Voices Of: Alala Rei on Youth Homelessness
Alala Rei is a young advocate currently in the greater Boston area who has experienced homelessness. They have spent some of their time living at Y2Y, a youth homeless shelter in Cambridge founded by Harvard students. Across the U.S., income inequality, disparities in opportunity, and systemic issues have contributed to a significant community of people who have experienced homelessness. Beyond this, LGBTQ+ youth are often at increased risk of being homeless, and their experiences often can diverge from the experience of straight, cisgender individuals.
The Politic: Could you give me an introduction into who you are?
Alala Rei: My name is Alala Rei. I use they/them/theirs pronouns, and I am a fierce—gently fierce—self-motivated individual who has turned my pain and fear into power.
How long have you been in the Cambridge area?
I have been in the Boston area for about 2 years but I’ve been homeless since April 23 of 2018.
Can you describe, in your experience, what the Boston community has been like both in terms of physical spaces and what the people are like, who you interact with going to and from where you stay?
It’s interesting. The people in general, I find rude and annoying [laughs], but [among] the homeless, there is such a community that we build out of struggle and that’s where I feel most at home.
How did you get started with Y2Y?
I was excited for the opportunity! I had been staying at one of the adult shelters and it was the summertime of 2018. It was June 13th when I got the call; they said, “Hey, you got the bed,” and I thought, “Perfect, because I don’t want to be around these adults” [laughs].
How did they hear about you and contact you?
I entered their 30 day lottery online.
Was this something that you just heard of?
I did my research, and when I became homeless, I had the options that young adults had: adult shelters, doubling up in dangerous situations, or living outside. Young adult shelters only help us during the warmest and coldest times of the year, so I was really hoping to get into Y2Y.
Do you know, in your past experience, why those young adult shelters only serve homeless populations during that time?
I think it’s a lot of funding issues. There are a lot of good people in different organizations, but the homeless service population as a whole seems to think that there are enough beds to go around, and that’s just not true.
Can you tell me about when you got the call that you could live at Y2Y?
When I got the call, I had no T passes whatsoever, and I got caught trying to sneak onto the train, so I walked all the way from the South End of Boston to Harvard Square to get to the shelter that night. Everybody was trying to explain the rules to me, and get me to do intake, and I just said “You know what guys? I’m going to bed. Please give me a blanket.” [They chuckle.] I had a 60-day bed there, and I worked through the Phillip Brooks House Association [a social justice organization run through Harvard that also runs Y2Y], [for which] I was a summer science counselor for a lot of at-risk kids, and my friends and I brought a lot of hands-on science to those kids. I stayed a little bit in the fall, but all throughout that, I’ve gotten involved in their different advocacy outlets.
One thing that you just brought up was the inaccessibility of the T and trying to get from one place to another. What kinds of different systemic things about Boston make it extra hard for it to be homeless in Boston?
Everyday is a struggle, and everyone’s struggle depends on how marginalized they are. The system is currently set up to favor the stereotypical white man without disabilities. Folks in Boston often don’t receive benefits until they’ve been through the worst part of their journey. I had to have numerous dangerous, close-to-death psych hospitalizations and an abuser of mine released from prison to be given a bed at a long term DMH shelter.
Can you talk more about what shelters are like for queer communities, especially for trans and gender non-binary people?
There are so many things—and I probably won’t give it justice. Staff members often think you have to medically transition to be considered valid, and they ask for paperwork to prove yourself. With said issues, Female-to-Male and Male-to-Female is easier for staff to understand than being non-binary because there’s so much grey area. If you look in all the nearby encampments, they’re full of queer folk.
Do you have stories that you’d be comfortable sharing about how people at shelters have made it harder to be a gender non-binary person?
[laughs] Well to start off with, I don’t believe that any space is a safe space. I think you can only make brave spaces because no space is going to be safe no matter who or what you are. I’ve explained my gender-queerness to many staff members. Common responses have been, “I can’t confirm or deny your safety” and “Ma’am, this is a women’s shelter; I can assume everyone here is female. Look on the door, you can’t stay here then….” As far as guests go, I’ve gotten death threats.
Has your experience with Y2Y been different from other shelters? If it has, how? Or how has it not been different?
