Young, Gay ... and Homeless, But Planning a Future in Genetic Engineering

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24-year-old Tyler Cook standing outside Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco.  (Lesley McClurg/KQED)

About a third of the nation's homeless youth live in California. The state has lured runaways looking for sunny skies and progressive values since the early '60s. A lot of kids are fleeing abusive homes or conservative pockets of the country.

When Tyler Cook was growing up in rural Ohio, he idealized San Francisco.

“It was like my haven in my head," says Cook, 24. "I just knew they had this really high population of homosexuals."

About half of the youth who are homeless in San Francisco identify as LGBTQ. For most of these kids the sidewalk is a safer place to sleep at night than the homes they fled.

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As Cook reflects back on his childhood, his freckled cheeks flush and his palms begin to sweat. He nervously fidgets and starts talking faster. Cook is the second youngest of nine children. He says his family members slung around homophobic slurs all the time on their farm.

“They use the word like 'fag' like a lot to describe just about everything," Cook recalls.

A Cook family reunion in 2015 at Creekside Park in Gahanna, Ohio.

He says he didn't know what to do when he started crushing out on boys in middle school.

“None of my other siblings think like this," Cook says. "Like why do I have these thoughts? Like why does this enter my head?”

The longer he stuffed his feelings, the darker his depression became. Eventually the chubby teen began isolating himself and cutting his arms and legs.

Broken Bones

The pain he was feeling on the inside was compounded by the chaos around him. Cook’s stepdad Jeff was a drug addict who often came home in a rage, beating the youngest children until their bones broke.

When Cook was 14 years old, he moved out and dropped out of school. He crashed on his older sister’s couch and started washing dishes at a barbecue restaurant.

19-year-old Tyler Cook making cakes at City Barbecue in Gahanna, Ohio.

He stayed in the closet for three more years, and then late one night he made a pact with himself.

“They’re going to accept me," he affirmed. "If they’re not, they’re not.”

He was both surprised and disoriented by his family’s reaction.

"My mom said, 'Oh we knew, honey.' And I'm like, 'That's years of emotional abuse to myself that you could have helped me through with that one statement.' ”

When his mother asked him not to kiss boys in front of her, he obliged, but the comment sliced deep.

Never Imagined Myself as Homeless

When Cook was 18, during his very first sexual experience, he contracted HIV. He toiled for a few more years in Ohio, but one morning when he was 21 he posted a message on Facebook to see if he had any friends in California.

Cook immediately received a message from an older guy he met online who offered to rent a room to him, fly him to the Bay Area and help Cook find a job.

Two weeks later, he landed in San Francisco and quickly found a job at the Amoura Cafe inside the Westfield Centre downtown.

Unfortunately, living with a man he hardly knew was awkward. The relationship wasn’t explicitly sexual, but Cook sensed there could be strings attached.

"I'm like, I've had enough of that in my life," Cook recalls saying to himself. "Thank you. I’m going to do me.”

Fortunately, Cook found another temporary couch at a friend's house, but when the Westfield Centre raised rent by 25 percent, the Amoura Cafe closed its doors.

“Basically no job," Cook says. "No place to go. We are back to square one now right here in San Francisco. I didn't imagine myself as homeless ever. Like ever in my life.”

On the Brink

Tyler Cook outside Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

When Cook first came to San Francisco, a friend told him about a place that could help him called Larkin Street Youth Services, which offers people under 24 a hot meal, a recreational space, medical care and temporary housing. Cook regularly stopped by the facility's clinic to help him manage his HIV. When he suddenly found himself without a home, he turned to Larkin for help.

The organization gave him a voucher for a sketchy hotel for a few nights. Then they found him a bed in a facility for people with HIV. And now they're subsidizing his rent in a residential hotel room.

Along the way, Cook's case manager suggested he go back to school. Cook mentioned that he had a green thumb and used to spend hours in the garden as a kid, but he cringed at the idea of returning to a farm. His case manager suggested genetic engineering.

“It never really occurred to me that like, I could go do that!" Cook exclaims.

He enrolled in college prep courses at Larkin, which walked him through the steps to apply for financial aid. Eventually, he was accepted at City College of San Francisco. He recently finished his spring semester with a 3.8 GPA.

In a few years, he hopes to transfer to UC Berkeley, where he plans to complete a Ph.D.

Tyler Cook is a 24-year-old living in a single occupancy room in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. (Sebastian Guzman)

Danger Still Lurks

But it's hard to imagine how his lofty goals could unfold from where he currently lives in the Tenderloin. As he walks to his front door, he has to step around two people injecting heroin and another man huddled over a crack pipe. But when he arrives at his building he proudly looks up at his barred window.

“It’s my house!" Cook exclaims. "Like my rules. It’s my place. I didn’t think I’d ever have one of those.”

He looks forward to the day when he's paying the rent on his own again. For now, he’s managing his HIV successfully, he's on a career track and he's proud to be gay. All of which impresses his family. He says both his siblings and his mom are proud of him for moving West and dreaming bigger.