Before he was even 18, Kemar Jewel would fantasize about food to keep his stomach from growling. It would work, too.
He encountered physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse every day of his life until he was able to escape an ugly situation of homelessness on the streets of Philadelphia.
Jewel, 24, of North Philly, testified about his experiences at a joint hearing on youth homelessness before City Council’s committees on Children and Youth and Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless Thursday.
“Imagine going through all this simultaneously, while faking a smile so that people think you’re OK,” he said.
“Now imagine doing all this before you’re even 18 years old. For a lot of youth in Philadelphia, they don’t have to imagine any of this, because it’s their reality every single day.”
Jewel was one of several from the LGBT community who testified before the committees conveying the turmoil they live through not only as a gay person, but as a homeless youth, too.
A large part of Thursday’s hearing seemed to focus on the needs of those in the LGBT community who are affected by homelessness, and Philadelphia’s Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick, brought Jewel and Phantazia Washington to the dais to share their stories.
“The reason I am here today is because I am one of those people,” said Jewel.
“When I was 16 years old, I was kicked out of my home and forced into the streets of Philadelphia. I’ve been raped four times, and each one was worse than the last. But it all happened because I had nowhere safe to go. Even to this day, I’m still going to therapy for these traumatic events. The worst part is that I felt like I had no one to talk to – no family, no friends, no school peers. I felt alone. And it made my situation 10 times worse.”
Fitzpatrick said a disproportionate number of LGBT youth in the city experience homelessness. A 2015 study revealed that 54 percent of homeless youth identified as LGBT.
“Everyone serving youth through social service agencies, educational systems, the juvenile justice system, and the child welfare system must work together to make sure the right types of assistance are created and that youth are able to access and fully understand the available services,” said Fitzpatrick.
“While I am confident you will hear of the enormous barriers faced by all homeless youth and the critical need for more services, shelters, beds and opportunities, it is imperative that this joint committee remain cognizant of the additional needs of, and barriers faced by, LGBT youth as they are over half of the youth you are aiming to serve.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym said she and her colleague, Councilman Allan Domb, were fully dedicated to seeing an expansion in the number of services to homeless youth.
“Not five years down the road, not months and months later, but in the next fiscal year,” she said.
“We know we can make this a priority for our city.”