Gay D.C. teen lived in abandoned building, now headed to college

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Kadeem Swenson told his parents he was gay when he was 16 years old. Two weeks later, he says they asked him to leave their Waldorf, Md., home.

Kadeem Swenson at his graduation. (Photo: Mike Conneen/ TBD)

“You know I didn't really fight it, I just left,” Swenson said.

He moved in with his grandmother and later with friends. Eventually, he ran out of options, “so I used to stay where they blinds at on the top floor,” he said.

Swenson found shelter in an abandoned building just off Mississippi Avenue Southeast. He survived eating fast food but going hungry many nights. He used public bathrooms to wash.

“I didn't have no running water, there was no electricity, yeah, there was no light, nothing,” he said.

Committed to getting a diploma, he enrolled himself at Ballou stay senior high, an alternative school for at-risk youth.

“I didn't really want to tell nobody because I didn't want nobody to have pity on me,” he said about keeping his homelessness secret.

Swenson points at the building where he used to sleep. (Photo: Mike Conneen)

Off and on for more than a year, Swenson says he was living here on the streets of Southeast Washington. During that time, he says nobody knew he was homeless, no teachers, classmates, family members or friends. Finally, he ran out of money and sought help from a counselor at his school.

“Kadeem always had a pleasant smile, always, never seemed as though anything was ever wrong. No one would ever know what he was going through,” said Annette Boxley-Drew, an administrator at Ballou.

Boxley-Drew remembers how shocked she was when she heard the student’s secret.

“I think I stayed in my office for about two hours crying,” she said. “After I finished crying I said ‘what can I do to help this young man?’”

She and others helped get temporary housing through a group that empowers transgender youth.

“These are just young people that just want the chance to survive, to make it,” the group’s Brian Watson said.

Swenson later graduated from Ballou and interned with the D.C. government. Now 19, he's taking liberal arts classes at the community college of D.C.

He dreams of hosting a travel show like Anthony Bourdain. With scholarships and a student loan, he's living in an apartment building in Van Ness. His room even overlooks an outdoor pool.

“I'm very happy but I mean I don't think about me I think about the people who aren't as lucky as me who can't get the help,” he said.

Advocates for gay homeless youth say success stories like Swenson’s are rare.

“The first thing they're introduced to is drugs, then they find themselves caught up in prostitution, then they're beaten, all kinds of things, it's just astonishing,” said Earline Budd of Transgender Health Empowerment about the dangers facing homeless youth. “I mean we hear some real horrific stories in terms of young people who come here who are LGBT.”

Swenson has a support network. Boxley-Drew has taken him under her wing, referring to herself as his godmother.

“It's a relationship that's like a mother and son seriously. I can almost feel if something is not right and if he's troubled by something,” she said.

Swenson’s biological parents have only seen him once, he said, at his high school graduation. He remains hopeful that someday, they'll reconnect.

“I love them both very much and I don't have anything against them,” he said.

Swenson says he's proud of himself and would not have done it any other way.

“Why be unhappy? Life is too short. Why be around people who can't accept you anyway?” he said.

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