I recently sat down with Sue Hyde, Director of the Creating Change Conference for The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. During out conversation I learned a lot about the gay and lesbian community that I did not know before.
Beatrice Bell: Can you tell me a little bit about the National Lesbian & Gay Task Force?
Sue Hyde: The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force is a national advocacy organization that works to create a society in which lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people will have full legal equality and absolute social acceptance. That’s our mission, that’s what we’re working towards, that’s our vision, that’s our goal.
Beatrice Bell: What is the Task Force’s relationship with the homeless population?
Sue Hyde: Regarding homelessness; our advocacy and research work has focused most specifically on the situation of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans¬gender youth. It is not uncommon for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered youth to be shunned by their families and communities and rejected by their schools. As a result of that, they are either kicked out of their homes or become themselves runaways to escape anti-LGBT environment either at home, in the community they grew up in, or in the schools they’re attending. The problems that face LGBT youth in particularly homeless LGBT youth are many and varied.
Beatrice Bell: Are they any more varied than just regular teenagers on the streets?
Sue Hyde: Yes! Not only are home¬less LGBT youth grappling with what all homeless people grapple with (lack of housing, jobs, healthcare and educational opportunities), generally they also must grapple with the reality of homophobia. For transgender youth who are already not conforming to standard definitions of gender, they are dealing with a whole other set of issues from lesbian, gay and bi-sexual youths. Because [this population is] especially vulnerable to depression, loneliness, psychosomatic illness, withdrawn behavior, social problems, delinquency and certainly, for school age children, truancy.
Beatrice Bell: How does this population tend to cope with these problems?
Sue Hyde: How can a kid keep up with school if she or he doesn’t have a home? That’s already a problem for kids who are homeless, but it’s especially acute for LGBT youth. There is a particular vulnerability to becoming engaged with substance abuse and people who are on the street who are without community support and with¬out family support are obviously more likely to become chemically dependent in order to cope with their depression, their loneliness, with their alienation and the lack of structure in their lives.
I think that’s especially true for adolescent LGBT homeless youth. Adolescents themselves are already grappling with identity issues of all kinds but for LGBT youth who are homeless, the identity issues and the lack of support structures make them especially more likely to become involved with drugs and alcohol.
Beatrice Bell: Is substance abuse the only method of coping with the problems facing LGBT youth?
Sue Hyde: LGBT youth are [also] vulnerable to engaging in risky sexual behaviors in order to get basic needs for food and shelter met. This is called “Survival Sex.” Survival Sex is the exchanging of sex for money, food, clothes, a place to stay or drugs. It’s a last resort for LGBT homeless youth, but it is certainly something that hap¬pens. They are also particularly at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV.
Beatrice Bell: Are LGBT youth living on the street more likely to be victims of crimes then their heterosexual peers?
Sue Hyde: Definitely young LGBT people on the street are more likely than their heterosexual peers to become victims of crime. Their ability to report crimes to Police is very reduced because they are homeless, because they are LGBT and they are already vulnerable and because they are alienated from social service support in the first place; we can guess that they don’t perceive police as their friends and so they are more likely to become victims of crime and less likely to report those crimes to the police or other authorities.
Beatrice Bell: What are is being done to help change that?
Sue Hyde: We have advocated for a number of responses particularly, with the Federal government to assist home¬less youth in service training for social service providers so that they inter¬act better with and better serve LGBT youth, so that they have an understanding of what it means to be young lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender and living on the street. There are also pro¬grams to not just do in-service training but also to actually change and rewrite the policies written at emergency shelters and social service providers. They themselves must have a written discrimination policy banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
There are developed model pro¬grams to improve service delivery to LGBT homeless youth. The Home For Little Wanderers has made a particular effort to organize and present these training programs for youth providers and The Waltham House in Waltham Massachusetts does a lot of working and collaboration with the office of DSS to train program staff who work with homeless youth so they are serving better the LGBT homeless youth.
