There are a variety of reasons why a young person might experience homelessness. Maybe they are going through issues at home, challenges with their mental health, maybe they have even been abused or exploited. Maybe their parents kicked them out or maybe they have aged out of foster care.
Every young person’s experience is different, but we do know that some factors make a young person more vulnerable to homelessness. A 2017 study by Chapin Hall found that Hispanic, black, and African-American youth, youth without a high school diploma or GED, and pregnant and parenting youth are all more at risk to be homeless. They also found that LGBTQ youth are 120% more at risk to be homeless.
The True Colors fund reports that while 7% of youth in the U.S. are LGBTQ, 40% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ. Once LGBTQ youth become homeless, they also face a unique set of challenges. The Chapin Hall study found that LGBTQ report trauma, discrimination, and exploitation more often than their other homeless peers. Most disturbingly, LGBTQ youth had twice the rate of early death compared to other homeless youth.
As we learn more about the unique issues of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, we learn about how to come alongside them as it relates to their unique needs. For Pride Month this June we decided to share a little bit more about how Second Story works with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
We talked to Meghan Huebner, Second Story’s Vice President of Residential Services.
Why are there disproportionately more LGBTQ youth who are homeless than non-LGBTQ
Meghan: You’re looking at a group of kids who are already starting from a disadvantage in terms of challenges and society’s overall acceptance of who they are, so they’ve already got more of an uphill battle to fight. The chances that their family isn’t going to accept them, or the chances that they’re going to have more struggles, are higher overall.
What does life look like for an LGBTQ young person who is homeless compared to a non-LGBTQ young person who is homeless? What are some unique challenges that they face?
Meghan: There’s a lot of worry they have that non-LGBTQ youth wouldn’t have even thought [about]. Like, “if I go to this place will I be able to use the bathroom there?” or “what room are they going to put me in” or “are they going to look at me and assume that because I have long hair that I want to be called ‘she’?” There are a lot of starting points that even before they step in the door someplace they have to think about and worry about.
Has Second Story evolved in how we respond to these kinds of situations?
Meghan: I hope so, I like to think so, even looking at our language both written, in terms of the questions we ask the kids when they come in, and our terms of our spoken language. We’re seeing far more transgender youth than when I started [here] — maybe part of that is we’re seeing more openly transgender youth.
Do organizations like Second Story need to make accommodations for young people who are LGBTQ?
Meghan: Definitely, for all the additional challenges they were facing when they came into homelessness or when a crisis occurs. Being aware of that is really important. I think years ago we had an, “everyone is the same, everything is colorblind and we’re all exactly the same” mentality and that is not true. Everyone needs to be treated with their differences in mind. We need to make sure that they’re all receiving the best support possible, given that a lot of our kids have additional societal hurdles they have to climb.
A lot of the time, LGBTQ youth talk about being uncomfortable in homeless shelters. At our teen shelter, how does it look different for them than it would for a non-LGBTQ young person?
Meghan: It’s not that it necessarily looks different. A lot of it is just removing the language that was excluding them in the first place. Instead of saying that we have a girls and boys bathroom, we say “if you are staying in room four you use this bathroom.” Everyone has the same level of privacy because it’s a one-person bathroom, but it is not saying that because your birth certificate says you were born a girl that you have to use this bathroom. And we make sure that youth have their own room when at all possible. I think that is something that probably any kid coming in would appreciate, having a bit more of their own space.
How does Second Story provide services for an LGBTQ young persons’s specific needs?
Meghan: All the youth coming in pick a goal that they want to work on. It is their goal whether we think it is something that is the most pressing issue or not during that time. The crisis might be conflict with mom, but that might be tied into their sexual identity. So if they want to work on becoming more assertive, then that is their goal and that is something that we would support because it is related to the conflict with mom even though it isn’t the primary thing.
Also, we make sure that staff are well-versed in the services that are provided and recognize that they can’t go into sessions by using language that might exclude someone.
Do you often find that LGBTQ youth come to the shelter because of an issue at home or their family’s relationship to their sexual identity?
Meghan: That’s another shift I have seen. When I started here eighteen years ago that was more the conflict — “I told my mom that I was gay and she said ‘you can’t be a part of our family.’” We still certainly see that, but that’s not as frequent as “yes, I happen to be gay, but I also have these other things going on which are contributing to my struggles.”
The study also talks about young people feeling frustrated or excluded when people try to target services based on their sexual identity, or see that as the primary thing they should be focusing on, because it is just a part of who they are. Is that something we see a lot or something that has been a shift for us?
Meghan: That ties back into the whole shift in thinking. We touch on a variety of issues that impact youth and are a part of youth in a bunch of different areas and that is one of them, but there are also other things that we talk about.
Do you have questions about LGBTQ homelessness or how Second Story works to meet LGBTQ young peoples’ unique needs? Send your questions to [email protected] and we’ll answer them. We want to hear from you!