Shelter Not in Place: Solving the LGBTQ Homeless Epidemic

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday September 19, 2020

Shelter Not in Place: Solving the LGBTQ Homeless Epidemic
  (Source:Getty Images)

"My mother found out that I was gay, and my family is very strict Baptist, so they weren't having it," says Travis Crown, 21, a gay cisgender male from New Haven, CT. After coming out, Crown didn't feel safe in his home town, so he bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles.

"It's been a struggle ever since I was 16," recalls Crown. "I've been kicked out, and then brought back in the house, but 18 was when I got officially disowned by my family. I figured I could come here and find a job, find a roommate. I had a thousand dollars saved up. I thought that should be enough."

Even though he was a certified nursing assistant, Crown couldn't find work and ended up on the streets. He slept rough for two months until he was able to get into a shelter program where he stayed for another two months.

According to a recent Williams Institute study, the first of its kind in the U.S. to measure LGBTQ homelessness using nationally representative samples, an estimated 17 percent of sexual minority adults in the U.S. report experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives — nearly three times the general population.

"You try not to think about things," says Crown. "You set your alarm, and you wake up, and then you get to the drop-in center and you shower. You get a fresh pair of clothes, and then you go out and you submit applications and resumes, and you come back and you have dinner, and it's this routine you get stuck in until a door opens."

Eventually, Crown transferred to a transitional living program during which he was able to save money. He is now living independently and works full-time at the LA LGBT Center, where he was once homeless.

"It's kind of cool. I used to be a member and now I'm a staff member," says Crown, who is also a musician. He released his first album, "Home," this summer. "Music was the only thing that held me together during this time," he says. "It's the reason I would wake up and do what I do." He wrote the track "Keep On" as an anthem of hope.

But not all homeless youths can exit the system like Travis Crown.

"There's this continual flow of LGBTQ youth into the city," says Kate Barnhart, Executive Director of New Alternatives in New York City. "Some of them are flowing in from the red states, but the problem is the young people only know New York from what they see on TV. They see the Pride parade. They see 'Will & Grace' and it all looks fabulous and happy. Then they get here, and they may have spent all their money on a bus ticket."

Transgender Community Hardest Hit by Homelessness

A significantly higher proportion of transgender people reported homelessness in the past year and are at increased risk in 2020.

A., a 22-year-old transgender male whose father kicked him out at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, lived in the woods of Long Island, then later camped in a friend's backyard until being diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Newsday report. Eventually, he was allowed to return home, only to be misgendered by his own family.

The data was collected before the coronavirus pandemic— which is why lead author Bianca D.M. Wilson says figures could even be higher: "The multi-tiered economic and health effects of COVID-19 will likely make [homelessness] worse for LGBT people and could increase their vulnerability to the virus."

Dr. Maurice Gattis, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work, is part of a team awarded a national grant to fund research into LGBTQ homelessness. Dr. Gattis says causes include, "aging out of foster care, having a job that does not pay wages that are in line with housing costs, being kicked out due to family disapproval of sexual orientation or gender identity, accumulation of troubles, medical emergencies, systemic racism. Some providers won't use preferred names or allow youth to use facilities that are in line with their gender identity."

Barnhart believes homeless people are dying, uncounted. "We've had two adult homeless people die right here on the sidewalk. My staff was standing right outside of the building, and [a man] was pan-handling and he just fell down dead."

In other cases, they are pariahs within our community. "My gay dentist said to me, 'I know most of those kids out on the pier are homeless, but they're wearing such fancy sneakers,' and I said, 'Yeah, they got them from my donations table.' There's a misconception about what homelessness looks like," suggests Barnhart. "Homelessness doesn't look like anything in particular. The generations of our community don't interact. There's a gap between the youth and the adults and elders who are also disconnected. The generations could benefit from interacting more."

Barnhart, who previously worked at emergency shelter Sylvia's Place and with ACT UP, says BIPOC trans and queer sex workers are particularly disadvantaged.

"A lot of the shelters have curfews. The folks who are more likely to fall through the cracks of services tend to be the African American transgender community. I had three clients — trans women — who were arrested for using the women's bathrooms at Port Authority, so we organized a rally."

Making Changes in Motor City

Detroit's Ruth Ellis Center is particularly aware of the needs of trans and gender non-conforming young people experiencing homelessness or other barriers to care. Mark Erwin-McCormick, Director of Development and Advancement, says the Ruth Ellis Health & Wellness Center, a core program of Ruth Ellis Center, provides gender-affirming primary and behavioral health care, including hormones, and HIV care—as well as a Drop-In Center, and Kofi House, designed to cater to lesbian and queer identified young women.

Around 600 LGBTQ youths receive services and "no longer have to be misgendered or made fun of or discriminated against in a crowded waiting room. I've never seen young people more excited to go to the doctor quite honestly because they could finally take complete control over their own health for the first time in some cases," says Erwin-McCormick.

But the Ruth Ellis Center may be the exception to the rule. In July, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a regulation permitting service providers to ignore the Supreme Court's ruling, which stated that it is impossible to discriminate based on gender identity without discriminating on the basis of sex.

