The Homeless Epidemic Among Queer Youth

In the beginning of June, New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomburg, announced budget cuts that would remove 60 percent of funding towards homeless youth. As a result, 160 of the 259 shelter beds would be removed. Those hardest hit by this proposed tax cut would be New York City’s queer youth, which compromises 40 percent of the city’s homeless youth (Shapiro, 2012). Shelters and services tolerant and educated on queer youth, their problems, and their needs are already few and far between. These tax cuts would not only hurt the homeless youth population as a whole, but farther alienate these minority youth.

“They admitted they didn’t know what to do with me, but since they were a private organization they have the right to turn away whoever they wanted” (D. Stone, e-mail, June 10, 2012). “They invariably placed me with men. I never really went to sleep; I was terrified of the inmates” (Anonymous trans woman, e-mail, June 10, 2012). “My senior year of high school, my abusive mother kicked me out of my house… There wasn’t anywhere for me to stay because… there isn’t any space for young men or GLBT youth in the area” (Anonymous queer person, e-mail, June 10, 2012). Homeless shelters, regardless if they are for youth or adults, are ill equipped to deal with the queer population. As seen above, they are often refused service, have no where to go, or in the case of transgender individuals, forced to room with people of their assigned at birth gender. The National Runaway Switchboard suggests that the likelihood of being a victim of crime increases sevenfold just by virtue of identifying as LGBT (Ray, 2006). This abuse does not only happen on the streets, but in the shelters as well. Homeless queer youth often face discrimination, harassment, as well as physical and sexual abuse at the hands of staff and fellow boarders in shelters. Agencies and shelters have no anti-discrimination policies, or any education on how to appropriately handle queer youth and protect them. They lack to knowledge on how to board these youth as well as how to deal with the specific problems they face at home, on the streets, and in school. Resources for homeless youth are severely lacking and resources for their non-cisgender and non-heterosexual peers are lacking even more.

History of Queer Youth and Homeless Policies

National support looking into the epidemic of youth homelessness is a recent occurrence. In 1972 the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency held hearings to address the growing number of transient youth which had doubled from the 1960s. This committee was to identify the reason youth were running away from home, which 40 to 60 percent said was due to abuse. These hearings resulted in the passing of the Runaway Youth Act, which was part of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Before this act was passed, homeless and runaway youth were considered criminals and returned to their parents. The reason for running away was never addressed and they were only viewed as delinquents. States were also required to provide services separate from law enforcement, mental health, child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Federal funding was also granted to provide shelter, food, and counseling for these youth. When the Runaway Youth Act was expanded, and renamed the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in 1977, two programs were created. The Transitional Living Program in 1988 for those who were older and the Street Outreach Program in 1994 which helps protect youth on the streets (Ray, 2006).

Despite programs to aid and prevent youth homelessness, queer youth are still disproportionally represented. Many agencies and centers are ill prepared or are not safe spaces for queer youth. They lack the knowledge and insight on how to deal with these type of homeless youth. These youth face high rates of harassment and discrimination in shelters, such as in Michigan were a facility made queer youth dress in orange to identify them from their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.  Despite these pressing issues, no programs are administered specifically to the queer youth community. On top of that, there are no protections in place to keep queer youth from being discriminated against while accessing federally funded homeless services, this is particularly rampant in faith-based organizations which have explicit anti-queer policies while still receiving federal funds (Krehely, Rosenthal & Quintana, 2010).

Suggestions on How to Help Fix the Epidemic

The first step that needs to be taken to fix the lack of support for queer youth is for anti-discrimination policies to be put into place on a federal level. All organizations that receive federal funding must abide by a centralized anti-discrimination ordinance that includes gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. This should be applied to religious organizations that receive federal funding as well. Organizations who are found breaking these policies should either lose funding, or have their funding severely cut. Agencies and organizations should also require education around the particular issues that queer youth face, not only on the streets, but in the rest of their lives as well. Along with anti-discrimination policies, shelters should be educated on how to handle these youth and how to address their specific needs. Transgender youth should be taken into special account on how to address them and adequately provide a safe space for them. Trans women should be housed with the women, and trans men should be housed with the men. This will require strict harassment and abuse policies to ensure that these individuals are treated with respect. In a study done by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 29 percent of homeless transgender people were denied access to shelter based on their gender identity. Of those who did access shelter, 25 percent reported being physically assaulted by staff or another resident, 22 percent reported being sexually assaulted, and 42 percent reported having to live or present as the wrong gender to access shelter (Grant, Mottet & Tanis, 2011). While these statistics are not just focused on youth, they represent issues that are across the board with homeless policies involving transgender people. Other queer youth also face discrimination, harassment, and assault.

Another critical step is increasing funds towards homeless youth in general. While $4.2 billion is spent on homeless assistance programs, less than 5 perfect ($195 million) is for homeless youth. Only $44 million is spent on youth housing assistance (Krehely, Rosenthal & Quintana, 2010).  Assistance for homeless youth, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, is extremely unfunded. Many youth are denied services due to lack of room and resources. Estimates of the homeless youth population vary from 1.6 million to 2.8 million (Krehely, Rosenthal & Quintana, 2010). The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services estimate about 20-40% of the homeless youth population is a queer person. This means that 20-40% of the homeless youth population is at more of a risk than the rest of the group. The mass amount of homeless youth is already suffering due to resources stretched thin, and those of the queer group are suffering even more. Only a fraction of these youth are already served by programs and the lack of anti-discrimination policies leaves queer youth even more vulnerable to being denied services. With numbers on the rise, funding is being stretched to the breaking point even more. Programs were ill equipped and underfunded before and continue to be so, in a rising degree every year.

