Homelessness impacts people from many backgrounds, so it may not seem like an LGBTQ issue. However, the District's 2017 Homeless Youth Census found that 31% of young people experiencing homelessness self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or queer/questioning, and 6% self-identified as transgender. This aligns with national statistics that estimate about 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, though they only account for about 7% of the general population.
November was National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month. To raise awareness about this issue, local nonprofit SMYAL (Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders) hosted a panel discussion on November 28 with four young people who have experienced homelessness: Chris, Shawn, Tahlibrah, and Tre’Velle. (We intentionally left off participants' last names at their request.) They all are either currently participating or have participated in SMYAL’s housing program. The event was moderated by Eboné Bell, the founder of Tagg Magazine.
As someone who is active in the local LGBTQ community, I went to the event expecting to hear more of what I’ve heard in the past: the causes of LGBTQ youth homelessness, what challenges youth face when experiencing homelessness, and their increased risk factors in terms of health and safety.
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to learn more about the personal experiences, hard work, and aspirations of young LGBTQ people who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. Some of them have become small business owners, and they wanted to share these positive stories with the community. They also provided important insight into the kinds of services LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness receive locally—as well as some opportunities for improvement.
A study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers. A US government study of runaway and homeless providers in the US identified four top causes for LGBTQ youth homelessness: (1) family rejection resulting from sexual orientation or gender identity; (2) physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; (3) aging out of the foster care system; and (4) financial and emotional neglect.
LGBTQ youth experience specific challenges when facing homelessness and have unique needs, both nationally and locally. They often need emotional support and acceptance since they have frequently experienced the trauma of rejection from their friends and family because of their identity. Transgender youth may need resources for transition-related support.
Transgender, queer, or gender-non-conforming youth (and adults) can face discrimination when looking for shelter, as these services are often separated by gender with few or no options for those that may identify or present outside of the gender binary. This is an often-reported issue in DC’s local emergency shelters.
While this context is important, Jorge Membreño, the Director of Youth Housing, pointed out that SMYAL's housing program participants don’t like to be seen through the lense of “Increased Risk of X” or “Negative Impacts of Y”. Rather, this event was an opportunity to hear about the great work they do as young, small business owners.
We're more than a statistic—we're entrepreneurs
Unsurprisingly, employment opportunities are frequently among the highest-ranked needs homeless LGBTQ youth report. Panelists said the work they find is often part-time and isn’t sustainable. Chris noted that workplaces can be unwelcoming to LGBTQ people, and that they have experienced prejudice on the job, both intentional and unintentional.
Panelists created small businesses to supplement their income and, in some cases, to feel comfortable being at work. Some of their enterprises include house cleaning, catering, jewelry making, and makeup design. (Full disclosure: I took this opportunity to hire Chris, who does makeup design, for an event I’m attending next month. I couldn’t be more excited to see the result.)
Several of the panelists said that their businesses grew from friends and family, who helped them realize what their passions were. They said doing work they loved helped them get through especially challenging times, and to have a sense of pride. Chris said, “My business honestly has gotten me through trials and tribulations. It definitely gave me motivation to keep going, especially during this year.”
“I felt like I needed to do something I love to do,” Tahlibrah said. “I don’t want to be working minimum wage all my life, or just working somewhere I don’t want to work at. Just unhappy. And I was always told by my grandmother, ‘Be where you’re comfortable.’ So, if you’re not comfortable at your work spot, why not start your own business? You got an idea to start a business, start your own business! It may not be easy. It might take some time. But, you’ll get there.”
The panelists repeatedly said they hoped to one day have the opportunity to use their businesses to support the community. When asked about the biggest purchase they’d make 10 years from now, Tre’Velle said, “If my business takes off the way I want it to, I know I’ll use it to give back to youth that were once in the situation I was in.”
Shawn said they felt supported and encouraged in the program. When they were working for cleaning companies part-time, staff noticed that they were clearly very happy on the days they worked. SMYAL staff gave Shawn some resources to turn this passion for cleaning into the small business they co-manage with Tahlibrah.
Panelists described the staff at SMYAL as “family outside our family.”
What local organizations are doing to support young LGBTQ people
The panelists frequently referenced the need for an approach that's focused on the individual; creating a one-size-fits-all solution does not facilitate an environment that inspires them to do better.
SMYAL reports that it uses a comprehensive approach to end homelessness, providing case management, support services, skills development, social support, and after-care. It also offers programming designed to empower LGBTQ youth and help young leaders build advocacy skills and access resources, as well as education and training programs for youth service providers.
The District still needs more beds and housing programs designed for young LGBTQ people. SMYAL operates the Youth House, a 12-bed transitional living program for people ages 18 to 24, and the Wanda Alston Foundation and Casa Ruby also provide some beds and a transitional living program aimed at LGBTQ youth. Altogether there are about 60 shelter beds set aside for LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness in DC; the 2015 DC Homeless Youth Census alone had 142 LGBTQ respondants.
Other local organizations like The DC Center for the LGBT Community also provide resources, but there’s always a wait list for LGBTQ-specific services. These organizations also need a network of culturally competent service providers to support their work. Expanding the capacity of organizations with beds for homeless LGBTQ youth and their ability to provide these holistic services is an essential part of responding to the community’s needs.
DC's LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Amendment Act of 2013 helped fund local shelter and support service needs. Legislation like this is an excellent start, but more can be done.
Our community’s youth have so much important insight and the capacity to do truly awe-inspiring work. I hope the District and groups working to address homelessness in the region will expand the support they give to organizations that work with these young people and give them the tools to become great leaders in our community.