There’s a book called “Youth in Crisis: What Everyone Should Know About Growing Up Gay” edited by Mitchell Gold, that contains a series of interviews with young people. There is a story in there that is heartbreaking:
The Trevor Project, an American nonprofit organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth(LGBTQ), received a call from a 16-year old gay teen from just outside Boston. He told one of the counselors that he had taken ten Klonopins (an anxiety medication), spent the night passed out at a friend’s house, and thought he had been raped.
This gay teen frequently abused drugs and alcohol. “He revealed that he had been overdosing on Klonopin regularly just to see if it would kill him,” as it is described in the story.
According to a recent study, there are an increasing number of LGBTQ young adults that face the same problems every day: mental health issues, violence, substance abuse and, worst of all, homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that the number of homeless and runaway youth ranges from 575,000 to 1.6 million per year. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s analysis of the available research suggests that between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Given that between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ, it is clear that LGBTQ youth experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate.
In Boston, there are several agencies and drop-in centers that provide services and support to LGBTQ homeless youth. However, there is not a single shelter that targets this group of people exclusively, yet.
Gary Gates, a researcher of LGBTQ demography at UCLA, has been involved in many studies of LGBTQ homeless youths for years. “I think the situation for LGBT youths varies dramatically depending on where they live. And there are other areas where it’s quite a bit of a stigma attached with being LGBTQ,” he said.
Gates pointed out that it is still quite unusual to have a shelter or provider that only serves LGBTQ people nationally. But things have started to change since the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance (MHSA) launched a new housing program for LGBTQ homeless youth last November. This new program will provide 32 units of permanent supportive housing for LGBTQ young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 in Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts, according to the MHSA’s executive director, Joe Finn.
“Our responsibility is to house those who are homeless,” Finn said. “That’s why we exist.”
For seven years, the MHSA has been dealing with different age groups that traditionally chronicle homeless people, Finn said. Their characteristics are marked by mental health issues, severe disabilities, substance abuse and addiction.
Today, the MHSA houses about 600 people, and almost 30 percent came right off the street.
“So they don’t have to go to shelters,” said Finn. “These adult shelters are not good places for any young adults, and it’s a more difficult spot for LGBTQ young people. [A] shelter is just not a nice place to be, and the possibility of being victimized is tremendous.”
LGBTQ kids are not just victimized by other homeless people in those shelters. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, family conflict is the primary cause of homelessness for all youth, LGBTQ or straight.
Fifty percent of gay teens received a negative reaction from their parents when they came out and 26 percent of them were kicked out of their homes. More than one third of them experienced a violent physical assault when they came out in normal shelters, which may have lead them to leave a shelter or foster home because they actually felt safer on the streets.
In the South, LGBTQ homeless young adults not only suffer from physical threats, but religious condemnation as well. In a recent phone interview with Rick Westbrook, the executive director of Lost-N-Found Youth Inc., a lot of shelters in the South are church-based. Lost-N-Found Youth Inc. is the only agency in Atlanta, GA that serves specifically LGBTQ homeless youth.
“If our kids get into those [church-based] shelters, they have to listen to how they are sinners and they are going to hell unless they stay in the closet,” said Westbrook. “A lot of times, [they] get picked on, beaten up, raped and robbed in a normal shelter. So it’s especially important for us to house them, so they can be around people like themselves, whether they are gay, lesbian, trans or bi.”
On a freezing Saturday in late January, Westbrook and more than 100 volunteers—many of them straight,—renovated a house that provides a temporary place for Atlanta’s LGBTQ homeless youth to stay.
“It’s important to us, to the community, to work together, so the kids can see straight people that actually care for them,” Westbrook said.
Finn from the MHSA said that young adult homelessness manifests itself in many different ways, and that those impacted are forced to come up with other ways to survive instead of staying in traditional shelters.
“We don’t want to make the same mistake like 30 years ago, say, ‘Let’s do shelters and then we are done’,” said Finn.
The MHSA supports recent changes in policy towards LGBTQ homeless persons on the national level. For Finn, the highlight of these contributions has been the improvement of services provided to the transgender homeless population.
“A few years ago, there were quite few shelters that accepted transgender people that I know,” Finn said. “Quite honestly, it was discrimination. .”
Typically, shelters are divided into male shelters and female shelters. So if there is a male-to-female transgender person coming in, she may be assigned to live in a dorm full of women that have been traumatized by men.
“That was very concerning sometimes to those women,” said Finn..”
Finn is not fully satisfied with the overall services within the shelter system provided to transgender people over the years.
“I think due to a lot of training, some of the issues have changed, but it hasn’t changed entirely,” said Finn.
Westbrook from Lost-N-Found Youth Inc. agrees with Finn, acknowledging that transgender people are the most abused people in the country.
“A lot of our female-to-male transgender kids are girls who dress more like boys. They may have a straight name, but it’s still easy to change their names. So it’s easier to get them employed,” Westbrook said. “But when it comes to things like male-to-female, I’ve had some that are in several different stages of transitions. Some are very passable. Some appear to be cross-dressing. You can tell them easily on the street.”
For those transgender kids who are struggling with transitioning from one stage to the other, “they are not further on in their journey,” Westbrook said. “Aside from being ostracized for being who they are, it’s hard to find them employment.”
In an effort to help transgender youth transition into a healthier stage, Lost-N-Found tries to hook the young transgender people up with older transgender people who made the transitions later in life, when they were more established in their careers.
In terms of helping LGBTQ homeless youth find a place to call home, the MHSA is not battling homelessness alone. They cooperate with the Youth On Fire program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts in Cambridge, DIAL/SELF Youth & Community Services in Greenfield, and Justice Resources Institute in Boston for their new housing initiative.
“We don’t do these things by ourselves, we fund the agencies doing these things,” Finn said. “So far, we have three people housed. But I know that people in Youth On Fire are poised, ready to be housed shortly. They identify 18 LGBTQ homeless persons.”
In the Cambridge GLBT Commission monthly meeting recently, Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern said that funding to LGBTQ homeless youth programs is increasingly important, and funding to these programs is most likely to come from property taxes, commercial taxes and the human services department.
It has been two and half years since Queer rights advocates and LGBTQ youth protested in front of the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City to demand funding for homeless LGBTQ youth programs. The success of these protests in drawing attention and funding for their cause has inspired high hopes that the MHSA’s new housing program will prove to be a similar blessing for many LGBTQ homeless youth in Massachusetts.
“We don’t think it’s the best first step to build shelters specifically for anybody,” Finn said. “It’s really not about housing them in segregated areas. They’re not being housed because they are LGBTQ, they are housed as opposed to being out on the street.”