepts Jesus Christ,as his lord and saviour,and,that repents for living this immoral lifestyle.

    • JT

      November 16, 2010 at 10:33 pm

      Where were the believers in Jesus Christ when this boy needed support? The immorality is not in being gay. It is in the bigotry of misinformed and misguided crusaders who think it is their mission to remake every person according to the constructs of their beliefs. This boy does not need to repent. He does not need to accept any religious fantasy. He is on his way to success having endured a difficult couple of years. Fortunately, he had the strength of character to overcome the rejection of his immoral parents and the continued love of his grandmother, as well as, the intermittent help of a few people. We are reading of too many suicides by gay boys who did not have the strength of this boy. The last thing any gay boy needs when in difficulty is judgement of the ignorant. For those who want to help financially, contact the Alston House or T.H.E. it seems they know how to help without bigotry.

    • Roz Fuller

      November 30, 2010 at 6:02 pm

      Jesus Christ created this young man, and he has nothing to repent for.

  5. Steve Jackson

    November 14, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    This is an incredible story that should be shared around the country. His story is a reflection of how determined this young man is to succeed. I am so proud of Kadeem, the staff at Ballou, and the outstanding organizations helping this young man in his quest for a decent place to live. I wish him well and hope that good things continue to come to him for being a beautiful strong young man.

  6. Trey Clay

    November 14, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    I read the story and just became angry with his parents.Shame on them. It is my hope that this young man receives all the success in life that he seeks. Afterall, he has demonstrated that he is stronger than the roots of the tree from which he came. Any parent that would do this to child b/c he is gay will be judged by same god that they falsley justified their actions through. The love of ur child should ALWAYS be stonger than the child’s sexuality. Shame on these “sperm and egg donors” who masquerade as “parents!!!”

  7. QH

    November 14, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Truly remarkable, good to see our black, young GLBT working through the slings & arrows of life.-QH

  8. teacher

    November 15, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    I was one of Kadeem’s teachers. He is a well – spoken young man with loads of potential. Few of us knew he was in this predicament until very recently, most of us only learned of it today.

  9. Maudie

    November 17, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Great Positive story for the D.C. School System and the help that the staff gave this young man. This young man is a positive example for many other glbt youth to stay focus and persevere like he did. His parents, especially his mother should be ashamed of herself. However, I have seen and heard of this time and time again in the black family. So many black gay youth are not accepted by their own families and so they either hide who they are or are kicked out. We need to educate these families about the fact that being gay is not a chose one would just choose to be, but one is born with, and no matter how you try to hide it will surface.

    I am so proud of Kadeem for continuing to fight, after reading about so many glbt youth that have committed suicide this is a story that I will share with many.

  10. LADY P

    November 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    I don’t feel sorry for Kadeem, I feel sorry for the mother of this young man because no child ask to be born into this world unloved and unplanned and it is very disgusting to carry a child in your wound for nine months which is a gift from god and not love them. I am very very proud of Kadeem to get away from this situation and not let anyone steal his dreams I’ll tell you like my mom said reach high and higher for education and demand your respect it is his gain and her lost. For her to not see the strong, challenging and strength of one of God’s children no matter what he turns out to be. To me it takes a strong mind and very powerful person to live life without a mother’s love. I know because my mom was my strength and best friend and when I lost my best friend is when I knew i had to exercise everything that my mom taught me and keep life moving on because I KNOW SHE IS STILL WATCHING OVER ME, JUST LIKE GOD IS WATCHING OVER HIM. Just want Kadeem to know he has always been in my prayers and I will continue to ask God to make sure that he becomes everything and as sucessful in life as he deserves because he has a lot of love and support from me. Just remember children should not suffer from their parents ignorance. Keep getting knowledge stay hungry for it. It’s your key to becoming successful. Love, you know who I am your mentor and friend for life. I LOVE YOU UNCONDITIONALLY NO MATTER WHAT.

  11. Iron Pearl

    November 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    This young man’s mother isn’t worthy to carry his college text books. Books I’d be more than happy to help him get. Anybody know who to contact about supporting him. He’s earned it.

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Local

Long-time LGBTQ activist running for Md. House of Delegates

Patrick Paschall is former FreeState Justice executive director

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Patrick Paschall (Photo courtesy of Eli Sauerwalt of Patrick Paschall for Delegate)

Former FreeState Justice Executive Director Patrick Paschall last week announced via social media that he is running for the Maryland House of Delegates.

“As a proud parent of two kids in Prince George’s County public schools, former Hyattsville City Council member, and lifelong civil rights advocate and policy analyst, I’ve spent my life and career working for equity, community and sustainability for my family,” Paschall said in a statement posted to Facebook on Nov. 23. 