I’d say the biggest thing for me—and for every young adult it’s something different—but I’d say that everyone has their own issues. For the young adults, it’s about functioning. So for example, I’ve struggled with substance usage, and when I go into a youth shelter and I see a young adult who still has two jobs and is going to school and is working and they’re addicted to heroin, I think, “Oh shoot, maybe I can do that too,” [that I can frequently use drugs and still accomplish what I want.] And with adults, when I go into shelters, I think, “Oh I don’t want to end up like them,” so it’s a balance.
How, if at all, has staying at Y2Y in the past helped you?
I think it’s very beneficial for some people, and it’s mediocre for others. The one thing that I do really like is the youth-to-youth model that they have. It’s not like talking to an adult, but rather it’s talking to another college kid who also is going through, not necessarily the same exact situation, but something similar because you’re around the same age.
Are the people you’re working with all Harvard students?
Generally speaking, yes.
Do you think that there are any benefits or difficulties with having that kind of youth-to-youth connection be with a Harvard student?
Yeah. So the job I had this summer, and a lot of the [ways I’ve been able to make connections in the healthcare industry have] been because I’ve been connected to Harvard students. The downside to it can be as simple as them not knowing how to make a grilled cheese [in the kitchen at the shelter] when you’re asking for it or them not necessarily growing up in a hard situation, so they can’t connect on that level. There have been times when there have been fights. There have been threats to guests and other staff members, and they don’t know how to handle it. I’ve seen a Harvard student collapse in a traumatic state because they didn’t know how to deal with somebody throwing shit around the room.
Since you have gotten involved with Y2Y, what have been your thoughts on how it’s run? What do you think they do well or don’t do well?
[emphatically] Well first of all [laughs], Y2Y currently does not have a young adult on their planning board, and I believe the phrase “Nothing about us without us,” so I believe they need a young adult who is currently staying there on the board. Also, they need to go through more trainings with the Boston Youth Action Board!
Is there anything else that you think would be valuable or anything you think they should do in terms of programming?
I think that they just need more training. That’s all.
Have you had experiences with people who are opposed to Y2Y? What are common objections to Y2Y?
Yeah. So a big myth that people have is that, “Oh if you’re homeless, you mouthed-off to your parents, and you’re having sex, and you’re doing drugs, and you have six kids,” but that’s not the truth for everyone. I’ve seen a lot of adults, not just my housed adult friends, but adults who are in the same situation [are homeless] who ask, “Why do young adults need their own space? Why can’t you just get your shit together? Why can’t you do that? Why can’t you just do this?” It’s completely invalidating because what an adult that has been chronically homeless may need, a young adult may not need.
In that regard, what do you think the main things that any kind of advocacy around homelessness should be promoting?
You just need to hear voices from your own community, you know? For Boston, [there] may be different [needs] from the Yale community, but just listen [to the people you’re trying to serve]. That’s the big thing.
Do you have any personal stories–either positive or negative–that you want to share about Y2Y?
The students [working] there, you can really tell some of them care. They’ll stay up until 2am and bake cookies and cry about life [laughs]. I have had friends there who have had suicidal urges and have had swallowed pills in the [shelter], and the staff will go hands-on and say, “Hey, we’re going to call the ambulance. Are you okay?”
One, a few friends of mine and I, we got drunk this summer, and we went to Target, and we bought out the Barbie doll section, and we came back and went to the little room that all the case managers meet with their clients in, and we played Barbies. We were like, “Oh my God, we had such a traumatic childhood, and now we’re finally playing with Barbies, guys.” [Laughs.] Then the staff members came in and they made a big hurray [laughs] about it. And everybody in the space placed with Barbies that night [laugh].
The second this is that I’m a part of SPPC [Shelter Policy Planning Committee, a part of Y2Y] which is a youth action board. Within that, it’s the guests stepping up to the plate with the advocacy directors saying, “Hey, this is what needs to change in the space.”
In terms of mental health, do you feel like there’s adequate opportunities for people seek out mental health resources, counseling, things like that for the homeless community?
[laughs] So they exist. I applied for DMH services in September, and I just got them a month ago [March]. Even if you’re on the waitlist for just a therapist or a PCP, in Boston, that can take months to figure out, so in the meantime we need shelter staff who are trained to deal with situations that arise.
