At 3:15 pm every weekday, Annalee Fannan opens the pantry at New York City’s Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), and offers up donated clothing, toiletries, and snacks to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people who participate in HMI’s lifesaving services and programs. About 80% of these youth are experiencing homelessness or marginally housed, and they can take advantage of the pantry’s showers and laundry facilities, too, and stay for a hot meal at dinnertime. Fannan, the pantry coordinator for HMI’s Homeless Youth Services, gets to know members’ tastes and sense of style, and may put aside certain clothing that matches their personalities, like high-end stylish shoes and gloves. This human connection, as well as the material assistance, makes a difference in the often chaotic lives of the young people, many of whom became homeless after being rejected by their families of origin when they came out as LGBTQ. Others aged out of foster care or ran away from situations where they felt unsafe, only to end up on the streets, with a different set of urgent safety concerns.
“While it’s hard to get an accurate count, some agencies estimate that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 unsheltered youth between the ages of 12 and 24 in New York City annually,” said Fannan. “Yet there are only 250 beds in youth shelters across the city. There are a few emergency housing programs specifically for LGBTQ youth, like those offered by the Ali Forney Center, where people can stay for up to 30 days, and there are some transitional living programs, where people can stay for a year. But these resources aren’t nearly enough. And LGBTQ youth may have difficulties at shelters that do not understand their specific needs and problems. The youth we serve have limited options: many are couch-surfing, staying sporadically with friends, or sleeping on trains. We know of youth who have gotten married or gotten pregnant in hopes of finding better housing. Others use survival sex to find a place to stay, whether for the night or longer.”
Homelessness High Among LGBT Youth Population
While the situation in New York City is critical, the extent of homelessness among youth across the nation—particularly LGBTQ youth—is alarming. According to the report, Gay and Transgender Youth Homelessness by the Numbers at the Center for American Progress, there are between 1.6 and 2.8 million young people experiencing homelessness in the United States. The report, On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth at the American Progress – 2010 (PDF | 524 KB), found a disproportionate number of these youth identify as LGBTQ: about 40%, compared to a rate of 5 to 10% among the general population. These young people tend to become homeless at very young ages: on average, gay and lesbian youth become homeless in New York City at 14.4 years of age, and transgender youth at 13.5 years. The report, Serving Our Youth at the Williams Institute – 2012, confirmed these statistics. In addition, 43% of youth surveyed said they became homeless when their parents forced them out of the home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 32% reported being physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused at home.
It is not surprising, then, that LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have very high rates of mental health and substance use issues, violent victimization, suicidal acts, and engage in a range of HIV risk behaviors. These were report findings from Out on the Street: A Public Health and Policy Agenda for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless at the National Library of Medicine. It is important to note that LGBTQ youth are not a homogenous population, and different subgroups have varying needs that must be understood and addressed. As author Keuroghian and colleagues point out in the Public Health and Policy Agenda report, there is a public policy vacuum when it comes to this population: “…an explicitly articulated federal health policy agenda does not yet exist to address homelessness among LGBT youth in the United States.” The Center for American Progress recommends, as a start, that discrimination against these youth should be overtly banned in all federal programs and agencies.
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An LGBT-Friendly Environment
HMI is the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ youth-serving organization, and has focused, for more than 35 years, on meeting the needs of at-risk LGBTQ youth in New York City and beyond. For example, HMI’s newest initiative, the Center for LGBTQ Youth Advocacy and Capacity Building, advocates on behalf of LGBTQ youth by influencing policy on local, national, and international levels, while helping to build the capacity of decision-makers, people, and institutions that serve this marginalized population. HMI is also the founder and host agency for the Harvey Milk High School, a small, fully accredited public high school run by the New York City Department of Education for at-risk LGBTQ students who were unable to safely complete their education in traditional public high schools. HMI’s Homeless Youth Services offers a comprehensive set of direct services and referrals for youth aged 13 to 24 in an LGBTQ-friendly environment. While HMI does not provide housing, it refers youth to emergency, transitional, and permanent housing providers, and offers an array of supports. The Health and Housing staff, for example, do street outreach at the parks, piers, and other places where LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness gravitate, working to develop trusting relationships with young people to encourage them to use HMI services.
These services include an after-school program that offers arts and cultural activities, such as dance, film, photography, painting, and theater, which are very popular with members. Tryouts for a production of West Side Story were scheduled the day Fannan and I spoke, and HMI regularly hosts voguing and ballroom events, which serve as both an outreach tool and entertainment. In addition, HMI’s after-school program (which is open to youth whether or not they are attending school), offers health and human services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, HIV testing, job readiness and career exploration, and housing referral.
Housing and homeless service providers need training on cultural competency that is specific to LGBTQ youth, Fannan believes. Too many providers— including foster care agencies, housing providers, and behavioral health organizations—are not familiar with the varieties of LGBTQ youth cultures, and this can interfere with serving these young people appropriately. “Providers need to meet these youth where they are,” Fannan said. “There’s a need for more harm reduction programs and staff who understand the lives of these young people.”
This article was originally published as a Voices from the Field Blog post to highlight the theme of Youth Homelessness. Find the latest SAMHSA Blog posts about behavioral health and homelessness.
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