By Benita Whitehorn
University of Mississippi
Reggie Willis, who is transgender, will never forget when he lived in his truck on a diet of bagged cereal.
He grew up in a middle-class family and lived a privileged life. He started at the University of Mississippi in 2013 as an accountancy major and received a scholarship to be in the Pride of the South marching band. Then his family discovered he was queer and in a relationship. They cut him off.
Without financial support, Willis experienced homelessness twice during his five years at the university and had to learn to survive on his own. The first time, he couch surfed during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years.
The second time was while he finished earning his remaining credits over the summer before he graduated. That’s when he lived in his truck and struggled to find food and work.
“To this day, I stockpile uneaten food in case a time comes when I am hungry and without access,” said Willis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in managerial finance from UM in 2018. He lives in Juneau, Alaska, where he is a senior financial analyst for a tribal health organization.
After hearing Willis’ story and similar stories from other LGBTQIA+ students, Jaime Harker, director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies and professor of English, started the LGBTQIA+ Emergency Fund of North Mississippi.
“I decided that this was a need from attending the university’s Lavender Graduation,” Harker said. “Just about every year, the student speaker talks about the trials they faced, and often, it is being cut off financially by their parents after they come out. Some were homeless and living in their cars for a while, and had to drop out of school.
“Students also come to my office on campus with similar stories. We often don’t hear about such cases, though, and it concerned me that students were getting lost and we didn’t know there was a crisis.”
Harker launched a website and organized a GoFundMe campaign to collect donations to provide short-term emergency help for LGBTQIA+ youths and young adults in north Mississippi who find themselves in need of housing, food and medical resources. The campaign has raised a little more than $2,000.
Those in need of short-term emergency help can fill out an application on the website to receive up to $250, as well as be connected with other resources in the area.
Nearly one in four transgender young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 experience homelessness, nearly double the rate of their peers, according to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization for LGBTQIA+ young people.
And the most prevalent reason for homelessness among LGBTQ youths is being forced out of home or running away from home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the Williams Institute, a research center on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy at UCLA.
North Mississippi emergency fund board members Libby Lytle, EJ Edney and Kate Forster confirm these findings.
“What I have observed over the years has been the student coming out to their parents and then the parents cutting them off financially,” said Lytle, a UM adjunct instructor of criminal justice who also works with Family Crisis Services of Northwest Mississippi.
“This has led to couch surfing with friends, spending nights in the library or other areas on campus or in Oxford, having to drop out of school and work full time. It has limited their basic needs to survive and access to preventative health care, or any health care.”
In an instance this semester, a UM faculty member noticed a student who had stopped coming to class, said Edney, assistant vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion.
“I reached out to that student and found out that the student had come out to their parents and had been kicked out,” Edney said. “But they had been kicked out while they were home. And so their laptop was there, their clothes were there, lots of things that they needed in order to be successful, were there.
“So we were able to work with that student to get them connected to several different resources. And that student now has their laptop, now has what they need to be back in the class, and we have closer eyes on that student.”
Many LGBTQIA+ students face “family of origin” concerns, said Forster, director of advocacy for UMatter: Student Support & Advocacy.
“One student we have worked with for many years was cut off from his family after coming out, both financially and emotionally,” she said. ”The student was in immediate need of housing, financial support, food, etc. We have worked with this student over many semesters to advocate on his behalf, explore all university resources to support him and provided ongoing case management for his needs.”
UMatter serves as a liaison between students and the various resources, processes, supports and options available at the university. It has a basic needs program that supports students seeking emergency housing, food and emergency funding.
It also connects students with counseling and health services, provides guidance around academic concerns and helps explore alternative supporting options on campus and in the community, such as the UM Office of Financial Aid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Forster said.
The new emergency fund, which is independent of the university, offers an additional means of support and an option for Ole Miss students and other young adults in north Mississippi who otherwise might drop out of school and lose hope.
“We also decided to make this nonprofit available to any who need it in north Mississippi, since those without access to university resources are often in more difficult and dangerous circumstances,” Harker said.
As for Willis, he said he is grateful that he found a job with a wealth management company in Oxford that enabled him to afford traditional room and board for most of his time at the university and finish his degree.
Willis also found a niche with the UM Pride Network and even became president of the organization.
“Ultimately, it was the support of the community that got me through those years,” he said. “The support I received through people offering couches to stay on, the affirming voices that contradicted the cruel words strangers would say, the friendships that showed me I wasn’t alone. Leadership opportunities through UM Pride Network gave me a sense of accomplishment and worth when I was struggling to fight off false narratives about being queer.
“I don’t want to speak for others, but I can definitely say that emergency funding could have let me focus on my studies rather than where I would sleep at night, where my next meal would come from, or how I (was) going to make it to graduation.
“I would give anything to keep other transgender students from having a similar experience as I did. I am hopeful that programs like the LGBTQ+ emergency fund will help prevent that.”
For more information and/or to contribute to the LGBTQIA+ Emergency Fund of North Mississippi, go to https://www.lgbtqiaemergencyfundnms.org or https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-lgbtqia-emergency-fund-of-north-ms.