LGBTQ, young, and homeless. They hide in plain sight

It was a shocking sight. Tent after tent after tent lined about a mile of an Anaheim bicycle trail that meandered along the Santa Ana River and under the shadow of the iconic, halo-topped Big A that stands outside Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

The tents, along with bikes, wood pallets, and all manner of personal belongings made up a homeless encampment along the popular bicycle trail. 

QUEER YOUTH EXCLUDED FROM CONVERSATIONS

The video, which surfaced last year, forced several California cities to face homelessness, a topic many municipalities and public servants only had paid lip service. But while government agencies devised plans, worked to partner with nonprofits, and created new initiatives, one group of the vulnerable population wasn’t included in the conversations: homeless queer youth.

In California, the number of homeless children in K-12 schools jumped 20 percent from 2014-15 to 2016-17, according to the California Department of Education, which translates to more than 200,000 young people living on the streets, in cars, motels, and shelters, or with other families.

Of that total, one study found that up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, despite representing only 7 percent of the overall youth population. 

ALSO READ: Queer youth living on Hollywood streets

Overall, the number of people living on the streets of Los Angeles County in 2017 grew to 58,000 people, an increase of 23 percent from 2016, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Despite these shocking numbers, many shelters are not equipped to deal with the needs of queer youth. Safety also is an issue. Some gay teens will be targets for bullying and harassment at group homes and shelters, but they can’t stay at a women’s or girls home.

“My experience with shelters is that you’d go when it was raining. You’d go to San Francisco, wait in line and sleep on the floor, if you slept at all,” a 22-year-old Oakland woman told EdSource. She was identified only as “Alicia” for her protection. “It’s scary enough to be a young person there. But if you’re queer you just feel a lot more vulnerable. You definitely avoid them.”

REJECTED BY FAMILIES

Although most young people become homeless for many reasons, including their parents’ financial situation or divorce, experts agree many LGBTQ youth live on the streets because their parents rejected based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to a 2012 study by the True Colors Fund, Palette Fund, and Williams Institute at UCLA, here are the three main reasons queer youth end up on the streets:

  • 46 percent were living on the streets because family kicked them out of their house
  • 32 percent left due to abuse — physical, emotional or sexual — at home
  • 17 percent aged out of the foster system.

The study also found that additional factors such as neglect, substance abuse, mental illness, and lack of affordable housing also contributed to their homelessness.

Alicia eventually found space at a local shelter, Covenant House — a national nonprofit system of youth shelters with several shelters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles — but she had to wait three months before a bed opened up. 

“It works,” said Noel Russell, Covenant House development officer. “But we just need more beds. We have 100 people on our waiting list and there’s thousands of young people in the Bay Area sleeping on the street every night. No child chooses that. No child deserves that.”

NO BEDS AVAILABLE

The lack of shelters with available beds highlights a national issue when dealing with young queer youth. 

“There are a couple of organizations doing a lot for the young LGBTQ community [in metro Atlanta] but not nearly enough,” Covenant House Executive Director Allison Ashe told Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. “Resources for homeless kids in general are scarce here. At Covenant House we have an open intake process at our crisis shelter. We have 15 beds and can overflow to 20 and we’re full every night.”

But help is coming. In Houston, Homeless Gay Kids-Houston is working to build a seven-day-a-week drop-in center in Montrose where teens and young adults of any sexual orientation can get support including food, job placement and emergency housing. 

“If they’re not reached within 72 hours of being homeless, they fall into drugs and sex,” said Jeff Hoffman, chair of Homeless Gay Kids-Houston, in a Houston Public Media interview.

ALSO READ: New LA LGBT campus to have housing for homeless youth

After getting stabilized through support at Covenant House, Alicia was admitted to the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, where she plans on receiving master’s degree in social work so she can help other homeless young people.

“Absolutely nothing that happened to me is acceptable, and it shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” she said. “It’s not OK to think a kid can sleep on the street and nothing will happen to them. We all have a responsibility to do something about it.”

This 2016 photo of downtown Los Angeles shows Skid Row, where a large population of homeless people live. The sidewalks lined with cardboard boxes, tents, and shopping carts. Queer youth represent about 40 percent of homeless teens. Photo: iStock/peeterv

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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