Interview with Sisu Alumni Eli Briggs
“I have a pet rat. Wanna see her??” - Eli
“Cancel Christmas! Of course I do!” - Me
Eli reached screen left and brought ‘Eleven’ into frame. The chubby critter had a peppery coat with a white belly. Eleven looked content and puddy-like in Eli’s hands. The three of us were starting off brilliantly. We’d be on Zoom. Eli would carry us early and often. They’re a force.
Eli was centered on camera, in a black tank top with white piping and a black beanie, seated in the corner of a turquoise bedroom. A sticker of a SpongeBob character would be over their left shoulder. I wanna say it was SB’s boss at the burger shop. But I digress, Eli seemed comfortable. I’d get there.
“I come from a background of caring for people. I was always being put into that role. Some of it comes from parents not being able to take care of themselves…or take care of me. Having that experience from a young age is why I am who I am.” Eli offered this up nearly immediately. It was delivered with an unpracticed brilliance. It was aware and fluid. Eli would reset their slouching glasses between sentences. Eli’s experiences were processed and digested. And I didn’t get it. Maybe I shouldn’t.
“When you’re caring for somebody, they really can’t be mad at you. You can’t hurt people when you’re caring for them. Intentionally anyway.” I was beginning to feel, quickly, that I was speaking with a person that's seen some crippling things. Eli’d find a shield in kindness. It made sense. You can’t break anything or be brutalized by it if you’re cradling it. At 16, Eli was an unaccompanied minor. Eli’s father would kick them out of the home. There’s no sense in dancing around the matter…he didn’t care for Eli’s sexual identity (“I’m a gay kid” as Eli describes themself)…and their mother was a drug addict, rarely seen. “My mom couldn’t take care of herself.” For all intents and purposes, Eli was unhoused and a kid.
“Being homeless, it was a lot of relying on people.”, Eli’d say while resetting their glasses and looking to the ceiling. “If my parents didn't want to take care of me, fine! I’m not calling them for help. I’m not calling a relative. I’m going to take care of myself. And that takes relying on circles of people outside of my family. You’re having to rely on people that have no obligation to me. To make sure you’re OK.” This is right around the point where I began to feel very insignificant (digitally) in their presence. Imposter syndrome had percolated to my psyche’s surface. Eli was surely going to ask me if I understood. They were going to ask me if I’d ever run away. I’d have to tell them I’d once stuffed a green backpack full of underoos, and hid in the bushes of my childhood home for 15 minutes. They’d know I didn’t have the leathery exterior of hardship. This was all nonsense of course. Those questions never came. The simmer of fear would settle, and like ‘Eleven’, I became content and attentive.
Eli would live with fear. The kind that kept them fluid and never stagnant. If DHS ever found them, they’d surely return Eli to an abusive father. If the cops ever found them crashing with friends, they’d be harboring a ‘runaway’ and face charges. Eli would be charged with a crime, ruining “any chance of having a future.” And there it was. I’d cuff it, but I knew our interview had broken wide open. Eli’s give-a-damn was in the 1%. They’d had consideration for their own future, while Eli’s present was kicking them in the ribs…and from couch to couch. They had the presence of mind to worry about the lasting impacts of a rap sheet. They had me at the net…at that point, they’d spiked the ball. And I wasn’t through my first coffee. But even Eli would need a lift. One damn break. They’d find one in Be the Change and Sisu. The two organizations would coordinate for their protection, and the stories start to view towards a painted horizon. But first there’s a story, and I’m gonna CliffsNotes the rascal. Here goes.
Eli’s friends had stacked a few bucks and gotten a hotel room. It wasn’t a fix, but it’d suffice for the night. Eli would follow a friend to a nearby party to keep an eye on things. It wasn’t right. They wanted out. Eli would call their mom. They wanted to go home. Their mom wouldn’t pick up. She never did. Eli would walk back to the hotel room. Checkout was the next morning (I don’t know why, but that part fractures me…maybe it’s the thought that they had to leave. It was a hard stop. It wasn’t a fix.), and a hunt for a roof would start all over again. The whole sordid tale felt very tangible. I know the feeling of being in the wrong place. Anxiety pressing in from the periphery. The sound of your soles hitting dark pavement. Your hands tight in your jean pockets. I’m projecting. I know it. I haven’t been in these straights…but Eli’s leading me. I’m here for it.
