CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The pursuit of love has lead to homelessness for some Coastal Bend residents in the LGBTQ community.
Jennifer Chabera has been living in the Coastal Bend her entire life. She was born with the name Mark, but currently identifies as a woman.
When she was young, she lost her mother and had to live with an aunt. As a teenager, Chabera felt the need to reveal the secret she kept for so long. However, that secret led to a life filled with struggles.
"My family...are Jehovah's Witnesses," Chabera said. "I was in 9th grade and I came out and told my aunt I was gay, and she like freaked out, and she said, 'Get out of my house!'"
Chabera has been homeless for about 10 years.
"I went through some things I never wanted to go through, seen some things I never wanted to see. I've sold some drugs just to survive," she said.
Chabera's not the only person who has had this experience.
According to data from the Williams Institute at UCLA, 68% of homeless youth surveyed had a history of rejection.
The National Homeless Coalition also shows that 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ,while the general youth population is only 10% LGBTQ. The coalition also said many have been abused at homeless shelters, so they choose to avoid shelters altogether.
Chabera said she's never felt accepted at shelters, so she chooses to stay away.
There is one woman she frequently sees who helps her and other people in the homeless community. Marilena Garza is a homeless advocate who frequently participates in Corpus Christi City Council meetings.
She also started her own non-profit organization called Free Store Corpus Christi.Through the non-profit, she helps people in need by providing essential items. She got the idea to start the nonprofit when she was volunteering to feed the hungry and noticed their need for shoes.
"That's where it grew. It grew from shoes, to belts, to pants, to ready-to-eat meals to medical treatment," Garza said.
Garza's compassion and passion comes from her own life experiences because at one point in time, she was also homeless. Like Chabera, her family had a religious background, and they didn't agree with her attraction to women.
"They saw it as a lifestyle choice, and they thought if they were stricter, they can just squeeze it out of me," Garza said. "It caused a lot of conflict and it caused me to be homeless."
However, through her trials, she found triumph in the pursuit of love. Despite her parent's view of her sexuality, she believes love is the strongest message the Bible shares that she holds on to.
"I hurt a lot but I model myself after the teachings of Jesus," said Garza. "Jesus loved everyone. He loved the sinners, he loved the lepers, he loved the prostitutes. It didn't matter if you came and listen to him preach the good word. He still put food in their mouths and he still was willing to die for their sins."
It's now her life's mission to provide relief in any way she can. Garza also runs her own business, as the owner of Coastal Bend Day Spa.Relaxation and massages is her specialty.
She said her top priority is making sure people are comfortable and know they have a safe place.
"Here, hate it not welcomed. Only love and healing." she said.
Love and healing clearly stretches beyond the day spa. Chabera said she found a friend in Garza and their friendship has inspired Chabera to find a way out of homelessness. However, Chabera said she doesn't need much in life.
"I'm not asking for money, nothing like that. Just a good friend who's going to be there." she said, pointing out others in the homeless community and added, "These are my people, these are my family, because they support me no matter what. And I want to tell others, be who you are. I love being who I am. It's beautiful."
Garza has the same message, and continues plans to continue serving her community as an entrepreneur and an activist.
"I will be your voice and I will protect you. So come out. Be strong." she said.