by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Youth homelessness is a problem that doesn't fit neatly into a box. The exact number of youth experiencing homelessness is difficult to determine; they are undercounted in national data, as unaccompanied youth are often unconnected to services or shelters.
As they do not have a safe, stable place to call home, many wind up 'couch surfing' with friends, relatives, or acquaintances.
Having said that, there does appear to be agreement that 20%-40% of youth experiencing homelessness self-identify as LGBTQ, which is disproportionate to the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population.
Like many homeless youth, LGBTQ youth either run away or are forced out of the home due to severe family conflict, abuse, neglect, mental health issues, or physical disabilities. Once they are homeless, they are more at risk for sexual abuse and exploitation. There is a high incidence of depression, suicide attempts, and other mental health disorders among all youth experiencing homelessness, and chronic physical health conditions and high rates of substance abuse disorders are common.
In spite of all this, if you've ever had the opportunity to hang out with LGBTQ youth in a drop-in center or elsewhere, you know homeless youth are energetic, funny, thoughtful teenagers who have the same hopes and dreams as their peers.
'Across the country, there are programs aimed at reaching out to and assisting LGBTQ youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness,' states the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). 'There are people and programs across the federal government working to provide housing and services that will best help LGBTQ youth to become stable enabling them to lead safe, healthy, and productive lives.'
In a collaboration between the USICH and 19 federal agencies, a group called Opening Doors: The Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness has set a goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020.
'We are working together to make sure that all youth, including LGBTQ youth, do not fall through the cracks, and that they receive low barrier housing, education that helps lead to employment, ongoing support services connected to mainstream resources, independent living skills training, connections to supportive and trusting adults, and a support network,' states the USICH.
In collaboration with the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, USICH will draft a framework to specifically address the housing and service needs of youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness. This group will also examine ways that federal agencies can better collaborate and allow better access to existing resources for those most at risk, including LGBTQ youth.
LGBTQ TEENS AT RISK
It is well known that LGBTQ youth are disproportionably represented in youth homelessness, but a shocking new trend is emerging which has caught the attention of officials in every state.
'We are seeing a new epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness largely because youth are coming out earlier,' said Jeff Krehely, director of The LGBT Research and Communication Project at the Center for American Progress. 'They are coming out to their families at age 12 or 13 instead of 18 or 20. In some ways this is a good thing; it means they are getting societal cues that it is OK to be Gay, but 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. Rejection leads them to run away from home (if they aren't physically locked out) and then they end up dropping out of school, and tumble from a stable life in a family to couch surfing, living at a shelter or in foster care, and ultimately end up on the street. Because at each step they are discriminated against, they just keep falling.'
Tackling homelessness across the board is very important, and the Federal Strategic Plan released last year is hugely invested in this goal.
'These kids have exhausted the usual safety nets (family, schools, often foster care). We need to make sure we catch them at the level of shelter and/or service provider,' said Krehely. 'Service providers are often the last stop before the streets, and if a youth's very identity is attacked here as well, it can be very damaging. Providers need to understand gender identity issues on a basic level.'
Krehely says there are three basic components that are needed at the service provider level.
The first step is to provide staff with basic cultural competency awareness training and to make service providers around the country are aware that this population is out there and they have special needs. Most studies show that they make up 20%-40% of the homeless population, which is well more than double the LGBTQ percentage in the general population. They have higher rates of suicide, depression, abuse, and are more likely to engage in risky social behaviors. These kids don't need all staff to become advocates for Gay rights, but they do need the staff to look at them and their needs as individuals, and they need a safe space free of attacks on their identities, says Krehely.
The second component is to provide a programming package of services that can address the special needs of this population. LGBTQ youth benefit from the same best practices that service providers offer, from education help and job training to clothes, beds, and food. But there are three services that are especially helpful for this population: The first is to offer a program for family acceptance and reunification. The second is to offer HIV testing and safe sex programs. The third is to offer robust mental health support that has an understanding of the needs of the population and the identity crisis, abuse, and rejection these kids face as a part of their daily life. Together, the three services provide a fundamental basis of care and health that can then allow these kids to get back into regular development and success at school and at a job.
Finally, providers should be aware that at many shelters, LGBTQ youth are both physically and mentally abused by their heterosexual peers.
'This is a common and serious problem,' said Krehely. 'Provider awareness is the first step, but extra care needs to be taken to make sure that LGBTQ youth don't end up fleeing the shelter that is their last chance at stability.'
