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Cowboy’s tragedy illustrates plight of homeless living with HIV



SAN DIEGO – The vicious beating of Jason “Cowboy” Huggins, who suffered irreversible brain damage and died two weeks later on July 6, stunned the LGBT community in San Diego and beyond.

The horrific story spread from San Diego to all parts of the U.S. and even abroad. But the hidden tragedy was that Cowboy was homeless and HIV-positive, living in a place hailed as America’s Finest City.

An acquaintance, Joshua James Larson, 37, has been arrested and accused of bludgeoning Huggins in the head with a rock in a canyon near the 1300 block of Washington Street in Hillcrest. Larson faces a preliminary hearing on Sept. 14 on murder charges. Prosecutors are expected to present a motive of revenge, because Cowboy had testified against Larson during a criminal trial.

The tall and lanky Cowboy, as he was affectionately known, was a fixture in the Hillcrest gayborhood with his trademark cowboy hat, boots and big belt buckle. He always had a smile on his face and a kind word to say about the people he knew.

Interviews with family and friends indicate that Cowboy never had an easy life. He was raised by a grandmother in Clarksville, Tenn., with the help of an aunt. He dropped out of high school when he was a senior, but later earned his GED. But coming out in rural Tennessee was difficult, and he left home for a life where he could live openly as a gay man.

Cowboy left Tennessee, making a stop in the Dallas suburb of Garland. He embraced the cowboy lifestyle during his boot-scooting nights in Texas.

About a decade ago, San Diego beckoned, and Cowboy found odd jobs and many friends here. But times were tough lately and he found himself homeless before his death, friends have said. It was in his makeshift “home” in the brushy canyon off Washington Street where Larson is accused of fatally attacking Cowboy.

The desperate needs of adult LGBT homeless

Cowboy’s story is heartbreaking and his death at the young age of 31 seems so unnecessary. But like other homeless people, whether LGBT or not, the resources to help them are being overwhelmed by a nation under siege by severe economic woes and record-high unemployment.

Many homeless shelters are less than friendly to gays, and LGBT adults who seek help are either forced to hide their sexual orientation or turned away. San Diego’s nearly flawless climate gives the homeless a break from temperature extremes, and many of the city’s canyons and bridge overpasses become tent cities after dark. Others, fearful of the ever-present specter of violence against LGBT people, sleep in the open during daylight hours in public parks. Some bathe inside the gay bars in Hillcrest and North Park, or trade sexual favors for a chance at a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed and a shower the next morning.

As an adult, Cowboy had few resources available to him as a homeless gay man. Friends say they tried to help him, but he was a proud man who didn’t want charity.

SDGLN Staff Writer Ben Cartwright’s sensitive obituary on Cowboy touched upon the issue that shames our community: that many people living with HIV or AIDS find themselves homeless.

An estimated 500 people in San Diego who are living with HIV or AIDS are also homeless, said Tom McSorley, director of resource development for Townspeople. It is not known how many of the 500 people identify as LGBT, he said.

“Logic would tell you that a majority are gay men, though we see more women, especially African-American women, who are homeless because of economic, divorce or domestic violence issues on the streets,” McSorley said. “Many of our [Townspeople] residents have had histories of homelessness.”

Townspeople provides funds to help people stay in their homes when money gets too tight.

“Many of Townspeople’s residents in more than 120 apartments we own or manage are LGBT living with HIV/AIDS,” he said.

Many of the homeless living with HIV or AIDS fall through the cracks, failed by a health care system that isn’t working due to severe budget cutbacks and shortfalls. They often lose access to the very medicine that keeps them healthy.

That is the grim reality that many homeless gay men face.

The plight of homeless LGBT youth

For LGBT youth younger than 21, however, the situation is somewhat different.

The number of homeless LGBT youth is staggering in comparison to their heterosexual peers. A recent study by Children’s Hospital Boston showed that 19% of gay and lesbian high school students are homeless in Massachusetts, compared to 3% of straight students.

Up to 42% of the nation’s homeless youth identify as lesbian or gay, according to a 2006 study released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Youth who come out at an early age risk everything: family love and support, a place to live, harassment and discrimination, just to name a few potential consequences. And those who lose their support system are also at a greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse, sexual exploitation and even suicide.

“One of the issues … is that younger gay men who become homeless engage in what is commonly called ‘survival sex,’ selling themselves for food to eat and a place to sleep. Tragic on many levels. They end up getting infected as well,” McSorley said.

Carl Siciliano, founder and executive director of the Ali Forney Center, was recently quoted in SDGLN about the dangers facing LGBT youth.

“As the head of the Ali Forney Center, I have met thousands of other LGBT youths thrown out by their families. Over 70% were abused and assaulted in their own homes simply because they were LGBT. Research shows that these kids are as many as eight and a half times as likely to commit suicide. This problem will not disappear overnight, but we have the power to change it.”

On May 12, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation to reduce youth homelessness and specifically prevent homelessness among gay teens. The Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act would develop programs to improve family relationships and decrease homelessness for LGBT youth.

“As a father, it’s a punch in the gut to imagine children living on the streets, but this year alone, one in 50 American kids will be homeless,” Kerry said in an article published by SDGLN. “There are common sense reforms we can implement to help make things better for LGBT youth.”

Finding help in San Diego

The Center in Hillcrest has two efforts that aid homeless youths:

* The Sunburst Youth Housing Project, which debuted in 2008, provides 23 units of affordable, supportive housing for formerly homeless young adults, 18-24 years of age, with a special focus on LGBT youth.

* The Hillcrest Youth Center provides a safe, welcoming and affirming space for LGBTQ youths and their allies, ages 14-18.

Townspeople offers help to people who are economically disadvantaged and in danger of becoming homeless. Townspeople owns or manages more than 120 apartment units, and many are occupied by people who are living with HIV or AIDS.

If you or someone you know is in need of help, contact one of the following organizations:

Being Alive

The Center in Hillcrest

L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center

The Community of LGBT Centers

Gay-Straight Alliance Network

Our Circle

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