For Struggling and Homeless LGBT Youth, a Sanctuary in One Woman

In a coffee shop in Lincoln Square, Cassandra Avenatti anticipated a very important meeting. She bought pastries for the group she was expecting, then stood waiting for the volunteers to arrive. Slowly, they trickled in, a motley crew of young urbanites with tattoos and rainbow hair and more subdued-looking, seasoned social justice professionals.

Avenatti hugged everyone, even those she barely knew, with unwavering enthusiasm. After a few jokes about everything from sex to tofu scramble, she pushed a few tables together and gathered everyone to sit down.

There was a lot to accomplish.

Everyone was here to plan the next moves for Avenatti’s year-old non-profit, Project Fierce Chicago, an LGBT housing initiative.

“Happy birthday, almost, to us!” she said, tucking her long auburn hair, streaked with turquoise, behind her ear. “I can’t believe it’s really here.”

They were more than halfway through February already, and they had a major fundraiser and countless spring and summer events to plan. They needed $20,000  by the end of April if they wanted to achieve their goal of buying a one of three houses by autumn. For almost two hours, Avenatti raised items on a long to-do list for the volunteers and organizers to discuss.

The lengthy agenda dealt with grant applications, their all-important April online fundraiser hosted on IndieGoGo.com, an anniversary party in March, and a fancier gala (or “gay”-la, as Avenatti liked to emphasize) for early summer.

Avenatti led a serious discussion, but her sense of humor kept things light. The conversation about recruiting famous LGBT leaders to promote the organization was marked by her jokes about “queerlebrities” and “celesbians,” and she consistently referred to Twitter as “Twatter.”

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Project Fierce’s team poses for a photo during their promotional video shoot. Pictured from left: André Pérez, Cassandra Avenatti, Jacqueline Boyd, Tasasha Henderson and Carrie Kaufman.

According to statistics from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, there are up to 15,000 homeless youth in Chicago; as many as 3,000 identify as LGBT. There are only 119 beds for youth in the city, and many of these are in shelters that may not be LGBT affirming.

Avenatti has worked toward Project Fierce on and off since 2011, when she wrote her master’s thesis on creating an affirming, sustainable home for Chicago’s LGBT youth. Despite working four other jobs in LGBT education and queer advocacy across the city, Avenatti has volunteered 20 hours a week toward Project Fierce for almost a year. If everything goes well in the coming months, all that effort will have paid off. Project Fierce will buy a house and refurbish it to shelter up to 10 young people.

From early childhood in Clinton, Ind., Avenatti held a strong sense of social responsibility imparted by her parents. Her father ran a children’s home for wards of the state, and Avenatti’s family occasionally hosted youth themselves, sometimes for weeks and sometimes just for a birthday party to make them feel special.

Avenatti launched her first campaign at age 11: a drive to collect Christmas presents for Toys for Tots. It was inconceivable to the 6th grader Avenatti that some children didn’t get gifts on Christmas, and her passion was driven by a child’s simple logic: She got presents, so it was absolutely unacceptable that other kids were deprived. She organized, raised awareness, and eventually received so many donations that she got her picture in Clinton’s local paper.

For a long time, social justice wasn’t a job for her, just a lifestyle. She left Indiana for the University of Miami, where she pursued her passion for music professionally, volunteering on the side. Six years ago, she decided to move closer to her family and put down some roots, so she came to Chicago.

Then, she was sexually assaulted and became pregnant.

She was 23. With no contacts and little money, she was precariously housed on Chicago’s West Side, eating at food pantries. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her family about the attack—she wanted to protect her parents and siblings. Still, she had her mother accompany her when she got an abortion. In an unfamiliar city, with inconsistent housing, she was alone.

Avenatti uses the term “spirit-crushing” to describe the trauma and humiliation of that time. But the same tenacity that would soon bring Project Fierce to life emerged back then, with an almost vindictive bite.

“Nope, I’m totally going to make this work,” it said. “F–k this, I’m forging ahead somehow.” She got as involved as she could in the city, and continued pursuing music with a lesbian, feminist choir.

That’s where she met Jacqueline Boyd, a social worker for Chicago’s Department of Children and Family Services. Boyd was a singer too, and she and Avenatti became fast friends.

Yet, Boyd started to notice how distant Avenatti seemed. One night, as Boyd drove her home from a choir event, she finally asked what was wrong. Avenatti broke down. For the first time, she confessed everything that happened: her rape, her abortion and her near-homelessness.

Boyd listened as Avenatti finally started to work through the trauma that had weighed on her for months. Through Boyd, her first connection to LGBT life in Chicago, she got involved in queer community organizing and the social work that would soon become her career.

Chicago, Avenatti says, is where she grew up, figuratively speaking. It was there that she came out of the closet as a lesbian and there that she fell in love with a woman for the first time. And it was there that she first became actively involved in housing and homelessness issues.

It began with a side job shortly after she found her first apartment. Living in Irving Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side, she was working at Planned Parenthood, but she took a job at a homeless outreach center in nearby Old Irving Park and Portage Park to earn extra money.

