There are an estimated 6,000 high school students in Massachusetts who are currently homeless, according to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Thousands more are believed to be homeless and are not counted in DESE estimates because they have dropped out of school.
Of those homeless youth, a disproportionate number—upwards of 40 percent—are estimated to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). A landmark 2011 study on youth homelessness in Massachusetts by Children’s Hospital found that LGBTQ youth face a much greater risk of homelessness than their straight peers. The details might vary but the general theme is the same: rejection because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expres-sion.
The already-limited resources available to street-involved and homeless youth are even further limited to queer youth. It is a deeply painful truth that young people who have fled abuse in their homes because they are queer often face similar abuse in shelters. For many of these young peo-ple, the streets outside are actually safer. This makes them even more vulnerable to engaging in behaviors that put them at risk for violence, HIV, STIs and hepatitis; that’s because people who are not getting their needs met will do what they can to get their needs met.
What else do we know about these young people?
We know that at the end of the day, they are homeless for a very simple reason: home doesn’t exist, home isn’t safe or home isn’t supportive. We know that they have fallen through the cracks of society’s systems and safety nets. We know that they experience high rates of trauma – both from their past and in their experiences on the street, and that the stress of the streets magnifies any pre-existing mental health conditions that might be present. We know that they are often re-luctant to engage in medical and mental health care due to a history of being misunderstood and often mistreated by providers lacking cultural competency. We know that they often feel invisi-ble, uncared for and disregarded by the community, and that they are often scared, exhausted, overwhelmed and intensely lonely.
We also know, however, that queer homeless youth can form deep relationships and connections with each other. We know that they are strong, resourceful and resilient survivors. We know that they have powerful stories to tell and important lessons to share. We know that even in the midst of their instability, they can transform their struggles and experiences into opportunities to learn and teach — provided that they get the right supports. We know they are willing and able to take steps big and small to reduce their risks and make changes to their lives. We know that homeless young adults respond to non-judgmental, authentic and safe adults who are willing and able to talk with them openly and honestly about their lives and their risks.
Affordable housing is limited and difficult to obtain. Change is a difficult, slow and non-linear process and small steps are possible, powerful and should be celebrated. Safe and supportive re-lationships facilitate change. The years between 18 and 24 are a critical developmental time period that offer a unique opportunity for intervention and prevention. The longer individuals are on the streets, the harder it is to get them off of the streets. If we can stabilize a young person when they are 22 or 23, they are significantly less likely to be homeless at 42 and 43.
How do we do that? It’s simple, really.
We need a comprehensive array of services that supports each person in where they are in their change process. These would include drop-in shelters to build relationships and community and help the most disconnected of homeless youth engage with others. Skilled case managers to as-sist with navigating support systems. Emergency shelters specifically designed for young adults, including those who are LGBTQ, so that they are not victimized as they are trying to sleep; job training; and permanent supported housing programs.
Ayala Livny is Program Manager for Youth on Fire, AIDS Action’s program for street-involved and homeless youth ages 14-24.