“No one had any answer for me. My mom wasn’t picking up. I’d call over and over, and all anyone could tell me is ‘they don’t know’. Mom was gone and we had to check out. I knew those things. Then a friend said I could stay at Sisu. They’ll make sure you have a roof over your head and food in your belly. That I’ll be OK. That was a really scary thought…but let’s go.” They did.
“I remember signing in. I sat quietly in a corner for 10 minutes. I didn’t know anybody there.” I can see them there in that corner. Eli would press on. “Someone from Sisu would come up to me and hand me an intake form. They warned me it might feel ‘invasive’, but I needed to fill it out so I could stay the night. I filled it out…not bad…then I got the tour. ‘This is the day room…and this is where you’ll be sleeping…this is where everybody else sleeps…this is where you’ll shower…and this is where you’ll eat.’” I’m back to seeing their hands tightly packed into denim pockets, taking it all in.
“It had not quite hit me that ‘oh my God!...this is my life now.’ Tomorrow mom’s gonna call. She’d pick me up. I went to sleep thinking she would. She wouldn’t and never did. I remember feeling sad and disappointed and abandoned. But I had to begin the process of accepting my surroundings. I’m really going through it, but I’m safe. We can start there.” Eli is as advanced and evolved as they read/sound. Again…this ain’t a practiced monologue. This is uncut, stream-of-consciousness sincerity.
“Then came the support.” I felt the plane break through the turbulence. “The people there (Sisu) are there to support you. I looked at this building full of people that have my back. People willing to help me and listen to my thoughts and concerns. I’m a week in, and I’m already very aware that there are so many people on my side to make sure my situation wouldn’t always be my situation. ‘I’m going to be OK.’ I was flooded with that feeling.”
You don’t speak the way Eli speaks and do not have the ability to write. That’s what I figured, anyway. Their words are stripped of pretension and laid bare. Eli has to be a writer. I WANT them to be a writer. And I want to read every single thing they offer up. Eli is a writer. They wanted (past tense) to be a journalist. Sisu knew this. And this is where they exist beyond the blocking and tackling.
“Jimmy (Sisu board member & volunteer) said, ‘Hey, I know the number of the Editor and Chief of the ‘Gayly’. They want to talk to you. They want you to write an article for them. They want you to intern.’ OK! Yea…sure…I’m a homeless kid at Sisu, and they saw this in me. They observed this desire in me, and they made it happen.” My next question didn’t need much fluff.
“Because they take more into account than what I needed in that moment. They take into account what you want to do with yourself. They were on it…and I felt supported.” I’d press them for more…
“Oh! And there was a time when I had the opportunity to talk to State Representatives at the Capital. I wanted to be taken seriously, so I asked the people at Sisu if they could help me pick out some clothes. Three staff members rushed into the clothes closet and started holding up clothes and outfits…’what size pants do you wear??…’oh, this color would be great on you!’ Ryan, they saw my goal, and they were going to do everything in their power to help me get there!” They’d painted me that moment. And I’m gonna pack that goodness around for a bit. Eli would tell me about a private screening of ‘Love Simon’ set up by a staffer, a movie with “a lot of LGBTQ representation”. That the staff always understood the personhood of their kids, and that life could be more than just survival.
“We had people that would step up and say, ‘We want you to have a good time. Right now…for a few hours…go see a movie. Enjoy yourself. Don’t focus on being homeless or being in a shelter or finding your next meal.’ Ryan, we are worthy of having fun. They saw that. They’d always see us as human beings. I was cared for. I was not just some homeless gay kid. I’m not just a kid that got kicked out. I’m not just the child of a drug addict. I was myself…loved…cared for by people that didn’t know me 2 months ago.” This needs no punch up. This needs none of my commentary. That is that.
