By Jama Shelton, LMSW, PhD, Forty to None Project Director at the True Colors Fund
The reason why I was on the streets and homeless is because I was gay and people didn't want that type of person in the shelter. You know because if they put me in the boy's dorm, it's like...what are you gonna be doing? - Patrick*
Imagine that your parents left a suitcase for you outside the front door because they did not accept a part of who you are. Imagine, even amidst the shock, finding the strength to carry that suitcase across town to the only shelter you know. Then imagine being turned away because the staff on duty did not accept you.
That’s what happened to Patrick. After being kicked out by his parents for being gay, he was turned away by shelter staff in his hometown. Across the country, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth face discrimination and harassment when attempting to access critically important shelter services. Without access to shelter, LGBT youth are more likely to end up on the streets, where they are at heightened risk for a range of harmful, and often life-threatening, experiences.
LGBT youth experience homelessness at disproportionate rates, making up an estimated 40 percent of young people who are experiencing homelessness. With statistics like that, why aren’t we taking steps to protect this vulnerable population?
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) is a key piece of legislation in our nation’s efforts to end youth homelessness. First enacted in 1974, it is the only Federal law that focuses on unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness. It’s been expanded through reauthorization laws enacted approximately every five years. Now it’s up for reauthorization again, giving us a unique opportunity to specifically address LGBT youth homelessness.
RHYA has never included protections for LGBT youth. At present, organizations that receive Federal grants to provide services to homeless youth are not required to adopt non-discrimination policies based on gender identity or sexual orientation, nor are these grantees required to follow fundamental standards of LGBT health care. Many service providers lack training in cultural competency related to sexual orientation and gender identity and don’t have access to related professional development opportunities (Kenney et al., 2012). Here at the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project, we recently teamed up with U.S. Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) to develop the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act (Inclusion Act).
The Inclusion Act would address this important omission in the following ways:
1. Prohibiting RHYA grant recipients from discriminating against LGBT youth and ensuring that LGBT youth who are homeless receive culturally competent services;
2. Requiring that data on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression be collected from youth who enter the runaway and homeless youth system;
3. Assuring that the Family and Youth Service Bureau include information about the prevalence of LGBT youth homelessness in its Congressional reports; and
4. Acknowledging family rejection as one of the causes of LGBT youth homelessness, and encouraging programs to help families understand or accept their child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression.
We are working to ensure that RHYA is reauthorized with LGBT protections so that all homeless youth are protected. And since funding for RHYA has remained flat since 2010, must also ensure that it is sufficiently funded. The scarce resources allocated for addressing youth homelessness leave many young people without shelter. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness,only about 50,000 youth per year are served by programsthat are targeted at homeless youth, while as many as 550,000 need shelter.
Young people are being kicked out of their homes. The safety nets set up to help them are not sufficient. Now we have the opportunity to do something about it. Visit fortytonone.org to learn more about LGBT youth inclusion in the RHYA reauthorization.
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect confidentiality