I heard that you’re involved with the focus group that was working on the new Wooster Square Y2Y location in New Haven. As this new site is created, if I just gave you the floor, based on your experience, what would you want to say?
Alright [claps hands together] so, all the people who want to start off this new Y2Y in New Haven, they need to come here. They need to see what we’re doing, spend a few nights here to see what it’s really all about. And the Boston Youth Action Board needs to train you guys.
Is there anything else that you want to add about your experience with Y2Y?
A positive is like, [sighs] being a homeless young adult is strange. On one hand, you do have a community, and for the most part, people bond together especially when we’re sleeping outside, and they’re like, “Hey you can sleep with us; you’ll be safe,” but also it’s incredibly toxic because like, “Oh yeah you can do this, but you slept with my girlfriend…” So it’s a very interesting balance. Once you get to know your community, it’s like a big sleepover every night.
Recently, there has been a lot of, coming out of the Midwest, talk about when the temperatures got really cold and, especially during the shutdown, how a lot of spaces were inaccessible to the homeless community. Do you have any stories or anything that you want to share about how that has impacted you or people you know?
I actually grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and in Chicago, I follow a Facebook group called the WAV Homeless Support Group, it’s a national group for people experiencing homelessness. And every single day, there’d something like, oh this friend died, or that friend died. It wasn’t an overdose this time, it was the snow.
It’s heartbreaking because I have friends in that area. Here [in Boston], everything was affected [by the shutdown]. You couldn’t use your food stamps, and some people got an extra amount, but now they’re not getting any for this coming month. I could rant about food stamps for a whole day–that’s a whole other topic. It also affected simple things like getting a driver’s license or your ID or social security card which can aid in getting a job. During the shutdown, that wasn’t possible. Also a lot of shelters are funded by food banks or food stamps or other government cash assistance, and since that was the case, the shelters just didn’t have enough stuff to go around. They were still open, but….
Are there misperceptions of what it means to be homeless?
Hell yeah [laughs]. What I like to say is, what separates me from you is that I don’t have a stable place to call my own home. I still am in college, I have two jobs, I have a social life. I do everything else that a young adult would do. There are so many misconceptions [laughs]. But a lot of times, I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because all I carry around with me is a backpack, and if you’re just carrying a backpack, you just look like a college student, which I am. And people are a lot easier on you than if you were an old woman pushing a cart.
Sometimes people are fed a narrative about what it means to be homeless. What’s left out of that narrative?
It can literally happen to anyone. Not everyone is necessarily one paycheck away, but you can be one medical issue away. You can be one divorce away. You never know if it can be you. So if someone is really desperate and on the corner asking for money, it doesn’t mean they’re asking for drugs. It’s doesn’t mean they’re trying to get something out of you. We’re just human beings, and we’re just trying to make it by.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I know you said you were working jobs and you’re also in school right now. What are your goals?
I’m currently a student at Southern New Hampshire University–their duet program. I don’t know if you’ve heard the commercials [laughs]–they’re very annoying [laughs]. I’m going for my associate’s in health care management, and after that, I’m not exactly sure which thing I want to do next. But I definitely do want to have a background in health care management, psychology, nursing, and dance therapy, and I want to take that and go wherever the world needs me and be a comprehensive package of an outreach worker.
Is there anybody who you feel has stood out in your memory or really had an impact on you?
Ooh…[laughs]. There’s so many. I like to live every moment like it’s my last, so I believe each and every person we run into, we run into for a reason, so I always have that in the back of my mind. One program that has really helped me is called Roxbury Youthworks, and they have a program called Build, which is a life-coaching service for folks that have experienced commercial sexual exploitation or have had a lot of sexual abuse, that kind of thing. I’ve met with my life coach, her name is Cedar, she’s fantastic. She can take me out to dinner, but she’s also like that older sister, king of like a big brother or sister model.
Is there anything else you want to talk about?
We need to talk about data. I would encourage young adults that want to work with the Yale students to look at the data in their community and say, “Hey, Y2Y has 22 30-day beds [for several nights] and five one-night beds, but for our community, maybe we need double that.”
How you have found are the best ways to be an advocate?
