eight homeless youth in New Orleans die in fire

All day I’ve been thinking about the devastating news I heard this morning- eight homeless youth were killed in New Orleans when just after 2am the barrel fire they had been using to keep warm in an abandoned warehouse spread engulfing the entire building. Eight  kids died last night because as a nation, as a society we have systematically failed them. Homelessness is a national epidemic, each year 2.8 million youth experience homelessness, with 40% of those youth being LGBTQ identified.  New Orleans like other cities is not equipped to handle the epidemic. According to some of the research I was doing today, there are an estimated 3,000 homeless people in the city with only 800 shelter beds available; even on a night like last night when temperatures dipped below freezing.

I’ve been reading all the news articles I can find, most at least somewhat offensive. The above photo is from the AP, and one of the only ones which is not a closeup of a body bag (I seldom see the media respond that way in the case of a “house fire”). Most articles have felt it important to call the youth who began to gather at the scene “scruffy” or comment on how their faces, hands, and clothes were dirty. They also asked gathering youth “why” kids were sleeping in an abandoned building, as if it wasn’t obvious.  Some articles are saying the youth who died were local artists and musicians, others say they were freight hopping just passing through. The fire department has stated they have been unable to identify the youth, but in one article a youth nearby told reporters that “Katy, Jeff, Sammy, Nicky, John and Mooncat usually stay there” and there were two dogs with them who also died last night in the fire.

A quote that stood out to me this morning, and stayed with me through the day came from the Fire Department representative who told reporters “they were so burned we cannot even tell their genders.” considering that trans youth are extremely over represented in homeless populations, this quote seems particularly insensitive as it’s quite possibly that the “authorities” would not have been able to determine their genders while they were living either.

The news articles I’ve seen also reference that friends of the youth created an alter for them beside the warehouse. I wanted to include a picture of that here as that seemed the most respectful thing to do, but none of the news sites I’ve found covering the fire seemed to photograph that. Instead, they called it a “so called alter” and desparagingly described it’s contents: beer cans, candles, a stuffed dog, and a sign that read “hungry and homeless.”

All day I’ve tried to find the words to talk about this tragedy, and I still haven’t found them.  This story hits close to home as I remember the traveling kids, the artists, the kids with dogs who I knew years ago, and all the kids who are still out there in the cold tonight.