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ATLANTA – Ryan Peterson's first low point happened in California in 2011 when he woke up on the roof of a house he didn't recognize, still high, after being awake for what he says was around five days.
He started to cry and called his cousin who bought him a plane ticket home to Georgia. He had just started to get his life back on track, he said, when he found out he was HIV positive. It crushed him.
"Not because of the fact that I was positive," he said. "Because of the fact that I couldn't have kids. That's what really crushed me the most, because I've always wanted kids. And I always will."
Religious families are more likely to kick out gay children, making the Bible Belt a particularly tough place to be young and LGBT. In what activists say is a crisis of gay homeless youth in America, some call Atlanta "ground zero."
But the South also has few emergency shelters for LGBT youth in need. Lost-n-Found Youth is the only Atlanta nonprofit dedicated to getting homeless gay kids off the streets. The group's three founders created the organization in 2011 after all of them had experiences trying to place LGBT youth in shelters, only to have them turned away.
High and hungry
In the past few weeks, a gay Georgia teen's video of his family disowning and attacking him went viral, garnering more than 6.5 million views. It catapulted Daniel Pierce to sudden online fame, and an online fundraiser brought in more than $90,000 to help him start his new life.
But while this kind of national recognition for a gay teen's struggle is unusual, says Rick Westbrook, the executive director of Lost-n-Found, the struggle itself is not.
"That's something that happens every day here," he said. "We were just fortunate enough that Daniel hit record on his phone so that people could see the hate that is spewed by parents toward their children, just because they love somebody of the same sex."
Since its founding, Lost-n-Found has helped more than 400 kids, often found when volunteers hit the streets or through referrals, Westbrook said. But on any given night, the group estimates that there are 750 LGBT homeless youth in Atlanta.
Lost-n-Found also proffers another sad fact: Within 48 hours of becoming homeless, a third of gay youths will do something illegal to survive.
"Whether that be steal from a grocery store or a convenience store, just to put some food in their bodies," he said, "or sell drugs or take drugs to cope, or sell themselves."
Peterson grew up in Walnut Grove, a rural area 40 miles from Atlanta. He acknowledges some responsibility in the conflict with his mother that prompted him to drop out of school and leave home at 17.
"I was very much like, 'OK, mom, I'm going to throw it in your face that I'm gay,'" he said. "Because I thought … she didn't love me because of it. At that time that's what I thought."
Now sober and reconnecting with her, he believes his family was just scared of what would happen to him.
"I can only imagine what I put her through and what she went through, because all she did was try for me," Peterson said.
But Peterson needed more than his mother to try for him. The promising gymnast fled home, doing odd jobs for money – a lot of porn – and then dating a drug dealer, so he "didn't really have to have a job."
"You name it, I did it," he said. "It was an easy way to make money… but I blew it all".
He would frequent adult bookstores, video booths and bathhouses, looking for a quick hookup, just so he would have a place to stay. Until just a few months ago, Peterson was homeless, and the Atlanta streets are soiled with ugly memories, like walking to the McDonald's to get a milkshake, after having nothing to eat for days.
Drugs, theft and "survival sex" – hooking up for a warm place to sleep at night – are all common resorts for gay homeless youth in Atlanta, says Art Izzard, who's spent the last five years trying to track down and help them as Lost-n-Found's outreach director.
"It's not that they're coming from a poverty-stricken life," he said. "I've had kids whose fathers own large companies, have access to good bits of money, that just for religious reasons they're banned from the household, cut off from their families and they have nothing else to do."
At one spot, under a bridge, off a running trail, behind a few gay bars, he says he finds kids as young as 16.
"Oftentimes they'll use drugs so they can stay awake and keep their wits about them, protect themselves, things like that," he said. "Or just petty criminal activity, stealing … digging in a dumpster for food."
Lost-n-Found is now refurbishing an abandoned, century-old building into a homeless shelter for gay teens, leased to them by a local church at the cost of $1 a year. Pierce, the young man behind the viral video, asked people to stop donating money to him, and to instead direct it to the building effort. Westbrook is hoping the center will open next spring.
A few months ago when he was fearing death, Peterson reached out to Lost-n-Found and is now employed at its thrift store. It's his first steady job in years. He's also 100 days sober and making plans to go to college. He considers Lost-n-Found a second family.
"I know if anything ever happens to me, I've got a group of people behind me, ready to just string up whoever did it," he said.
Without them, he added that he would "probably still be using, and probably still lost and still hating myself and still thinking there was no escape."