By Jaime Fuller
Names have been changed to address concerns for privacy of individuals in sensitive circumstances.
The discovery of human sexuality can be fraught with danger, intolerance, criticism, and judgment, particularly for people who stray from the “norm.” No one experiences more of this negativity than someone who identifies as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer).
So it comes as no surprise that there is an overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth among the homeless population. When a young person comes out as being anything but heterosexual they are often met with rejection from their family, church, and peers. Some are kicked out of the house, sometimes referred to as throwaway youth, while others choose to leave home rather than face regular abuse or neglect and become runaways.
Of the general youth population, five to seven percent identify as LGBT, according to some sources, whereas up to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT-identified. Jackson Street Youth Shelter (JSYS) of Corvallis has noticed this increase, as an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the youth they serve identify as LGBTQ. A lot them are in the “questioning” category, specifies Kendra Phillips-Neal, program director at JSYS. This increase has been prevalent nationwide, though most of the research has taken place in large cities and not much data exists for rural areas.
“It’s very hard to find the population,” explains Kari Whitacre, executive director of Community Outreach, Inc. (COI), referring to LGBT youth. “I think there are a lot of people hiding.” Recently COI has partnered with OSU in a project to learn more about this contingent. Together they held five focus groups for homeless LGBTQ youth aged 18 to 25 this past year. The goal was to find out what experiences these youth have had and what suggestions they have for services offered, for staff, and for making those services more available. No one showed up.
“It’s difficult to show up and identify as LGBT and the label of homeless,” reasons Julia McKenna, a public policy master’s student at OSU who is a key member of the project. “We learned a lot and are recalibrating our effort and working with service providers who can connect us up with LGBTQ youth who will talk to us,” she says. “We’ll be revising our study in the fall to work one-on-one with youth, so there’s less pressure, rather than focus groups, which can be intimidating.”
JSYS has certified staff to work with LGBT youth, some of whom identify as LGBTQ themselves. They treat everyone as important and everyone receives care. The staff spends a lot of time on diversity training and uses activities that help with safe discussion. There is no tolerance for bullying or harassment, and those who are responsible for that type of behavior will no longer receive shelter.
JSYS also works with organizations that offer services to the LGBTQ population, including Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Out-N-About, and Gay Straight Alliance groups in schools. Out-N-About is a support group for queer students of high-school age in Corvallis and surrounding areas. It is often the first group that LGBTQ youth contact, and it can help those who have questionable housing situations. Sometimes the organizers are able to speak with families and smooth things over, says Chelsea Whitlow, one of the directors of Out-N-About. “But sometimes it’s not a healthy environment for the student, and they have to leave,” she continues. Whitlow noted that LGBT homelessness in the area has been pretty steady over the past nine years based on what she’s seen at Out-N-About.
Where people live has a lot to do with how LGBT youth are treated. Faith-based organizations are often not accepting, causing the teen to lose his or her social network, which can be traumatizing. Most counties have a 10-year plan to end homelessness, including Benton County. JSYS makes sure the youth population is on that plan and all sectors are represented. The ultimate goal is to end homelessness.
Although mental issues are frequently the cause of homelessness, the shelters in Corvallis do not focus on that aspect.
“More issues come from the trauma they experienced in coming out,” says Phillips-Neal.
The prevailing hypothesis for the cause of LGBT youth homelessness is family rejection around gender presentation and sexuality. Ideal solutions are family reunification and counseling, conflict resolution and reconciliation, and resolving whatever is going on at home to make home a safe place again. For those cases where family reconciliation is not possible, shelters can serve as a helpful intermediary.
The two main shelters in Corvallis are very accepting and welcoming of diversity—however, not all are like that.
“In adult and youth shelters, there are high rates of physical and emotional abuse related to sexuality, so that can drive people to not seek shelter. They are actually safer on the street than in a shelter,” says McKenna.
Select shelters are intentional and specific about providing a safe environment for queer youth. Less optimal shelters have staff that don’t know the right things to say or what to think about that subject. On the worse end of the spectrum are shelters where the staff participate in bullying and threatening.
Mastin, a 20-year-old man who came out as gay to his family at age 13, was kicked out of the house by his parents.
“My family was not the most supportive and was abusive, but that’s what they did,” Mastin recollects with stoicism. “Just because they birthed you does not make a family. You’ll find your family eventually. You’ll get the hang of it.”
At the time, he had nothing else to turn to, so he found a religious-based youth shelter called Hearts with a Mission. They treated him differently and segregated him from the rest of the youth due to his sexuality. During the next few years, he turned to male prostitution for wealthy businessmen. Eventually he decided that in order to change his life, he needed to value himself. “Be your own rock,” he urges. He hopes his story can help others in similar situations. “What do you want for yourself and how far are you willing to go to get it?” seems to be his mantra.
“Truthfully, I think every right-minded individual wants to be treated fairly,” says Mastin. “I want to feel safe being myself. That’s not a gay issue. That’s a human issue.”