LGBT Youth Homelessness
While about 5 to 10 percent of youth are LGBT, 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, according to the report, On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgendered Homelessness. Moreover, homeless LGBT youths report higher rates of sexual assault than heterosexual youths who lack housing.
“We are seeing a new epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness largely because youth are coming out earlier… at age 12 or 13 instead of 18 or 20,” according to Director Jeff Krehely of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress.
“They are not old enough to be able to live independently yet and they face rejection by parents and families and emotional and/or physical abuse at school. They fall through a series of failing support systems. It’s a chain reaction,” he states.
LGBT homeless youth have “a higher incidence of depression, suicide initiations and other mental health disorders” as well as “chronic physical health conditions and high rates of substance abuse.” Krehely recommends competency training for service providers to make them aware of the special needs of these teens.
Thankfully, a growing number of local and national programs aim to address the many problems facing LGBT youth.
Rainbow Youth Alliance
Anna Paszkiewicz, age 19, has been a member of the Rainbow Youth Alliance (RYA) of Harford County since young adults began coming to the weekly meetings.
“I’d been searching forever for anything gay in Harford County,” she states. But Anna could not find a support group for LGBT teenagers in the area, until October 2010.
A friend told her about RYA, sponsored by both the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County and Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) of Baltimore County. On the first night, Anna was joined by several students from her school. She felt comfortable with the format and group members quickly.
“We talk forever, and it’s cool because you can talk about anything. I’ve made lots of friends, so I trust most of the people there,” she says.
Facilitators Lara Mortimer and Melinda Goff wanted to create a safe and supportive space for local LGBT teens and their straight allies with this youth alliance. Goff had been the faculty sponsor for a Gay-Straight Alliance at her Michigan high school. When she moved to Maryland, she was involved with planning the RYA through PFLAG, along with Mortimer and Reverend Lisa Ward of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
Although the Rainbow Youth Alliance is booming now, with 20 to 30 regular members, Mortimer, an addiction counselor, remembers a somewhat rocky start.
“We trained the facilitators and designed the website last May,” she said. “We didn’t advertise anywhere, because we wanted it to be word of mouth. Every Wednesday, we just showed up and waited, but no youth came because they were nervous.”
But after several months of speaking with school counselors and distributing flyers and business cards, the group welcomed teens in October with greater success.
Weekly meetings now begin with check-in and a review of group policies. Participants then share what is happening in school, at home, or in local and national news. The fourth Wednesday of every month is now devoted to listening to a guest speaker or screening a video. In the past, participants have watched clips from Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project and MTV’s Love is Louder, two online video projects created in response to the spate of LGBT youth suicides.
“Every meeting so far, we have gone home feeling good,” Goff said. “This is not a captive audience -- it’s a group of people who want to be there.”
Beckie P., age 16, would recommend the group to other teens. “Everyone there is accepting of who you are and where you are [in] coming out, or maybe you want to support one of your friends. It’s also a great place to make new friends.”
Anna tells people that the Wednesday meeting is her start to the week: “Every time I go in there, I’m super excited. It lifts me up.”
Sufficient As I aM
Mike Slatkin, lead facilitator for Sufficient As I aM (SAIM) for eight years, has been involved with the support group for LGBT youth and their allies since 1993. SAIM has been in existence for more than two decades, and is a program of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB).
Slatkin believes that many closeted youth don’t get opportunities to meet others who are like them in the “outside world.” SAIM provides a safe space for these youth to connect with their peers and to interact through positive discussions.
“They experience comradeship with the other youth, and the facilitators are examples, saying you can lead a normal adult life as a gay or lesbian person,” he said.
Topics can vary from safe sex to savings and retirement. The only off-limit conversations are those that focus on illegal activities, such as drug use or smoking (since some participants are under 18). “We leave it up to the youth who are present [to decide] what we will talk about,” Slatkin said.
Although SAIM is participant-driven, there are two active facilitators, Slatkin and Danista Hunte. Paulette Young, the first GLCCB president, is also considered a facilitator, although she comes infrequently. When she does make an appearance, her stories have been a treat for gay or questioning youth, who often have no contact with the older generation of gay men and women.
“They like it when she talks about the history of the gay movement here in Baltimore,” explained Slatkin.
City Steps is a program of AIRS, an organization providing housing to chronically homeless individuals with HIV/AIDS or other disabilities, such as poor mental health or substance abuse. About five years ago it “became apparent that youth housing was an issue in Baltimore City,” according to Program Manager Burgundi Allison of the City Steps Youth Resource Center.
City Steps was born out of that need. Under this banner, a variety of programs service homeless youth in Baltimore, ages 14 to 24. Youth in need are given case management, emergency services, life skills training, and referrals to housing. Federal funding from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) can provide help with overdue rent and moving assistance for “at-risk families with children 14 to 17 and at-risk youth under the age of 24.”
Homeless youth do not need to have any disability to qualify for services, and approximately 600 local youth are serviced a year. When young people reach out for assistance, they are given a service navigator, who is responsible for connecting them with service providers for food, clothing, education, and vocation.
“[Navigators have] been able to establish rapport with young people,” said Allison. “Their phones are going off constantly.,”
City Steps participants are encouraged to “take the lead” when working toward stable housing and employment by contacting providers and maintaining a relationship with them themselves. Youth are also allowed to voice the services they desire. In past years, a partnership with Connect to Protect led to the formation of a young gay men’s support group. Although that support group no longer exists as a result of lost funding, Allison said the organization supports whatever will assist their clients.
“There are no barriers to receiving services because you are an LGBT youth,” she said. “It is a safe space for any homeless youth.”
Another local program, this one in partnership with the state, will address the needs of LGBT youth, according to GLCCB Program Specialist Gary Wolnitzek.
The Youth Suicide Prevention Program will train five individuals by the end of February. These individuals will then train leadership and staff at organizations that deal with LGBT youth (although the organization does not have to be LGBT-focused) to be gatekeepers in identifying suicide ideation.
The immediate goal of this program is to reach a minimum of 15 organizations. Trainers will actively recruit organizations for the free training, which is interactive and lasts about 90 minutes. The trainings are designed to provide ways of identifying if a youth is going through a crisis that will lead to suicide and to teach basic skills needed to address this issue.
Youth can also gain hope and support from two national efforts currently in place—Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project and The Trevor Project.
The It Gets Better Project began in September 2010 when columnist Dan Savage and his partner Terry created a YouTube video addressing the recent spate of LGBT teen suicides and telling young people that “it gets better.” There are now about 10,000 videos online from adults with similarly supportive messages.
From the website: “While many of these teens couldn’t see a positive future for themselves, we can. The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential and positivity their lives will reach—if they can just get through their teen years.”
Viewers can go online and watch a variety of inspirational clips at ItGetsBetterProject.com. The website also urges young adults in crisis to get help through The Trevor Project, “the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.”
Since the beginning of It Gets Better, calls to The Trevor Project 24-hour suicide hotline have increased more than 50 percent. The Trevor Project also has a digital community, where young adults can ask questions through “Dear Trevor,” engage in an online messaging service with live help called TrevorChat, or connect with other LGBT youth in a social networking community, TrevorSpace.org.