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Project Fierce’s Cassandra Avenatti gets creative with the script for her campaign’s promotion video.

Much like when she was 11, worrying about children without Christmas gifts, Avenatti couldn’t help but chafe at the inequalities she saw when she met the people living on the streets. She found herself wishing she could take them home, so they could just have a hot shower and a meal. She knew that wouldn’t solve anything in the long run, but she had to do something. She settled for packing mountains of sandwiches in a basket. She would walk through a nearby park handing them out, starting conversations and trying to build trust.

When she moved out on her own, to a one-bedroom apartment in Pilsen on the city’s Near Southwest Side, she started hosting friends who had housing gaps (for example, a lease that expires a month before a new lease kicks in). Then it was acquaintances, and friends of friends of friends. Gradually word got around in the non-profits where she worked that if you were in trouble, you could go crash at Cassandra’s place. She’s in a new place now in Albany Park, and she and her partner house homeless LGBT kids so often that her house has come to be known by friends as “The House for Wayward Queers.”

On the streets, LGBT young people face violence and discrimination from police, and sometimes even from the shelters they turn to for help. Police arrest LGBT youth more often than their heterosexual peers for “status offenses” that they couldn’t be tried for as adults, such as running away from home. If arrested, they are ten times as likely to face sexual abuse while incarcerated, according to statistics presented by experts from the Human Rights Campaign, the Equity Project and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The groups also reported that those youth are more likely to be placed in sex offender wings based on the stereotype that LGBT people are more likely to commit sex crimes.

LGBT youth may also face abuse from shelters that may turn them away, or reject the identities of trans-identified youth. For example, a young transgender woman may be required to bunk with the sex she was assigned at birth instead of the sex with which she identifies. The National Coalition for the Homeless states that transgender women often face physical, verbal and sexual violence when forced to take shelter with heterosexual men.

Project Fierce is designed to host between five and 10 LGBT youth in a completely affirming environment. Avenatti designed a collective, community-funded model to avoid sapping resources from already scarce public funds.

Avenatti, now 30, has been in Chicago’s LGBT non-profit world since she met Boyd. Through the contacts she’s made with advocates throughout the city, she realized that she could actually make her shelter a reality. She constructed binders full of plans, thought up a name and drew a logo.

All the while she was getting in touch with people she had worked with, constructing a team that she thought could handle the job. In late 2012, Avenatti invited Boyd and three other social justice workers—now the five-member leadership team—to the New Wave Cafe in Logan Square on the North Side.

They launched in April 2013 with an IndieGoGo online campaign that garnered over $10,000, a sum they hope to double in this year’s upcoming fundraiser. Things have evolved rapidly for Project Fierce, and everything Avenatti dreamed up seems to be coming true. The team is currently looking in Garfield Park, Austin and South Shore for a foreclosed space to purchase with the money they raise. They’re then planning to refurbish into a house that as many as 10 young people can call home.

Every member of the Project Fierce leadership team has experience with homelessness and housing among Chicago’s LGBT young people. They’ve all worked with a wide variety of aid groups like the Broadway Youth Center and DCFS.

André Pérez, who met Avenatti when they worked together at the Vida/SIDA AIDS center in Humboldt Park, has had first hand experience. After experiencing rejection from his family, Pérez, a transgender activist, left his violent home in Virginia. Much like Avenatti, when he arrived he had few contacts and no resources. He briefly lived on the streets until he got help from the queer community.

Now 26, Perez runs youth programming at places like StoryCorps, and audio storytelling organization and the Center on Halsted, an LGBT advocacy group in Lakeview. He says he works hard to give Chicago’s queer youth resources and affirmation that he didn’t have at that age. When he met Avenatti at Vida/SIDA, they instantly connected over LGBT homelessness.

“I think if anyone else had brought this idea to me, I wouldn’t have signed on,” Perez said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone else who can do so many things and do them well.”

In founding Project Fierce, Avenatti took on her fifth job. In addition to volunteering as a counselor and hosting queer sexual health workshops for universities and non-profits, she is a adjunct faculty member in Human Sexuality at Triton College and an executive team member of the non-profit Sex Workers’ Outreach Project in Chicago. She spends seven days a week glued to her phone fielding emails and managing tasks for all of these jobs, and she remains calm if slightly preoccupied, always maintaining that sense of humor.

When the night of the anniversary party arrived, the leadership team was still busy filming a promotional video for the fundraiser during April. Avenatti arrived just as Pérez was setting up a scene with a sofa.

“Hey, queers on a couch!” she greeted the rest of the team.

The time passed quickly as they laughed their way through the script. Avenatti paused a moment to reflect on all the progress they’ve made over the past year.

“Our pace and our speed of growth has been super quick,” she said. “I was not necessarily prepared for that.”

She looked over at the rest of the team.

“We’re all hustling. Hustling’s hard,” she said. “I fantasize about the time in my life when I will no longer be hustling. It involves lots of critters and babies, painting and sleeping on a hammock.”

 

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