LGBT Homeless Youth at Risk, Part 3 of 3

people tooRegardless of a person’s gender, sexual preference, or questioning manner, all people are entitled to have their basic human needs met and to be treated with equality and dignity. To this end, organizations that serve LGBTQ homeless youth need to provide a strong system of support and understanding for this vulnerable population. Comprehending the risks and challenges that LGBTQ homeless youth face is the first step in helping. Beyond this understanding, there are several specific actions that organizations at the federal, state, and local levels can take to provide support and create positive outcomes.

Many LGBTQ homeless youth have been stigmatized and mistreated by the very people who should love and support them. It is vitally important that organizations who serve LGBTQ homeless youth provide a safe and supportive environment where youth are treated with respect and dignity. A safe environment includes nondiscriminatory policies, a well-trained staff who understand LGBTQ issues, and physical facilities that are inviting, clean, and age-appropriate. Medical personnel and shelter personnel should receive population-specific training to understand the unique needs of the LGBTQ population, especially the transgender population. Supportive programs understand and are sensitive to the specific social and emotional needs of LGBTQ homeless youth, and they foster community connections with other organizations, mentors, and advocates (e.g., school-based advocates, attorney advocates, and the like). Advocates should familiarize themselves with the various homeless youth and LGBTQ support organizations in the local community and establish a working relationship with these groups. Furthermore, local groups should collaborate–something that is easier said than done–and share resources and expertise. Local organizations are typically the first point of contact for LGBTQ homeless youth but they need not act in isolation. State and federal programs can and should provide resources and training for local programs. Additionally, state and federal organizations ought to offer a forum for various interlocal organizations to collaborate and develop best practices.

Any organization that purports to serve the LGBTQ homeless youth population has a duty to ensure they are providing the types of services mentioned above. The government also has an obligation to the LGBTQ youth population to reduce the incidence of homelessness and to improve the services and treatment these youth receive if they do become homeless. According to the Center for American Progress, the government ought to take specific steps to address the needs of LGBTQ youth:

  • Schools should be a safe haven for all youth, including LGBTQ youth. We need to address the role of unsafe schools have in promoting youth homelessness, and aggressively address school bullying. We also should better ensure that homeless youth are able to continue their education.
  • LGBTQ homeless youth, and homeless youth in general, should be recognized as special-needs populations, protecting them from discrimination by federal grantees.
  • LGBTQ homeless persons need safer access to housing options that will respect their sexuality and personal identity, as well as provide a safe environment. This includes training for shelter staff on how to be an ally to LGBT individuals and written policies to keep discrimination from occurring.

While we have a long way to go, an encouraging trend is developing. Organizations like the Happy Hippie Foundation, founded by musician Miley Cyrus, provide a forum for LGBTQ homeless youth to share their stories and develop a sense of community and shared experience. Happy Hippie collaborates with various other NPOs/NGOs such as CenterLink (LGBT community centers), Covenant House (homeless youth shelter), The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (education advocacy for homeless youth), The National Center for Transgender Equality (social justice advocacy for transgender people), and True Colors Fund (works to end homelessness among LGBT youth), to name a few. Through collaborative efforts these organizations provide a safer space for LGBTQ homeless youth, providing access to basic needs–food, shelter, education, and the like–and offer other organizations an example of best practices for serving LGBTQ homeless youth.

The best approach to protecting and empowering LGBTQ homeless youth combines government protections and support with national, state, and local action. Government protections at the federal and state level may lag behind developing social norms, but they are gradually catching up to our social evolution. What needs to happen most now is local protection. Local protections should be aimed at providing more safety and acceptance for LGBTQ population in general. A safe and accepting legal environment is necessary to continue the trend of a more safe and accepting social environment. The best way to foster both legal and social change is to get involved.

The recent outcome of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Proposition 1, attests to the need for local action from LGBTQ advocates and local protection from city and municipal government. Prejudice and fear thwarted progress toward equal treatment because scaremongering drowned out the voices of empathetic advocates. Opposition to the ordinance in Houston framed it as the “bathroom ordinance” and, more despicably, the “Sexual Predator Protection Act” in a (successful) effort to scare many voters into believing that a vote for the ordinance would give child molesters and perverts incentive to enter women’s restrooms. Equal treatment for LGBTQ people was equated to violating women and children, and the LGBTQ community was unfairly stigmatized in the process. It isn’t enough to privately support equal treatment for LGBTQ; change will only come about when individuals collectively add their voices to the sea change sweeping through the nation.

Education, volunteering, and political advocacy–as simple as voting–are all actions that individuals and small groups can take to make a positive impact on the LGBTQ homeless youth population. The problem is one of national importance that has a local solution, and that solution starts with caring, concerned advocates.

[This article is part 3 in a series of 3 articles on LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 1 identifies origins and challenges for LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 2 identifies federal, state, and local initiatives aimed at LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 3 summarizes best practices and offers a state & local approach based on best practices.]