“When I first became homeless, the first thing I thought was I need to get housed so I can get back into school. I’ve always wanted to do what I can to make the world a better place. I knew dropping out of high school would give me so many more obstacles to face. This couldn’t be.” It wouldn’t be. Eli would walk me through all of the difficulties of attending a brick-and-mortar school when transposition was an issue…was an absence. They’d explain to me that Sisu and Be the Change had made the connection with the ‘Bridges’ program in their classes. See above. This wasn’t going to be an issue.
“I got caught up on school, and I’d roll into my senior year. I have a drive to do better. I love learning. I love bringing truth to the front. It’s a desire. I have to get away from my mistakes and the mistakes of my parents.” Eli is double majoring in Sociology and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at The University of Kansas. Not. Bad. During COVID, they took a hiatus from the Lawrence campus, attending a community college in Illinois, and working in a bakery. A job Eli loves. They would tell me as much. And Eli owns a small Esty shop where they sell crochet work.
I’d had the pleasure of Eli’s company for nearly two hours. They’d rolled with every punch. They’d invited the tough stuff. But there’s a limit. I didn’t want to test it, or annoy someone I’d come to admire a great deal. But I’d still throw a haymaker.
“Eli…shouldn’t you be pissed? You’ve endured so much. You were thrown so much. You were a child. You’d have every right to be hurt and violent towards the void…but you’re not. And I wanna know why.” Eli wasn’t faced and barred.
“Up until I was 16, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I didn’t have a family that cared about me, or a person that cared for me as a person. Sisu showed me that there are genuinely loving and understanding people that didn’t view us as our mistakes or past. They saw the person in front of them. I’m not angry. I’m not angry because of what I’ve faced. It’s shaped me. I’m going into social work. I think about my mentors. I’ve seen what they’ve done. I’ve seen their impact. I want to do that. It all showed me how to be a better person, and how to do that. I looked around the Sisu staff and I saw people that were straight and queer like me. I saw that I wasn’t alone. I saw the handmade rainbows and posters. I saw other gay people caring and succeeding, and changing lives with no intent of stopping. They know and understand the culture of homeless kids like me. It was a radical sense of acceptance.” This was becoming less an interview, and more of a masterclass in untethered kindness. Eli was in the pocket, and I wasn’t about to break their stride.
“Look, if I’m not the person that changes the world, maybe I’m the person that fuels the person that makes a difference in the world. And if I’ve done that, then I’ve done enough.”
I don’t know how to finish this piece. There’s been this hope throughout it’d just come to me around the back 1/3rd, and I’d land this plane with grace. I realize I don’t have the chops. It ain’t in me. Eli’s story makes me feel small at the moment. My words couldn’t match theirs…and boy does that bring a gooey relief. Eli is the one to have the last volley. And I think it’s spectacular. Their delivery is poised and warm. Eli’s in that turquoise bedroom. They’re beaming.
“This is what my life will be like forever. I’ve faced suicidal ideation more times than I can count. I’m so proud that I got out of it. I’m so proud that I managed to hold on during all of the things life threw at me. And I’m so glad that I made it through these tough times. I’ve had these moments when I ask myself, ‘How did homelessness not kill me?’ I was so hopeless. I was so lonely, and I was scared. Unloved and unwanted. Looking back, I realized people did care about me…they wanted to see me alive and doing great things, and it’s something I never experienced prior to Sisu. And when Jamie (Sisu Executive Director) asks if I’m happy…I’m happy. I’m happy with my life. I’m happy with where I’m going. I see a future for myself.”
Since this interview, Eli has joined Sisu’s Board of Directors. Eli refers to their place on the board as “a dream come true.” They are extremely grateful for this opportunity to play a role in making Sisu even better. They also are grateful to know that, through their work on the board, they will be helping other youth who are living through experiences like their own. Through all of this, Eli remains grateful most of all for the support of Sisu during the time that they were unhoused. Without this support, they never would have even dreamed of being in the role they are in now.