'Many of us are in this fight because we believe deeply in the moral obligation we have as a society to protect our most vulnerable, because we feel a personal connection to these kids, but there is also an economic benefit over time as well,' he said. 'These kids don't disappear once they pass beyond the age that we count them as youths. They cycle in and out of homeless shelters - and often the criminal justice system and emergency health care offices. If we can break the cycle for these kids at a young age and get them on a better path, it can save them personally, but it can also save money over time.'
Krehely says he is optimistic about the future because 'we are finally seeing an accumulation of data on this issue and we are seeing a new awareness in the field on how to address it.'
'However, we are at the same time going through a tough time economically as a nation, and that leads to cuts in social services in general. It makes it that much more important for us to make clear that these programs need to be viewed from a long-term perspective economically. The cost is not high, and the results can be dramatic,' he concludes.
'If you are serving homeless youth as your mission, you must be aware of this population and address their needs. You need to be aware of the unique backgrounds of LGBTQ youth - the rejection and abuse they experience as a part of everyday life. You need to help them break that cycle by not rejecting them because of their gender identity and sexual preference.'
KING COUNTY FINDS THAT
HOMELESS NUMBER DECLINED
Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless (SKCCH) Director Alison Eisinger announced early January 28 that the number of people counted outside in King County is down 11% compared to last year's count. Volunteer teams working through the night counted 2,442 people living on the streets of King County. The people were of every age, race, and gender. Some were huddled in doorways, some sleeping in cars, camped in parking lots, or sheltered in makeshift campsites.
The One-Night Count of People Who Are Homeless is conducted each January to produce a snapshot of the total number of unsheltered individuals on the streets of King County.
Eisinger was joined at the announcement by Bill Block, the director of the Committee to End Homelessness, the regional coalition implementing the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.
Beginning at 2 a.m. on the morning of January 28, 2011, 886 volunteers in 137 teams counted the people sleeping outdoors in King County. The volunteers were organized through 10 area headquarters. Counters returned to historical and new count areas in Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Woodinville, Shoreline, Kenmore, Bothell, Seattle, White Center, Federal Way, Kent, Renton, and Auburn.
In addition, the 2011 One-Night Count also collected information from select hospitals about emergency room usage and from Metro night owl buses operating throughout the county. The numbers released today are understood to represent the minimum number of unsheltered people on this single night.
Some factors that may have contributed to fewer people being counted this year include the fact that winter shelters were open in downtown Seattle and Redmond, filled with 149 people who would otherwise have been outside overnight. This year, the 194 bus - a route long described as a 'rolling shelter' - was replaced by light rail service to SeaTac airport. And in Auburn, Renton, and Kent, high water flooded out several areas that are usually counted.
The coordinated efforts under the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness to create permanent, supportive housing continue to show strong progress. Local investments in housing and services have resulted in 400 new apartments for homeless people opening in King County in just the last six months of 2010. Over 3,600 units have opened since the start of the plan five and a half years ago. Organizers also note that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) included substantial funding for local rental assistance programs and other programs designed to help prevent homelessness.
While all of these programs can be credited for making strides in addressing the problem of homelessness, the expiration of ARRA investments at the federal level, and recently implemented cuts to Washington's safety net - with more expected - will likely put many more people at risk of homelessness and make it more difficult to help people leave homelessness in the coming years.
The number released by the study does not include the estimated 6,000 people staying in emergency shelters and transitional housing overnight. The coalition is also tracking the number of families turned away from shelters because they were full. The complete One-Night Count tally will be released as soon as the other data is compiled.
At the announcement, Eisinger stated, 'The unifying reason that volunteers from all walks of life show up to participate in the count is that we all sincerely hope that our efforts will result in more housing and less homelessness. While our state legislature is preparing to cut billions of dollars from vital services, I hope that people speak up to say that we must continue to create needed housing and jobs, and support our neighbors.'
Block added, 'As we do this annual count, we have to remember that homelessness as we saw it tonight is a very recent phenomenon. We did not used to have widespread homelessness, and many nations around the globe provide the supports necessary to prevent it. The count reminds us that we can and we must end homelessness.'
SKCCH and other groups are urging volunteers and community members to demand that the State Legislature support the efforts that address the most urgent needs of our community residents, and particularly the people who are homeless in Washington.
Major funding for the One-Night Count is provided by the King County Committee to End Homelessness.
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