"The new rule allows shelter providers that lawfully operate as single-sex or sex-segregated facilities to voluntarily establish a policy that will govern admissions determinations for situations when an individual's gender identity does not match their biological sex," HUD announced.

"The inept drafting of this rule would be laughable if it didn't have so much potential to cause harm," says Meghan Maury, Policy Director, National LGBTQ Task Force. "Nearly a third of transgender and nonbinary people have experienced homelessness in their lifetime; for transgender and nonbinary people who are living with HIV and transgender and nonbinary people of color, the rates are nearly twice as high. The proposed rule ... will undoubtedly empower some shelters to refuse access to more transgender and nonbinary people."

A New Generation Faces Age-Old Challenges

(Source: Getty Images)

Erwin-McCormick reveals that while family rejection is the number one cited reason for youth homelessness, entire families can be homeless, and bigotry at adult shelters can push youths placed in their care onto the streets.

While the LGBTQ community fought for and won many equal rights, many LGBTQ young people, especially LGBTQ youth of color have been further marginalized by that progress.

"When talking to young people, a lot of their expectations after [marriage equality] was that they would be more widely and openly accepted in their homes. Because they were seeing it on the news and social media, it seemed as though we were making significant progress," says Erwin-McCormick.

But many sectors of society still struggled with acceptance. In one instance, Erwin-McCormick says a box of anti-LGBTQ religious propaganda disguised as comic books was dropped off at the Center advising young readers that if they identified as LGBTQ they would contract AIDS.

And then there is racial discrimination, even within the LGBTQ community.

"The majority of the young people who we work with identify as black, and historically, their voices have been left out or forgotten altogether," says Erwin-McCormick. "They have never been included in much of the progress that the LGBTQ community has made nationwide. If you asked them how the progress has impacted their lives, they would say not at all."

Gentrification is a problem. Detroit is divided socioeconomically by 8 Mile Road, which is a physical, cultural, and economic dividing line between the wealthier, whiter suburbs and the poorer, mostly Black urban areas.

"There is an LGBTQ community center about four miles away that does great work, but it's on the other side of 8 Mile," says Erwin-McCormick. "Many young people have stated their experiences are very different from the experiences of [white] LGBTQ youth in suburbia. Having safe spaces for LGBTQ youth of color, specifically, is extraordinarily important."

Count the LGBTQ Homeless, Queer the Census

Travis Crown
Travis Crown  

It is not known exactly how many homeless LGBTQ youths exist nationwide, but Maury says the Census Bureau counted half a million homeless people in 2010. In 2020 Maury expected that count to be much higher — until the coronavirus pandemic prevented person-to-person community outreach in the streets, food pantries and shelters.

Maury is part of Queer the Census, which advocates for an accurate count because funding for homeless services — education, emergency shelters, housing programs, clinics — is determined using Census data. "So, if you have the count wrong, you're not getting the funding to the places where people need it most," says Maury, who experienced homelessness as a youth.

"We can't meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness if they don't get counted," says Maury, whose 2018 report on LGBTQ poverty noted, "America's first adults-only LGBTQ emergency shelter only opened in June 2015 in San Francisco, despite the intense need for LGBTQ-specific shelters. HUD should prioritize funding for LGBTQ shelters, housing units, and services."

Finding homeless youths to count during a pandemic when the states have a patchwork of responses to COVID-19 is almost impossible. The homeless population has dispersed in response to the virus.

In line with CDC recommendations, California Governor Gavin Newsom's Project Roomkey urged hotel owners and local governments to house 15,000 of the state's homeless during the pandemic because shelters' dorm-like proximity posed risks of infection. Project Homekey was the next phase in the state's response to COVID-19.

"We can't depend on drop-in centers," says Crown. "Because if the drop-in center is closed, people can't come inside anymore, they can only get food and minimum hygiene products. If you're not already housed or enrolled or in a shelter or a living program, everything is put on pause." While case managers are currently working from home, searching for youth housing and submitting paperwork, "landlords are not enrolling new clients into their apartments because everything is shut down because of COVID-19. More housing is needed, that's the biggest thing," says Crown.

Erwin-McCormick agrees. "We need to get a roof and a sense of permanency for that young person, and then the support services can be applied. If you don't have a roof over your head, it makes it really hard to work towards those other goals."

"I think more shelters and affordable housing will be created, but it likely won't be enough and there is still no agreed-upon definition of affordable housing," says Dr. Gattis. "At the same time, public housing is currently being demolished in cities across America without being replaced, which decreases the affordable housing stock."

While economic injustice seems to plague America more now than ever, some of the LGBTQ elite have stepped up.

"Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Lily Tomlin, and Billy Porter have been to the Ruth Ellis Center, spent time with young people there, and will often talk about the Center publicly as a special model serving the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness," says Erwin-McCormick.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the current public health crisis, there is reason to hope.

"There are a lot of people working really hard to make sure that everyone does have a place to go right now, and I would love to see some of that hang on after coronavirus is over," says Maury. "If we're able to find a place for everyone in a pandemic, why can't we do it every day?"

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.