On one of Ryan Berg’s first days working in a New York City group home for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths, a resident brought up all of Berg’s insecurities with just one word: “tourist.”
Berg, an Iowa native who worked in theater, was acutely aware of his outsider status. Having recently changed careers, he was living and working in the group home as a case manager — with no experience.
He dove into New York City’s fractured social services system and worked to alleviate some of the extreme vulnerabilities among LGBT homeless youths, who make up 20 to 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth population, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
In a new book about working in the trenches among youths who have been dealt the worst in life — poverty, abuse, racism, homophobia — Berg writes, “I saw this bald, white guy in a dilapidated house in Queens surrounded by kids of color and wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” His fish-out-of-water experience, as well as the transformative and sometimes heart-wrenching relationships that grew between him and the youths he worked with, are the focus of “No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions.”
Most of the events in the book took place a decade ago. Berg eventually left that job and went on to study creative writing. “But I really couldn’t shake the stories,” he said. “I needed to write these stories.”
He now lives in Minneapolis and runs a home host program at Avenues for Homeless Youth. We talked to Berg about bureaucracy, Minneapolis, and when to shut up.
Q: How did you end up in this line of work?
A: I was living in New York at the time and I was doing theater, and I became disenchanted. I was hoping the conversation would be larger and more interactive with the community, and it was all these insular little circles. So I left to do something within the community and I got the job working at the group home. I just applied on Craigslist, thinking, “I’m gay, they’re gay, we’ll have so much in common.” I was so wholly unprepared for the obstacles and challenges that young people are facing. There was a huge learning curve.
Q: Did you have any second thoughts about your new career?
A: When you’re working in foster care, the bureaucracy is really intense and it really limits the capabilities of workers to engage and build relationships, because you’re tethered to paperwork. It seems like the system is really focused on warehousing youth and documenting their stay, and it’s not so much about building great supports to help young people move forward in their lives. I felt like I was at a place where I was tasked with maintaining the level of dysfunction they were at, and that just didn’t seem like enough.
Q: Why was it difficult building relationships with the youths in the home?
A: There were a lot of youth that I wanted to keep in contact with and did for a while, but then Facebook pages disappear and phone numbers change. And unfortunately we lose people to different challenges and circumstances in their lives. There are a lot of ups and downs. There are a lot of youths that you see so much in, how amazing and brilliant they are, but because of life circumstances and the way systems oppress certain folks, they’re unable to crawl out of the mire even with support and help, and there’s only so much we can do. There’s a lot of difficulty in knowing there’s someone who’s so brilliant but unfortunately they’re stuck in their situation.
Q: What were you hoping to accomplish with the book?
A: It was kind of a call to action. I feel like there was room to educate people. People hear statistics, but I think statistics can become numbing. I think people really operate from a place of empathy, and I think that empathy really comes from stories. My hope is that people will be moved to evoke some change in the lives of these young people.
Q: What were some of the challenges of writing about these youths?
A: Creative writing, especially when writing about marginalized communities, is a huge responsibility, and I wanted to do it as justly as possible. I wanted to be aware of my power and privilege in that and recognize that within the writing. So I really had to interrogate my own motives around why I was writing this book. Of course, there’s a selfish component to it. But really, in the end, it was about making sure these stories were heard.
Q: Now working in Minneapolis, have you seen differences between the system here and in New York?
A: I think one of the largest issues in New York is that the city is so large that people are missed. You can be so invisible walking down the street, and I think that’s amplified when you’re marginalized. We know that young people have to resort to sex work anywhere if they’re experiencing homelessness, and it just became more apparent in New York. The abuses by police were really evident there, really in your face. Another obvious one is there are great supports here for LGBT youth. I feel like the LGBT community here is really mobilized and aware and active around youth homelessness. There is great support from community leaders and organizers, so there is this awareness here, where in New York, the youth can just be missed. They’re invisible.
Q: If you were to continue writing about the work you are doing now in Minneapolis, what would you focus on?
A: I think the racial disparity issue would be on the top of my list. Also I would have to say LGBT youth suicide is a huge issue. I would be interested in writing a book about how that plays out in different communities.
Q: How has this experience changed you?
A: One thing I really learned is as an ally — especially watching the Black Lives Matter movement — is when to learn to shut up and listen and be humble and quiet and learn something, instead of thinking I would have the answer.