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Cities Build Homeless Shelters for LGBT Youth

The population experiences homelessness at disproportionate rates.

LGBT Homeless Youth
By night, this bisexual teen from Virginia slept in an abandoned house with dozens of other homeless kids. By day, he hung out in fast-food places in New York City.
(AP/Bebeto Matthews)
Only 1 to 8 percent of Americans, depending on the age group, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Yet around 40 percent of the young people living on the streets or in shelters identify as LGBT, according to research by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s Law School. The primary reason they end up without stable housing is family abuse or rejection.

While LGBT youth have been more likely to experience homelessness for quite some time, cities are just starting to focus on this vulnerable population's needs.

Sacramento, Calif., is slated to open its first homeless shelter specifically for LGBT youth this summer. It will host 12 beds and allow people to stay for 90 days. 

"We have a couple of homeless youth providers, but it’s not a perfect fit," says Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Hansen. "Homelessness at large is a diverse population of people. As a government, we have largely used a one-size-fits-all [approach]. We need to tailor these interventions to the populations we’re serving."

Pixie Pearl, assistant director of housing for the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, explained  to an ABC affiliate why custom shelters are necessary.

“We have services that address different things for homelessness, but not necessarily, ‘Is this affirming to who I am? Am I going to be called she? Am I going to be called by my name?'" 

Some see the rise in LGBT-specific shelters as evidence of a problem.

"My one concern is it’s happened because existing resources haven’t been safe [for LGBT youth]. So it’s a mixed blessing, I think we've started to have them because everyplace else has been awful," says Currey Cook of Lambda Legal, a legal advocacy organization for LGBT populations.


'There's More Out There'

In Central Florida, there are only eight shelter beds right now for LGBT homeless youth, according to Heather Wilkie, executive director of the Zebra Coalition, which provides housing and support services to LGBT people in the region. Of the 268 homeless youth they counted on a recent night, 93 of them identified as LGBT.

"And that’s just the number we counted. We know there’s more out there. They’re couch surfing. They’re hard to find," says Wilkie.

City officials in Orlando, Fla., are meeting with social services providers to brainstorm ways to better accommodate this population. They're expected to add two more shelter beds for LGBT youth this month. Still, Wilkie admits, that’s not enough.

She's hoping to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this fall to help expand that capacity. Her five-year plan is to open a group home, and three other residential sites, for LGBT homeless youth.


Federal Changes

The Obama administration made LGBT youth homelessness a bigger priority than any administration before it. The same isn't true for the White House under President Trump. 

In 2014, Obama’s HUD launched the LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative to inform "national strategies for preventing homelessness among LGBTQ youth." The Trump administration has not continued to fund it.

The Obama administration also rolled out the LGBT Equal Access rule, which prevents discrimination in public housing on the basis of sexual orientation, marital status or gender identity. In testimony last month, HUD Secretary Ben Carson told Congress that the rule is still in effect, but critics say the department has taken down or discredited the Obama-era guidance.

The Obama-era efforts made it possible, Wilkie says, for cities to begin making blueprints of their own for their LGBT populations. Last year, New York City announced plans to open its first shelter for LGBT youth. It's projected to open at the end of this year. 

"These new beds would be available once renovations, permitting and certifications have been completed by state and city agencies," said Mark Zustovich, spokesman for New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, in an emailed statement.

In the meantime, the city has drop-in shelters catered to the LGBT population in each borough. But advocates worry that they turn away young people.

"It’s really important to diversify housing. Emergency shelter gets brought up a lot, but not every youth is going to adapt to emergency. If you’re 19, are you going to be able to adapt to shelter rules? It doesn’t work as well," says Orlando's Wilkie.

Curfews and bans on guests and pets are cited as reasons why youth don't like traditional shelters. 


LGBT Representation

Councilmember Hansen, an openly gay man, credits the opening of these LGBT-specific shelters for homeless youth to the increased visibility of LGBT people in government and politics.

In November, for instance, the number of LGBT state lawmakers rose to 129 -- at least three of them won in states that had never elected an openly gay or transgender legislator before. And this year, a record number of big cities could elect a lesbian for mayor.

"Now that we’ve gained seats at the table, we’re better able to address the needs [of these populations]," he says. "Our representation means something, and that’s why we run."

This appears in the Human Services newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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