Beatrice Bell: Are you working with or talking to The Bridge Over Troubled Waters?
Sue Hyde: We do not work directly with Bridge Over Troubled Waters because we ourselves are not a youth serving organization. The purpose of our study and report was to generate a number of policy recommendations at a federal level, state level and the local level so youth will be better served. Our role is to advocate with government agencies that fund groups like Bridge Over Troubled Waters and others.
We engage in advocacy so that the government agencies that work with Bridge Over Troubled Waters and with shelter programs are in turn insisting that those frontline service providers are taking steps to better serve LGBT youth. We don’t work with the service providers we work with government agencies and government leaders to ensure better policies. Some examples of that are:
(A) It is very important that youth who are unaccompanied minors receive primary and specialty healthcare services without the written consent of a parent or guardian. These are young people who are on the street. They don’t have parents who can sign off on forms for them to receive healthcare services or mental health services.
(B) Federal funding to target LGBT youth for prevention programs around sexually transmitted diseases, sub¬stance abuse, mental health issues and intervention programs for the same sets of issues that they face on the street.
(C) Federal and State minimum wages need to be raised to livable wages so that when young people are able to get a job they will be making enough to support themselves.
(D) The United States Department of Health & Urban Developments’ definition of a homeless individual should include living arrangements that are common to homeless youth. Homeless youth are sometimes in group houses, formal group houses and in informal group living arrangements with other peers and young people. They need to be recognized as homeless individuals who are entitled to services from the federal, state and local government.
(E) Funding streams and housing opportunities, housing provisions, low-income housing and access to low-income housing has to include homeless youth. Young people who maybe aren’t old enough at this point in their lives to make lease contract agreements with landlords (private/public) must be able to have access to [that] option irrespective of their age.
(F) There should be space dedicated to shelter space for LGBT youth. They are vulnerable to sex abuse, criminal victimization and they’re vulnerable to living in a place with adults that is not geared to the needs of young people whether they’re LGBT or not.
Beatrice Bell: I thought there were teen shelters for young adults whether they were gay or not?
Sue Hyde: There are, but the bed space available does not meet the need of the numbers of youth and LGBT youth out on the street.
Beatrice Bell: So they’re prone to the same problems as adults?
Sue Hyde: Exactly. There’s not enough for them. When they get there sometimes they’re in an environment that is completely inappropriate for them. They’re in a shelter space that is primarily utilized by adults who are homeless.
Beatrice Bell: Why doesn’t Massachusetts have any transgender shelters?
Sue Hyde: I don’t know that much about that structure in the entire state of Massachusetts, but I would guess that it’s for a couple of reasons;
(A) There’s not a high level of consciousness about it yet on the part of shelter leadership to provide a specific shelter for transgender people. Nobody’s done it yet.
(B) I think that while amongst the transgender population there is a very high percentage of transgender people who are unemployed and homeless, that relative to the number of homeless people, generally, it’s actually a relatively small number. So it would be a better idea to deal with what we have in some shelter leader’s opinions rather than building a specific shelter for transgender people. That would be my guess since I haven’t discussed the idea with anybody.
Beatrice Bell: We have battered men and battered women’s shelters in Massachusetts, but they don’t take in transgender people. What do you think about this issue?
Sue Hyde: Shelters should serve on the basis of their identity. It’s not who I think you are, it’s how you identify. One of the problems is these layers of interpretation get in the way of service providers just perceiving a human being who needs help that [they] can give in the way that is most appropriate for him or her.
Beatrice Bell: In closing is there any¬thing you’d like people to think about?
Sue Hyde: There’s a failure to see transgender people as human beings in need of help. Instead people are looking at them like… Who are you again? What are you again? Instead of just saying; how can I help you? What kind of services do I have that will be most appropriate for you? It’s a matter of education.
For more information on the Gay and Lesbian Task Force visit, www.thetask¬force.org