LGBTQ Homeless Youth at Risk, Part 2 of 3

image2The first duty of the government is to afford protection to its citizens yet, despite this truism, government efforts to protect the LGBTQ population only emerged within the last decade. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes hate crimes and includes sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected classes. As of this writing, twenty-two states, DC, and Puerto Rico ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and almost as many states outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression. However, these protections are often too little too late; government protection continues to lag behind social evolution.

Common law protections are also primarily a product of the past fifteen years. It was not until 2003–in the US Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas–that same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized nationwide. Less than one year ago the Supreme Court required all states to license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples in Obergefell v. Hodges. Both of these decisions continue to be challenged and undermined on moral grounds. Meanwhile, an entire subset of our population are treated like second-class citizens. LGBTQ youth growing up in this environment face discrimination and abuse despite the recent increase in legal protections. LGBTQ homeless youth are particularly vulnerable and need additional protections.

Homeless youth in general are guaranteed the right to access school and support by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act. As with other federal education legislation, the act requires state and local agencies to implement the specific provisions, which states and local agencies do with varying degrees of efficacy. In Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) delegates McKinney-Vento compliance to Local Education Agencies (LEA). Most states comply with McKinney-Vento through the same top-down approach. The challenge for local education agencies is funding. Ensuring a proper education for homeless youth may involve transportation, housing, food, and other costs that local districts don’t incur on behalf of most non-homeless students. In Texas, again, compliance is funded through a competitive grant, and school districts can also apply for subgrant requests directly from the Department of Education. However, grant and subgrant requests require school districts to know or estimate with some degree of accuracy how many homeless youth are in their district at the time they apply for the grant–a number which may change significantly once the grant funding comes through.

Given the transient nature of the homeless population in general coupled with the challenge of identifying LGBTQ homeless youth, districts need to expend time and resources to make the identifications necessary to apply for the funding that they need to serve these youth. Herein lies an opportunity for school districts to coordinate with state and local advocacy and service organizations that serve the homeless youth and LGBTQ populations. In Houston, Texas, for example, school districts might choose to coordinate with organizations like Covenant House and Hatch Youth. By collaborating rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, school districts, service organizations, and advocacy groups can share resources and serve the LGBTQ homeless youth population more efficiently, which likely means they’ll be served more effectively. Furthermore, collaboration across organizations broadens the support net for these youth, helping to ensure more positive outcomes.

The US Government is also stepping up its efforts to protect the LGBTQ homeless population. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness is gathering data and looking to model programs like The Ali Forney Center in New York City, and The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit. These are exploratory stages, and the government moves more slowly than private actors, but the initiative is encouraging. As community collaboration grows, local, state, and federal government will have more examples of best practices to look to and more data to draw on as they continue to increase protections for LGBTQ homeless youth.

[This article is part 2 in a series of 3 articles on LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 1 identifies origins and challenges for LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 2 identifies federal, state, and local initiatives aimed at LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 3 summarizes best practices and offers a state & local approach based on best practices.]

Houston School Board Refuses To Ban Suspensions

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Despite the fact that school boards across the country have banned school suspensions, Texas has yet to join the growing trend. Five Houston ISD school board members voted to keep school suspensions as a last resort for teachers who are “deal(ing) with kids who they can’t contain” in pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms. The rejected plan also included provisions for a team of specialists and $2 million in classroom management training for HISD teachers.

In lieu of the ban, HISD decided to retain school suspensions of second grade and under students as a “last resort.” Of 2,673 reported disciplinary incidents during the 2014-2015 school year, 87 percent involved youth considered to be economically disadvantaged or at risk, and 84 percent were male. 70 percent of the youth disciplined with suspension were African-American even though black youths comprise only 25 percent of the HISD student body.

The school board’s initial proposal was laudable. It proposed the suspension ban as a positive approach to deescalating conflict in classrooms. It called for more accountability and more disciplinary data in an effort to develop school-specific annual plans to reduce misbehavior and rectify inequities. Encouragingly, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called for a more empathetic approach to discipline, saying, “We understand better now than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. We must take a hard look at how we are handling these issues to ensure we’re not contributing to an already stressful situation for these students.” Furthermore, schools with lower suspension rates have been found to have higher achievement rates and narrowed achievement gaps, while schools with higher suspension rates see the opposite effect.

The school board’s decision was not without dissent. Other board members and teachers voiced opposition to suspension. HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones called suspension an “ineffective” deterrent. Voicing concern for students at-risk for the school-to-prison pipeline, she said, “They go home. There’s nothing at home for them. They come back and it’s even worse. I cannot vote for continuing to perpetuate the pipeline to prison, not just for African-American children, but for any child.”

A similar article appeared earlier this week on Houston Public Media.