When actor Zachary Hines takes the stage at the Palladium in St. Pete on Tuesday night, he'll portray a formerly homeless gay youth named Kameron. He will recount a litany of difficulties and trials: a broken home, intolerant family members, violence, exploitation.
But Kameron Hensley isn't a playwright's creation. He is a real 18-year-old living in Pinellas County. And when Hines delivers his lines, Kameron will be there listening to his story be told to an auditorium full of people, and preparing to step out onstage himself.
Hines and Hensley are both part of Out of the Shadows, a performance and public forum staged by "theatrical journalism" company Your Real Stories. The evening will be broken into a performance segment of acted monologues, followed by a moderated discussion featuring five of the real-life subjects.
Your Real Stories co-founder Jaye Sheldon hopes that it will reveal "the whole unadulterated story" behind a hidden crisis.
The nonprofit True Colors Fund estimates that 1.6 million youths are homeless each year nationally — and that as many as 40 percent of those youths identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Given that only about 7 percent of young people in America identify as LGBT, homelessness is seen to disproportionately afflict LGBT youths.
The situation is complex.
"It's really hard to identify the real numbers, because a lot of homeless youths are couch surfers," says Lisa Davis, CEO of Out of the Shadows sponsor Family Resources. "You're not going to see every homeless kid at the park, or on the beach."
Whatever their circumstance, homeless LGBT youth are put at severe risk, oftentimes while being ostracized by family members. Victimization, unsafe sexual practices, and mental health are all concerns.
"You see the strength and resilience that young people have and use every day to get through," Davis says. "You can talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, but…when you meet these young people, it's just different."
On Tuesday night, attendees will get the chance to do just that. The moment when the living representatives of LGBT homelessness come forward is expected to be challenging. The individuals will be given leeway to decide, in the moment, whether or not to come onstage.
"There's no way to anticipate the impact of seeing your experience performed," says Sheldon. However, she thinks that the storytellers will "see the beauty and power of their own stories."
The sensitive issues involved require a good deal of faith between the storytellers and the theater company. Zachary Hines and Kameron Hensley, actor and acted, met for the first time on Wednesday. "Never in the history of life have we allowed the storyteller and actor to meet," says Your Real Stories's Sheldon, but this time it just felt right.
The moment was not without pressure. There were clip-on microphones and video cameras recording the moment. Hines tried to lighten the mood. "Don't worry," he said. "I've been doing this, acting, since I was a little kid."
"OK," Hensley laughed. "I trust you."
They laughed, but the question of trust is not a small matter. A violent and unpredictable domestic situation pushed Hensley from his home two years ago. Ever since, he has needed to trust a whole spectrum of shelters and transitional living programs for hope.
Davis's Family Resources runs the shelter where Hensley now lives, and has seen firsthand the trials that young people like him have come through. She will also be featured onstage in Out of the Shadows, and just like Hensley is in the position of entrusting her life story to someone else. It hasn't been easy.
"I'll be honest, after I did the interview I felt a little vulnerable, a little exposed," she says. But she knows that it is meant to be that way, and hopes that the final product will be the "engagement component" that her organization is looking for.
"You're brought into their stories," she says. "We hope the audience is moved to do something for people who need a hand up."