GLBT youth facing homelessness have extra burdens

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June 18, 2012 by Sarah M

// By Tim Sturrock //

With all the challenges homeless teens already face, gay and transgender homeless youth face additional burdens on the streets where they make up as much as 40 percent of homeless youth.

Often bullied, LGBT teens commonly fear for their safety at home or school, but on the street the discrimination and harassment continues as they struggle to fulfill their immediate needs such as food and shelter, encounter job discrimination and are often sexually exploited, according to participants in a roundtable discussion June 13 at the Bridge for Youth in the Lowry Hill neighborhood.

The problem of discrimination as well as the need for more awareness, training for service providers and an increase in funding for services, dominated much of the conversation that included U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, as well as experts on youth homeless, advocates for LGBT youth and school representatives.

“Everybody ought to have a safe place to live and I think young people, particularly people who are gay or bisexual and transgender have particular vulnerabilities regarding bullying, stuff like that, and are put out of their homes. They need somewhere to be safe and grow and prosper,” Ellison said after the discussion. “To me, it just shows that we have to be out there and advocate.”

A lack of acceptance from family is a common cause of homelessness among the youth with 50 percent of homosexual and transgender teens in the U.S. receiving negative reactions from parents after revealing their orientation and 26 percent being kicked out of the homes, according to a 2007 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless. The report found that between 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.

“Even though we say that things are getting better, the LGBT community is still facing quite a bit of discrimination, and we have a long road ahead of us,” said Kristan Clow, an independent living specialist at Bridge for Youth.

Klow leads a LGBT youth support group called So What If I Am. Homeless homosexual and transgender youth in the group sometimes hear from parents that they will burn in hell or that they weren’t ‘raised that way,’ she said.

“There’s a lot of isolation and for adolescents that’s very, very hard,” she said.

Homosexual and transgender homeless youths served by Bridge often come from poor families and are African American and face certain cultural taboos over homosexuality. That, along with consequences of racism, forces them outside their family homes where they face further racism and ostracism, she said.

Katie Burgess, executive director of the Trans Youth Support Network, said that some shelters and healthcare centers exclude transgender people. And the youth also often have trouble finding jobs in an already difficult economy, something that leads many into the sex trade.

“More often than not, folks are applying for entry level positions, often consumer service work. And the employers who are willing to have somebody transgender at the counter are few and far between,” she said.

Burgess pointed to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality that found that 16 percent of transgender people worked in an underground economy selling drugs or their bodies.

Beth Holger-Ambrose, a homeless youth services coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said over the past two years, awareness has grown about gay and transgender homelessness in the federal government, and the United Way even launched a program to reduce LGBT youth homelessness.

And with homosexual and transgender teens being pulled disproportionately into the sex trade, Minnesota’s 2011 Safe Harbor law will make it easier to provide services to LGBT youth who have been sexually exploited, she said.

The law, which goes into affect in 2014, would treat child prostitutes as exploited youth, giving them easier access to state services. Twin Cities prosecutors last year announced they would no longer prosecute juvenile prostitutes.

“If a youth was being raped by her stepdad, she’d be taken into child protection. If a youth was being raped multiple times at party because she is there with her pimp, that youth could be potentially arrested, put in the juvenile detention center for a short time, get picked up by her pimp and go right back to being raped again,” she said.

Only a few years foster families and social workers often did not receive training or counseling on how to deal with homosexual or transgender youth, she said, adding that began to change several years but a lot work remains on that front.

But many participants emphasized that the issue is far larger than homelessness and pointed to teen suicides related to bullying in areas such as Anoka County and elsewhere.

Carla Bates, a Minneapolis School Board Member, said more awareness is needed to protect the youths.

“For some kids, schools and public school teachers save lives. For some kids that is an institution where they stick,” she said.

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