The final problem does not specifically affect queer homeless youth, but homeless youth as a whole. Homelessness is currently criminalized in almost every city. Many cities have laws against loitering, laying or sitting in public spaces, and panhandling. A lack of resources such as transitional living and shelter for youth provides these people no other alternative. In order to deal with these people, they become incarcerated for breaking one of these laws. Youth are also arrested for participating in other acts that are associated with homelessness such as survival sex trade, theft, and drug dealing. This leads to more money being spent incarcerating these people than it would to provide more beds, food, and other resources. Approximately $53,665 is spent to maintain a youth in the criminal justice system. However, to move a homeless youth off the streets, permanently, it only costs $5,887  (Krehely, Rosenthal & Quintana, 2010).

Rational Analysis of Alternative Policies and Their Ramifications

Anti-discrimination policies would have to be decided on the federal level. Variance on a state by state level can result in certain states being less safe for their queer homeless youth. On a federal level, it will be clear what is expected of the organizations, how to adequately deal with their queer participants, and how to create a safe space. Clear policies must be implemented to adequately address queer, particularly transgender, issues that may result in disturbances at organizations and shelters. No tolerance policies against harassment must be put into place, including religious organizations. While religious organizations should be able to function according to their religious beliefs, those that receive federal funding must abide by federal anti-discrimination laws. Any organization, faith-based or not, that is found violating these policies should have funding cut and placed in other organizations that adequately address the homeless youth population as a whole. This will require strict monitoring of all federally funded organizations to prevent abuse of federal tax money. Problems that would arise from these implementations would be the possibility of faith-based organizations losing funding and thus, negatively affecting the non-queer population that is relying on their aid. More government money will be required to keep strict guidelines and make sure they are followed as well as more employees needed to make sure policies are implemented correctly.

Less than 5 percent of all federal funding on homelessness goes towards youth on the streets. More federal money must be put into the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which should include resources such as education for agencies and organizations, as well as creating queer specific resources, shelters, laws, and policies. Increasing the percentage for youth would benefit not only the queer youth, but all homeless youth. However, this would mean either increasing how much is spent on these programs or removing benefits from other programs. Careful assessment would be required to figure out what programs could be cut or what programs could be expanded on. Budget cuts should focus on putting those cuts back into other portions that require more attention. All current resources for homeless youth are severely underfunded and resources are stretched thin. Time must be devoted to figure out where exactly the most help is needed, the weaknesses in the system as well as the flaws.

Finally, the decriminalization of homelessness. It costs nearly ten times more to incarcerate a person due to activities associated with homelessness than it does to remove them from the streets permanently. By decriminalizing activities, such as loitering, sleeping outside on public property, and panhandling, resources spent placing these youth into the criminal justice system can be put back into programs getting these people off the streets. This would cost less on the state and the federal government since that reduction of resources and money can be placed back into the system and distributed to the lacking federal expenditures in homeless youth resources. More beds can be opened, education can be provided, and safe spaces created for queer homeless youth. Decriminalization of these acts may lead to exploitation of public spaces and allow for possible illicit activities to flourish. Further man power may need to be enacted to make sure that those who are now using such freedoms are not engaging in other activities such as drug activity. Time must also be spent in focusing on helping those who must turn to drug dealing and the survival sex trade in order to survive on the streets. More understanding as opposed to prosecution is needed to ensure these youth do not become victims to the system, even more than they already are. Making sure that these youth are helped while keeping order is a very fine line that may result in costing more money and resources and thus, being counterproductive on the financial side.

Conclusion

There is a long way to go before queer youth are fully protected by the system. Homeless youth alone have many problems facing them due to lack of funding, lack of resources, and lack of support. Queer homeless youth populations have even more problems due to ignorance inside the system, abuse at the hands of staff and fellow residents, and lack of safety in what small spaces they can find. They often face run ins with the law due to the lack of resources on no fault of their own. Left with no other choice they may end up panhandling, working in the survival sex trade, stealing, or dealing drugs to make it day to day. They may be forced to sleep on the streets due to being chased out of potential shelters, or even leave on their own accord due to lack of safety. The current system is extremely lacking in necessities for these youth, even more so than the general homeless population.

Resources (APA)

Grant, J., Mottet, L., & Tanis, J. (2011). Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Retrieved from http://www.thetaskforce.org/reports_and_research/ntds

Krehely, J., Rosenthal, J., & Quintana, N. (2010). On the streets: The federal response to gay and transgender homeless youth. Center for American Progress, Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/06/on_the_streets.html

Ray, N. (2006). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Retrieved from http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/06/on_the_streets.html

Shapiro, L. (2012, June 01). Homeless youth advocates protest new york mayor bloomberg’s proposed 2013 budget cuts. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/homeless-youth-new-york-2013-budget-cuts-bloomberg_n_1561003.html

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