Across America, there is a growing awareness of the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. These vulnerable young people are telling their stories. New programs are now targeting their needs. Still, LGBT youth are disproportionately represented among the nation’s homeless young people. And their lives continue to be haunted by violence, discrimination, illness and unmet needs.
Those are among the key findings contained in “Seeking Shelter- The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth” a new report released by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to progressive causes.
At a Sept 26 forum lawmakers and advocates gathered to discuss the findings and chart out a course of action that they said might help address the unique problems of these teens and young adults.
LGBT youthhave been estimated to comprise as many as 40 percent of homeless young people nationwide, according to U.S, Rep Gwen Moore, a Wisconsin Democrat who offered opening remarks at the event. She said the estimate was based upon the results of a recent nationwide survey of more than 350 programs that serve LGBT youth. The size of the population helped convince Moore of the importance of working for laws and funding to help the young people.
“It was clear that someone in Congress needed to take action,” said Moore.
National leadership could make a difference, she and others said. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act of 2003, which has been the primary source of federal support to community- based organizations that help young people is up for reauthorization.
The law currently fails to provide specific funding or guidance to organizations to meet the needs of LGBT homeless youth. Now, Moore, together with colleagues including fellow Wisconsin Democrat Rep Mark Pocan, is working to get LGBT-specific provisions included in the bill.
The provisions would prohibit discrimination against LGBT youth at homeless shelters that receive federal grant money and require grant recipients to have the cultural competency to serve these youth. In addition, the bill would provide resources to support services for families struggling with the sexual orientation or gender identity of their children.
Such measures could have an impact because in many cases, according to the Seeking Shelter report, LGBT youth become homeless because parents and friends reject them and juvenile justice and child welfare programs fail to meet their needs.
“We often try to simplify the dialogue around complex issues in our country,” Jama Shelton, a project director at the Forty to None, an initiative of the nonprofit True Colors Fund, co-founded by singer Cyndi Lauper to help end LGBT homelessness.
“We need to focus on BOTH family rejection as one cause of homelessness, AND also other factors such as poverty and the failure of systems to prepare young people for independence.”
According to the report, the term “homeless youth” commonly refers to unaccompanied young people between the ages of 12 and 24 who find it impossible to safely live with a relative or to safely live in an alternative living arrangement. The report said the larger population could be divided into two parts: “Runaway” youth feel they need to leave without their family’s knowledge. “Throwaway” youthhave left home at the insistence of their guardians.
Once estranged from their families, young people often continue to drift without stable homes. They are much harder to place into adoptive families than infants and small children, said panelist JoeYeun Chang, associate commissioner for the Children’s Bureau. Child service agencies and the foster care system need to do more to help and support them, he said.
“We don’t want foster care to be a gateway for homelessness,” said Chang.
Adding to the challenge, youth are coming out to their families at younger ages. Research cited by the report suggested that the average age of a person identifying him or herself as lesbian, gay, or bisexual was around 13 years old.
In addition to needing to seek places to sleep at night, the youth often must cope with unemployment, criminalization, and victimization, including exploitation by sex traffickers.
In addition to gaining federal funding and support for LGBT-specific programs, participants spoke of the importance of protecting LGBT youth and offering help to their families.
Though the challenges can be complex, some measures that could go a long way toward helping individual young people are not complicated said Shelton.
Some youth programs get caught up in concerns about how to assign bathrooms for transgender youth, for example. One practical solution could be simply extending bath and shower hours, she noted.
Shelton speaks all around the country and makes sure to visit a new city every month, specifically to observe the youth population struggling with homelessness. She seeks them out in the libraries and coffee shops that often serve as their havens. She looks to local programs to find out if there are resources available for LGBT youth.
Everywhere she has gone, she has found people willing to help.
“Every place I have visited wants to be doing their work really well,” Shelton said. The key is to keep working and to keep talking, she added.
“Continuing and deepening the dialogue is important,” she insisted. ”Talking can’t solve the problem, however NOT talking about it will certainly perpetuate the problem.”