Paschall, who currently is the American Rescue Plan Program Manager for the city of Hyattsville, previously served as executive director for FreeState Justice from 2015 to 2017. 

His LGBTQ advocacy work also includes serving as senior policy counsel for the National LGBTQ Task Force, as an organizer for Pride at Work and as a policy fellow for the National Center for Transgender Equality.  

He also worked for Family Equality Council, an organization advocating for the rights of same-sex couples and their children. 

“One of the things I’m running on is being a parent,” Paschall told the Washington Blade. “We can provide more opportunities for families to succeed in our communities.”

Paschall is running to represent District 22, which includes Hyattsville, where he has lived for over 10 years with his two children, who currently attend Hyattsville Elementary School, and his wife, who identifies as pansexual. 

He told the Blade he views his family as a “rainbow family,” but pointed out since he and his wife did not have to endure the same difficulties as his friends who are married same-sex couples when they wanted to adopt children.

“When I became a parent, no one stopped by my house to make sure it was an adequate living situation for my child, no one checked to make sure I had a room dedicated to the child and for no other purpose,” he said. “But my friends Jamie and Sean went through all of that when they tried to adopt a kid.”

Paschall explained that even though he and his wife didn’t go through these experiences, there was still room for Maryland to improve in the areas of adoptions and civil rights. 

“It strikes me how much privilege I have because the state doesn’t design to make it hard for me like it does for so many same-sex couples,” he explained. 

Patrick Paschall with his family. (Photo courtesy of Eli Sauerwalt of Patrick Paschall for Delegate)

Much like with the recent elections in neighboring Virginia, Paschall said helping parents is an important issue for him — one he wants to carry to Annapolis — if elected “because my district deserves better schools for our kids, more child care options and family support like paid family leave.”

“I think that District 22 needs a voice in Annapolis to represent progressive parents and to exercise policy expertise in achieving the values of our community,” he added. “And I have the experience to get it done.”

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D.C. area LGBTQ bars, eateries receive $100K COVID-19 relief grant

Pitchers, League of Her Own received NGLCC, Grubhub funds

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indoor dining, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The D.C. LGBTQ sports bar Pitchers and League of Her Own, its adjoining lesbian bar, are among the nation’s first LGBTQ bars that serve food as well as alcoholic beverages to receive a $100,000 COVID-19 relief grant under a $2 million Community Impact Grant Program.

The program, aimed at supporting LGBTQ-owned and LGBTQ-allied small businesses struggling from the pandemic, was launched in September as a joint project of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, which goes by the initials NGLCC, and the global online food delivery company Grubhub.

In a Tuesday announcement, NGLCC and Grubhub said Pitchers and League of Her Own, which operate as one business in adjoining buildings in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, are among the first three recipients of $100,000 grants under the Community Impact Grant Program. The other two recipients are FOODE + Mercantile of Fredericksburg, Va., and Café Gabriela of Oakland, Calif.

“Following this initial round of recipients, more grants will be issued in late 2021 and early 2022,” the announcement by the two groups says. In an earlier announcement, the groups said the application period for the grants program took place from September through Oct. 12, and the grants would range in amounts from $5,000 to $100,000.

“The impact of COVID-19 has been debilitating for countless restaurant and bar owners, including the many LGBTQ+-owned restaurants across the country who have persisted through lockdowns, operational changes and labor supply shortages,” said NGLCC Co-Founder and President Justin Nelson. “We’re grateful to have partnered with Grubhub to offer real lifelines to support businesses throughout the nation,” Nelson said.

“Building community in a fun and safe place has been our mission since the very beginning,” said David Perruzza, the owner of Pitchers and League of Her Own. “We’re relieved and thankful for these funds, and are looking forward to more stable days ahead,” Perruzza said.

“As a trans masculine and queer immigrant person of color, I’ve worked hard and put all my love and energy into building a beautiful and welcoming space in Café Gabriela,” said owner Penny Baldado. “I’ve remained resilient through COVID, and this grant is the injection of funds that we need to continue along our journey to full recovery,” Baldado said.

The statement announcing the first three grant recipient says funds for the $2 million grant program were generated by Grubhub’s “Donate the Change” program of which NGLCC became a partner in June. Grubhub says the program asks customers receiving food delivered by Grubhub “to round out their order and donate the difference” to the charitable fund.

“COVID has turned the restaurant industry on its head the last 18 months, and at Grubhub, we’ve been working hard every day to support our restaurant partners across the country,” said Amy Healy, Grubhub’s vice president of government relations. “As the world starts to return to a new normal, we’re proud to partner with the NGLCC and provide these grants to LGBTQ+-owned and LGBTQ+ ally-owned restaurants across the country that are pillars of their communities.”

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Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video

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Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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