Long story short, I was really depressed. I was in and out of psych hospitals, and I found a flyer on an elevator at Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and it said, “Hey come to the Boston Youth Action Meeting” and I thought, “Awesome, great!” At first, I was like, “Yeah okay, no one wants to hear me talk because I talk too much,” [laughs] but then I saw it a second time going up later that day to my therapist. So I went to the meeting, and I didn’t know what anybody was talking about because they were all into data and Boston, and I was like, “What’s going on here?” But after I started getting involved, I’ve grown to love it. I found my voice. And through that, I’ve had the opportunity to be on the LGBTQ+ Family Acceptance Force and the Innovative Stable Housing Initiative, so it’s opened the doors a lot. Oh, just for the record, the Boston Youth Action Board, is a group of youth activists with lived experience of homelessness who are all working towards the common goal of working on a plan to end homelessness. We’re the ones who won the 4.9 million, if you heard in the news. It was big news around here!
We talked a bit about being LGBTQ+ in homeless shelters. If you feel comfortable, can you talk about, in your experience, how has being LGBTQ+ been a part of your life story?
For me, it’s interesting. I also have dissociative identity disorder, so I have multiple personalities–that’s what it used to be called. Each personality I have expresses themselves differently. So there’s one that identifies as male, one that identifies as female, and four that identify as non-binary and one that identifies as agendered–kind of like a mythical creature type thing [laughs]. But altogether, I believe that I’m non-binary because I’m all of what I’m going to become. Overall, it’s who I am, and there’s always going to be haters and people who are like “well biologically…” which…it’s not true, because guess what? Biologically, people are not always male or female either. With having MassHealth and having things be free through that, I’ve started testosterone, and I’m meeting with surgeons and deciding what I finally want my body to look like. And with MassHealth, that’s possible. Yes, the Affordable Care Act!
It’s an insurance that’s for the poor people basically. In Massachusetts, it’s a rule that you have health insurance, and if you make under a certain amount, then you’re eligible. The one bad thing is that they don’t have a lot of dental services. You can get fillings and cleanings, but if it comes to crowns or braces or things past that, good luck [laughs].
Can you talk about what the homeless community in Boston is like? Do you feel like you have people that you see regularly or people you can keep in touch with? Or is it more sparse?
In Boston, it’s interesting. It’s all up to you. If you want to be connected, if you want a social life, if you want to connect with services, they’re there for you, they exist. You just have to seek them out, but it’s also easy if you’re depressed to kind of isolate yourself and hide out in the woods by Alewife, because I’ve done that [laughs].
Data-wise, in the 2018 Massachusetts Youth Count–it’s a big count kind of like a census–there was 2150 surveys they sent out and 738 young adults matched the commission’s definition of homeless, and 40% of those people are LGBTQ+.
Also, I don’t know if it applies to the New Haven location, but it’s something to keep in mind. In Boston, a lot of the social service agencies are around Harvard Square or Central Square or downtown, meaning that the young adults coming from typically worse situations in Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, JP, they have to find their own way, and this can be a kid as young as 14. So definitely look at the demographics because 64% of the youth that access Y2Y and Bridge are coming from the southern Boston area.
Why do you those inefficiencies exist?
I think that everyone is well-meaning, but they just don’t take enough time to listen to us. I was actually a part of the Point in Time count (which is the census on homelessness) earlier in January, and I was on an outreach team giving people surveys, and people on this team who had not experienced homelessness were like, “Hey buddy come to a shelter, they’ll help you.” What if that person is barred from that shelter? He could have been assaulted. You don’t know. You don’t force somebody to do something that’s not helping them. They are finally starting to realize that we have a say in things. Overall, people just need to listen.
What can college students do? Do you think they should be spending the time on Y2Y or a different approach?
It’s a hard call. I think a Y2Y in everyone’s community would be beneficial, but you have to keep in mind the health of the person who’s running a place like that. So definitely having support for them on that side. If you had a friend who told you, “Hey bro, I’m going to be homeless in the next two weeks, can you help me?” obviously as a friend, you want to help, but you can’t do everything for them. So it’s just knowing that you can’t be everything for everyone. Y’all can only do your best!
Any last things?
If you’re asking for young adults to be a part of advocacy work, you need to give them something in return. Maybe that’s like extra clothing donations or money because for us. There’s a lot of things we can be doing that can get us out of homelessness instead of talking with you guys.