Ivan: Runaway and Castoff
Ivan Cabrera left a turbulent home as a teenager.
BY LENA MASRI
Ivan Cabrera came home crying.
“He died. My boyfriend died,” Ivan told his mother. “Harry is my boyfriend, Mom. I’m gay.”
He had just watched Harry jump to his death in front of a train after they both came out as gay at their school. His mother looked at him, stunned, and then cursed at him. She cried and yelled and told her son not to touch her because he would spread a virus.
He was 12 years old.
That is how Cabrera describes one of the many fights he had with his parents in an unstable home in East Harlem, New York.
“I always felt when I was younger that I was never loved, never cared about,” said Cabrera, now 22.
Cabrera says his mother kicked him out because he was gay. His mother and two sisters give different versions of the story but agree that as a teenager he would often run away from home and disappear – missing – for days or weeks.
Almost 20,000 children were reported missing in New York State last year, and nearly all of them – 96 percent – are suspected runaways like Cabrera, according to the 2014 Missing Persons Clearinghouse Annual Report. Runaways are defined by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services as children under 18 who are missing from their homes without their parents’ consent.
Most leave home because of conflicts with their parents, authorities say.
“Each year the No. 1 reason young people reach out to us is family dynamics,” said Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Safeline, an organization that works to keep runaways and homeless children safe.
“It could be some sort of conflict in the home. It might be because the parents are fighting or because of issues with siblings.”
Last year the Safeline received more than 96,000 calls from runaways. Nearly a third were from New York, more than any other state.
Some of the children left home after they came out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, said Blaha. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 35 percent of New York City’s young homeless people are LGBT, and many leave home after coming out.
LGBT Kids Forced Out of Conservative Homes
BY EMRYS ELLER | Many LGBT teens, especially from the South and Midwest, flee violence and rejection in conservative homes. Social workers say that those in the western United States often head to San Francisco while kids from the East come to New York City. Many of these kids end up homeless on city streets where they face danger and stigma similar to what they fled.
Above: Seven years since leaving home, Jeffery Blanchard lives in transitional housing for homeless youth. | Photo by Levi Sharpe
Nearly all missing children are runaways
Source: New York State Missing Persons Clearinghouse 2014 Report
- Runaways (19065) 96% 96%
- Familial Abduction (118) 0.6% 0.6%
- Non-Custodial Parent/Acquaintance/Stranger Abduction (20) 0.1% 0.1%
- Lost (99) 0.5% 0.5%
- Circumstances Unknown 2.8% 2.8%
Cabrera’s mother, Nydia Rodriguez, was offered a chance to respond to her son’s version of events. She says she didn’t throw her son out and never had a problem with her son’s being gay. “He is my son regardless,” she said.
She says she doesn’t remember anything about his coming home crying because Harry had died. But she does remember that he started running away when he was around 15. He would leave, come back home and then disappear again, she says.
“I would go look for him,“ she said. “I was upset and angry. I don’t know where he was. He never wanted to talk about it.”
Since he was 16, Cabrera has been spending time at New Alternatives, a drop-in center for young homeless LGBT people. He goes there almost every Sunday for a free meal, HIV testing and a talk with clients and caseworkers.
He calls the people there his family.
“He used to say that his mother was very homophobic,” said Kate Barnhart, director of New Alternatives. “He would sometimes go back to his mother’s place, but he would come back with horror stories.”
Cabrera’s sisters describe the home as turbulent.
“Ivan would leave for days and nobody knew where he was,” said Cabrera’s older sister Alicia. “When he came back, my mom would say ‘Where were you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ As she said that, Ivan would be packing a bag to leave again.”
As with many runaways, it is not easy to give a reliable picture of what exactly Cabrera has been through or why and when he left home.
“I think a lot of families have issues with shame, and they hide things from outsiders,” said Barnhart. “I think in any family, they are going to have as many stories as family members. But kids who leave their home usually have a good reason.”
Cabrera says he felt neglected as a child.
“I always felt when I was younger that I was never loved, never cared about.”
– Ivan Cabrera
Female Runaways (11767)
Male Runaways (7298)
Notes from Cabrera’s files with New Alternatives tell fragments of his story:
On July 27, 2010, when Cabrera was 17: “Housing: Kicked out by mother staying w friend.”; “Food – client has no food; needs pantry.”
February 15, 2011: “Concerned about little sister’s upcoming birthday.”
February 22, 2011: “Housing: Mom kicked out; sleeping on train. Basic needs: Gave blanket, underwear, hygiene supply.”
May 17, 2011: “Basic needs: Asked for referrals to food pantries/soup kitchens in Union Sq area – gave list.”
October 26, 2011: “Employment: Nds Clothes for interview tomorrow.”
March 29, 2011: “Mental health: Crying about maternal rejection; talked about self harm.”
According to the files, he was referred to Sylvia’s Place, a shelter for homeless LGBT people, on April 1, 2011.
Ladedra Brown, overnight client services assistant at Sylvia’s Place, remembers Cabrera’s first night at the shelter. He came in covered in dirt, she said.
“I think he had been sleeping on the street,” she said. “And he slept hard that night – like he hadn’t slept in a long time.”
Cabrera says he was indeed sleeping on the street. Sometimes he spent the night in parks, other times on sidewalks and even inside big cardboard boxes, he says.
He says he often stole to make quick money and would sometimes trade sex for cash.
“It made me feel dirty,” he said. “I felt like it was disgusting. I didn’t want to put myself in that type of risk or danger, but I had to survive.”
Children of color are more likely to run away
Source: New York State Missing Persons Clearinghouse 2014 Report
- Children of Color 58% 58%
- White Children 42% 42%
Cabrera describes the places he slept on the street.
“I didn’t want to put myself in that type of risk or danger, but I had to survive.”
He says he tried to get internships and jobs, but no one wanted to hire him because he smelled and didn’t look presentable.
At 18, he often slept in Union Square, he says. One day his mother found him there. She grabbed him by the ears and asked him to come back home, he says.
“I thought she was going to hit me. But she was actually pretty happy, and she said, ‘You are going to stay with me, and I’m so sorry.’”
Cabrera says he moved back home, but not for long because he had a new boyfriend and Cabrera’s mother didn’t approve. “So my mother told me to leave with him,” he said.
Today, Cabrera says, his mother has found a way to accept him. “I love my mom, and she felt so bad,” he said. “I told her, ‘Thank you for letting me learn what the world is,’ because a lot of people never get that chance to know what life can give to you. It’s horrible. I wish I had never gone through that.”
Cabrera says his mother accepts him now.
Cabrera now lives in Manhattan’s East Village in a supportive housing building for low-income young people who pay a third of their income in rent. He works part time at a nonprofit that advocates for young LGBT people’s rights, but says he doesn’t make enough money to support himself. He often goes to food pantries.
He loves to rap and design clothes, and he makes T-shirts for the New York Gay Pride march. He hopes to go back to school someday.
“I dream to go to school and be a fashion designer,” he said. “I love having fabric in my hand and tearing it up with scissors. I want to be an entrepreneur and do something with my life.”