Raising awareness helps reduce the number of homeless LGBT youth

Story and photo by RACHEL JACKSON

Awareness is the first step toward acceptance.

One of the most important ways to help homeless youth of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is through awareness and this is one of the top priorities among LGBT centers in Salt Lake City.

The Utah Pride Center has a youth activities program called TINT (Tolerant Intelligent Network of Teens), which is a vital part of the center. It provides a safe haven for youth ages 14 to 20 — regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

The TINT center

The TINT center is part of the Utah Pride Center and is located in the Marmalade district of downtown Salt Lake City.

“We see a high level of family rejection at TINT, if they were accepted it wouldn’t be such a big issue,” said Danielle Watters, director of community support and wellness services at the Utah Pride Center.

Youth can stop in to chat with the volunteers or fellow young people during the designated drop-in times. The open times are typically from 2 to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturdays.

The TINT program stresses that it is not just a gay group for youth — the main goal is to give kids a safe place to hang out.

Along with a pool table, a library and video games, TINT offers support groups for youth who are in need of someone who will just listen.

“A physical place where youth can feel safe is really important,” Watters said. “It can be scary for them [to be homeless]. They need a place where they can access basic needs.”

Jaaycob Okumura sought help two years ago from TINT when he was coming out as gay.

“The TINT [center] has helped me by giving me a safe space to grow and learn who I am,” Okumura said in an email. He is now the coordinator for the Queer and Straight Alliance at the Utah Pride Center.

Watters said a young member of the LGBT community can become homeless in several different ways. Family rejection is the most prevalent type; the next most common form is when LGBT students move here for various reasons and have nowhere else to turn after their funds fall short.

Social acceptance also plays a big role in homelessness. Watters said some youth are fired from their jobs because they are LGBT. Then they have trouble getting a new one.

The TINT center also has a program that allows homeless or non-homeless youth to always have a place to eat. According to its website, the center’s motto is, “If the TINT is open, soup’s on!”

Soup isn’t the only thing the TINT center dishes up. The program serves an educational meeting every Saturday to educate LGBT youth on HIV.

The program is called Rise! and its goal is to end HIV in the community. It has a commitment to inspire queer youth to make a change, with the idea in mind that HIV impacts everyone. According to the Rise! website, it takes an effort from all to make the ending of HIV a reality.

It takes a “responsibility of educated community members,” said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah. “That’s how we build a better community.”

Equality Utah continues to work on implementing laws and informing Utahns in order to reach a point where LGBT members are recognized as a part of the community.

“It’s a top priority to gain visibility and awareness,” Balken said. Equality Utah strives for change and bringing to light the problem of having unequal policy.

Equality Utah has a petition on its website that people can sign. The petition will abolish the law that protects employers from firing a person for being LGBT or being uncomfortable with an employee’s sexual orientation.

According to the Equality Utah website, the No. 1 issue for the LGBT community is “securing measures that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in employment, housing, public accommodation, education and extension of credit.”

Equality Utah and the Pride Center are both striving for LGBT equal rights and fair treatment for all people.

Another non-discriminative resource for youth is the Homeless Youth Resource Center in Salt Lake City. It is run by the Volunteers of America organization. The center, located at 655 S. State St., also has a drop-in time when youth can stop in for basic needs such as showering and doing laundry.

Last year, 1,047 youth were helped through the programs offered there. The programs include street outreach, drop-in center and a transition home.

Through all of these different resources, youth have a chance to feel safe, know they are not alone and talk to someone who has experience.

“Though I have never been a homeless youth, [TINT] has still been a safe haven for me whenever I have needed it,” Okumura said in an email. “[And it] has given me the opportunity to learn life skills.”