Homeless LGBTQ college students in NYC major in survival

Victor Manuel Markhoff, 20, is a student at New York University who pursues his education while being homeless after coming out as transgender to his family.
Victor Manuel Markhoff, 20, is a student at New York University who pursues his education while being homeless after coming out as transgender to his family. Photo Credit: The Meatpackers American Brasserie

As he anxiously sat alone with a worn backpack in the library while groups of coffee-fueled students whispered about their weekend plans, Victor Manuel Markhoff kept his eyes lowered to his high-top Converse, focusing on the only subject he can afford to meticulously study — survival.

“I don’t have money and there’s no way I can keep up with rent. I am basically screwed,” said Markhoff, 20, a transgender man and junior at New York University. “I’m perpetually stuck in the dorms. I have no other home.”

Markhoff struggles daily to push his PTSD off his chest and get out of bed. His academics, which should be a priority, dull in comparison to the aftermath of his parents physically, mentally and emotionally abusing him for being transgender, he said. He cannot concentrate on anything beyond finding SNAP-approved foods that don’t stress his celiac disease and searching for a job that accommodates a debilitating genetic disorder that leaves his body susceptible to joint dislocations and tissue tears.

Nearly two months into the spring semester, Markhoff has yet to attend a class. He can’t keep up with his grade-point average. He can’t figure out a major. He can’t even complete class registration until he secures a financial aid package that provides housing. Despite his struggle, he said he is better off than other homeless transgender students at the university, many of whom are forced to reside in shelters or live couch-to-couch.

“It’s a very silent homelessness,” he said. “There are people who have had to leave NYU after coming out and getting cut off [from their families] who were not able to get scholarships.”

Kate Barnhart, director of the LGBTQ nonprofit organization New Alternatives, said it is often harder for LGBTQ youth, especially those who are homeless, to succeed in education.

“The shelters are loud and it’s hard to study. … They’ll have a place to keep their stuff but how safe it is varies. People have textbooks and school supplies stolen,” Barnhart said. “One of my clients spends just as much time as she can at her school, but folks will also go to the library or wherever they can find a spot.”

Many homeless LGBTQ students are kicked out of their homes for their sexual and gender identity, forcing them to survive financially and academically without family support, she said. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that LGBTQ youth can end up on the street as young as 13 years old.

Although there is no study specifically on the number of homeless LGBTQ students, the most recent study conducted by the city shows there are more than 2,000 unaccompanied homeless individuals under 24 years old and The Ali Forney Center found that 1,600 of those youth are LGBTQ.

“New York is kind of a mecca for LGBTQ homeless youth, so what happens is folks come from all over the country to New York looking for the place they think they’ll be safe and accepted,” Barnhart said. “The trouble is, they don’t know how difficult it’s going to be so they get here and they find themselves in trouble.”

Being homeless from such a young age makes it difficult for many people to afford expenses outside of what is needed to survive, including education, Barnhart continued.

NYU recommends students budget nearly $5,000 a semester for books and supplies, transportation and other personal expenses, but for Markhoff, this budget is essentially nonexistent. He lives semester-to-semester on a small refund he receives from the school, which barely covers food and other basic necessities.

"I’m figuring out what exactly to do. I’m applying for cash assistance," he said. "Honestly, a lot of it has been me denying myself my most basic needs. It’s been brutal and I don’t know how I’ve been able to do it." 

The financial difficulty, as well as the mental and emotional stress of living an atypical college experience, is burdensome to all homeless students. Students who also are LGBTQ bear an even more complicated challenge. Advocates and researchers from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found LGBTQ youth deal with stressors other homeless individuals may not, including discrimination from their loved ones, not having proper access to resources and the process of identifying with their sexuality and gender.

Markhoff sought to reduce those stressors by raising money through GoFundMe for top surgery, which he underwent in January. Choosing to raise funds for breast removal rather than for a permanent home or school expenses was really no choice at all, he said. For him, the surgery was medically necessary.

“I can’t describe the sheer anguish of dealing with that part of my body,” he said. “It’s like making the choice between heart surgery and school. … I look in the mirror now, which didn’t used to happen.”

With a new sense of self-confidence, Markhoff said dealing with the anxiety and stress of being a homeless LGBTQ student is improving every day, but he still has a long journey ahead. He is focusing on getting permanent housing, furthering his education and encouraging others in a similar situation.

“I wish that every time people found out I’m homeless, that instead of seeing tragedy, they would see this hope,” he said. “I see it as a triumph to have come as far as I have and to have respected myself and loved myself so much to recognize a situation where being homeless is better than being where I was.”

Markhoff’s mother denied his claims, stating that she and her husband have attempted to contact and reconcile with their son.

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