‘Unwanted’: Fighting the LGBT Homeless Youth Problem

unwantedOne out of every twenty people in the United States identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Among the homeless youth population, it’s two out of five. According to a study published in September called “Serving Our Youth,” Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT. The biggest reason: family rejection. Many LGBT youth say they either ran away because their family didn’t approve of them being LGBT (46%), or their family forced them to leave (43%).

There are no numbers on how many homeless youth in North Texas identify as LGBT. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn’t require municipalities count LGBT as a specific demographic in the annual point-in-time homeless count. So, we aren’t counting.

According to Dallas and Tarrant Counties’ 2013 homeless counts, 5,362 people are homeless in the two counties combined. About a quarter of those are kids. Three years ago Ryan Cofer, 19, was one of them.

“Right when I turned 16 my dad kicked me out because I told him that I wanted to go by a different name. I told him I was trans,” said Cofer.

Cofer told his dad he wanted to identify as a male. He switched his name from Alexis to Ryan.

“I didn’t think he would care. He didn’t care about me being a lesbian, why would he care about this?” said Cofer. “It was at one in the morning and he was just like, ‘pack your stuff and leave.’”

Cofer wandered the streets, before contacting a friend who let him sleep on his couch.

“I was sitting at a playground near my house for a good three hours, just trying to figure out what to do. You always kind of live with that fear whenever you’re coming out, that you will be homeless. When it happens, it’s terrifying,” said Cofer.

According to a 2010 report on homeless youth in Hollywood, it’s also more dangerous for LGBT youth. They were more likely to be robbed (29% v 21%), physically assaulted (28% v 18%), and sexually assaulted or raped (22% v 7%).

They’re also more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol (30% v 19%).

“Drug and alcohol use provide a means of coping for the people that use them. Certainly, if someone is thrown out of the house, and is in crisis, they could have to somehow manage their very immediate situation. If that becomes available, they may not be thinking in terms of counseling or some other safe, supportive way to deal with what’s just happened,” said J Michael Cruz, program manager of Resource Center Dallas‘ Youth First.

Youth First has a full line-up of programming to help young people feel supported, but it doesn’t offer anything for homeless youth.

“For someone who is concerned about where they’re going to spend the night, the last thing they want to have to do is worry about coming out again, worry about what types of reactions they’re going to get, especially if they’ve already been through a situation where they have, perhaps, been kicked out for coming out. It just adds a whole other layer of complexity to something that’s already quite serious an issue: homelessness,” said Cruz.

Case managers for Promise House’s street outreach program pound the pavement daily, looking for youth in need of support.

“No matter if they’re LGBT or straight, they have the same problem: homelessness and having no place to go,” said case manager Ben Williams of Promise House.

Promise House has the only emergency shelter in Dallas for youth 18-21. It’s fundraising for an expansion, but for now the beds are in short supply.

“We can take a maximum of six right now,” said Jessica Amspoker of Promise House.

Resource Center sends youth to Promise House or TRAC — which helps them transition out of foster care when they’ve aged out. Both are considered “safe spaces” for the LGBT community.

“We estimate that about 20-25 percent of our youth are LGBT,” said Jerry Sullivan of the Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC).

“I said, if I’m going to be homeless, I might as well be homeless in a big city, where there’s more people and more opportunities, let’s go,” said Jonathon Hammer, 20, who was formerly homeless. “Now, I have my own apartment. I have a car. I work two jobs. I’m in school.  I feel that it’s got me pretty far.”

Hammer says he found acceptance in the local service providers. Cofer says he didn’t.

“With all the LGB, they’re great. I just…” said Cofer. “W lot of people don’t want to give someone a place to stay if they can’t define the sex by looking at them. It’s awkward to say, but it really weirds people out.”

That is why some local service providers say it’s time for some North Texans to pay attention to the problem, so all youth here can find themselves …. home.

So, how does that happen?  First: start counting LGBT homeless youth, so community leaders know how big the problem actually is. There’s a bill sitting in Congress right now that would require it in the annual homeless count. It’s called the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act of 2013, but there hasn’t been any action on it in more than two months.

Second, an LGBT-specific homeless shelter. Resource Center is considering that as part of an expansion, but it could all come down to funding.


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