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Regardless 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.]