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Invisible in Plain Sight

By Diana Scholl

LGBT Homeless Youth Finding Long-awaited Support

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When Michelle McKeever's stepfather kicked her out of their home in Mobile, Ala., at age 18, McKeever, a transgender woman, spent the night in a shed outside Home Depot. After her grandfather gave her money for bus fare to New York, she bounced around—overstaying her welcome with cousins, and spending the night in a men's shelter, before finally landing at the Ali Forney Center's transitional housing for LGBT youth. That move changed her life.

When Christopher Thomas’ mother entered a cancer center to be treated for leukemia, she reluctantly sent Thomas to live with his grandfather in Ohio. Though nervous, Thomas, then 18, was looking on the bright side. “It was near Ohio State University. I figured if I lived there for an entire year I could go to OSU for college and pay in-state tuition,” he says.

During a Greyhound bus delay in Cincinnati, Thomas’ cell phone rang. It was his grandfather. “He asked me a bunch of weird questions that were irrelevant. Then he asked if I was gay,” Thomas remembers. “I said ‘Of course.’ I’d been out since I was 10. My mom was fine with it, and it hadn’t been an issue.”

On the phone with his grandfather, Thomas overheard his aunt in the room say, “That’s a sin. We can’t have that here. He deserves to be homeless.” Thomas didn’t know what to do. “All through Cincinnati, I was crying real bad. I felt like my entire life took a sour turn,” he says.

Thomas ended up in California, where he was fortunate to find housing at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, which provides transitional housing for those ages 18 to 24, and specifically targets LGBT youth.

“The Gay & Lesbian Center is like my family now. Any time I need help with anything I have people I can go to,” says Thomas, 19. He is a senior in high school, and wants to attend San Francisco State University next year.

“I used to feel so bitter,” he says. “But I know my education is important, and there is so much I can give to the world. That’s the thing that keeps me sane and gives me hope for the future.”

It is estimated that 1.6 million youth under 18 are homeless or are runaways each year. More than half of these youth experienced violence at home. Many are former foster children, who aged out of the system. And a disproportionate number are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) young people like Thomas.

In places where homeless youth have been asked their sexual orientation and gender identity, LGBT youth have been found to be overrepresented. The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center found that 40 percent of homeless youth in Hollywood are LGBT, while for San Francisco the figure was 30%, according to Larkin Street Youth Services.

According to the comprehensive 2006 report Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness by the Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and the National Coalition on Homelessness, LGBT homeless youth are at increased risk of abusing substances, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and suffering from depression and other mental health issues. They are also more likely than their heterosexual peers to be victims of violence.

The lack of funding for all homeless youth is alarming—in 2009 just $118 million in federal dollars went to support and provide housing for this population. And currently no specific money is targeted toward LGBT homeless youth.

Despite the uphill battle, the struggles of LGBT youth like Thomas are gaining wider attention at the national level. And in less concrete ways, the federal government is acknowledging LGBT youth. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has acknowledged the problems unique to LGBT youth, and now includes LGBT-specific information in its training and technical assistance for Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantees. This year, in an attempt to prevent future homelessness, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) started funding a $3 million dollar pilot program to provide support to LGBT youth and their families in the child welfare system.

“There’s a push to give programs the tools they need to be more inclusive,” says Andre Wade, youth program and policy analyst at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The federal government is very aware that this population exists.”

Still, LGBT-specific housing is rare, with fewer than 25 LGBT-specific housing options across the country. But that number is expanding. Most recently, singer Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors Residence” supportive housing opened this September in New York City. Named after Lauper’s 1986 hit song, the residence is the first permanent supportive housing for LGBT youth in New York State, and has drawn increased attention to the plight of LGBT youth. Away from the media spotlight, many shelters and services that work with all homeless teenagers and young adults are also providing additional outreach to LGBT youth.

“It’s exciting that people are really interested and paying attention,” says Jama Shelton, coordinator of research, evaluation, and training at the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which conducts federally funded trainings for providers of services to homeless LGBT youth throughout the country. “Years ago the questions were more ‘Are people born this way?’ or ‘Do you think gay marriage should be legal?’ Now the conversation has moved to where we can say, ‘What matters is the here and now.’”

Suggestions to providers include using respectful language when talking to and about LGBT youth, allowing transgender youth to stay in the shelter where they feel most comfortable regardless of the gender on their birth certificates, and ending harassment by staff and other shelter residents.

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