November 23, 2010
By Mandy Lussier
Here are some sobering stats: About 35 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States occur among people under age 29. Homelessness, drug use, and abuse are strongly tied to HIV risk; a 2002 estimate found that nearly 1.7 million homeless and runaway youth live in the United States.
At AIDS Action Committee’s Youth on Fire, we worked with 625 of them last year.
About 30 percent of our members identify as LGBTQ. And 20 percent of our members engaged in survival sex work last year, trading sex for food, clothing, or a place to stay. This puts them at a higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, along with experiencing damaging sexual and physical violence. They are also more likely to have unpleasant, to put it mildly, encounters with law enforcement and to be incarcerated.
Youth on Fire provides resources that meet basic human needs like hot meals, showers, and clothing. We also offer free, on-site LGBTQ-friendly healthcare and therapy, bi-weekly groups and supported referrals to other ally agencies. And we deliberately hire staff, interns, and volunteers that reflect the communities we serve-which include having openly queer staff. But we are not a shelter. And we face significant difficulties finding appropriate shelter for our LGBTQ members.
The irony in this is that many of our LGBTQ members have either been kicked out of their homes, or run away from them, because they were subjected to physical, emotional, sexual, and mental abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. At many of the available shelters for young people in Massachusetts, they find the same abuse from their homeless peers and, at times, staff members. It’s so bad that it’s not unusual for homeless queer youth to tell us that they actually feel safer on the streets than in shelters.
Here’s just one example. Two members of Youth on Fire, who are in a long-term relationship, were forced to temporarily leave the shelter where they had been living for a year. They had been “caught” hugging-something that other clients were able to do without consequence or even a second glance. The two young women had been sleeping in the same room since their arrival but a month prior were “outed” to staff by one of the clients. Since then, they had to occupy separate rooms and were told that they could not be in the bathroom together even though all the other women could use it at once.
There is a severe lack of shelter housing for homeless youth, particularly those who are LGBTQ. And most mainstream providers are ignorant of the needs of LGBTQ youth, and misunderstand issues such as survival sex, which is more common among homeless trans and gay/bi male youth.
As providers, we strive to offer the best services possible for our queer youth, but we all too often find ourselves in a quandary; where do we refer our clients knowing they may face the same violence and harassment in a shelter or housing program they would on the streets and in their families?
November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. I can tell you without reservation that homeless queer youth are resourceful and resilient survivors and they deserve our support and recognition. I can also assure you that you can make a difference. Donate your time, your money, or your resources to drop-ins, shelters, and other organizations that already have a commitment to making the world a safer place for LGBTQ youth. Or become an ally within organizations that don’t have an expressed commitment to LGBTQ youth – imagine what it would have been like for the two women mentioned above if there had been even one ally at the shelter. Additionally, you can use your voice to speak out against homophobia and transphobia: to your colleagues, communities, and legislators.
Mandy Lussier is the Safe Spaces Health Educator at Youth on Fire.