ANDY DOMENECH remembers life becoming hard at 11. Money got scarce when his mother moved him and his three sisters to the home of her new boyfriend. When the water got cut off, he had to take showers using a block captain's hose.
But it got even harder when he was 14 and he came out as gay to his mother.
"She wasn't happy with the fact, so eventually I ran away," he says. "She couldn't handle me, so I was sent to DHS and put into foster care. I was very scared."
He ended up in five places during his time with the Department of Human Services - foster homes, group homes, a hospital. Eventually an aunt took him in. "But I messed up," and soon after, he was homeless. He was living in shelters, and in his senior year, dropped out of high school.
"There are days I have not eaten."
His life changed dramatically when he was walking down Somerset Street with his wheeled bag, containing all of his belongings. He came upon Congreso, a social-services organization, walked in and asked for help with housing and his general equivalency diploma. They treated him nicely, and essentially took him under their wing. With their help, he started school and found a temporary shelter.
Three months ago, he found further stability when a friend took him in and gave him his own room, which he has carefully decorated. "It's the nicest house on the block."
Now 21, he has an internship with Philadelphia Youth Network, is working at Congreso and going to school. He eventually wants to become an interior designer . . . or an X-ray technician because he knows they make good money.
He credits his job-readiness trainer with teaching him "to dress for the job I want to have."
"I like to wear suits, button-up shirts, and eventually when I have my career - I don't want just a job, but a career - I can buy what I like. I don't buy cheap. Because better stuff lasts."
His situation is still somewhat precarious. For one thing, his food stamps - $189 a month - got cut off because he didn't realize he had to report the income from his internship, $248 every two weeks. His internship ended Friday. His GED class graduates next month.
Being a young gay man isn't easy, either. "I've been jumped for my sexuality," he says. "Things aren't fair, but they happen."
He tries to stay in touch with family members, "but they're all Christians and I'm a homosexual. It's hard for them to see me. But I'm not changing."
He is working to repair his relationship with his aunt. Their time together has given him some of his favorite memories. "I can't have her out of my life," he says. "I love her too much."
He is upbeat, even optimistic, and radiates an undeniable sweetness.
"I have to put a smile on my face," he says. "Why be sad? I've been through a lot . . . a whole lot, and I have to smile. I don't want anyone to absorb the sadness.