LGBT youth become homeless for many reasons

A look into the back room of the Volunteers of America homeless youth shelter in downtown Salt Lake City shows shelves of food, clothes and other items donated by people.

Story and photo by AINSLEY YOUNG

Take a tour of the Volunteers of America resource center.

In 2009, the Road Home, a homeless shelter based in Salt Lake City, helped more than 4,456 individuals.

Statewide, 42 to 44 percent of the homeless population self-identify as LGBTQ+. This number of  individuals is disproportionate compared to the overall population. About 6 percent of every population self-identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transdender, questioning or another identity within this community. When most people think of homeless LGBTQ+, they usually get the scenario of a young person coming out to their families and then getting thrown out and are forced to live on the streets.

However, Brandie Balken, the director of Equality Utah in Salt Lake City, said that is not usually the case.

“When you think about the paradigm of… [coming] out to your parents and [getting kicked out] of the house, that’s the most extreme situation — not to say that it doesn’t happen — but that’s not the most common situation. Parents will frequently do things like ‘you can’t see these friends, you can’t dress this way, you can’t say those things’ or [they will] say things that are demeaning to folks who happen to be LGBT, and if that’s your own identity as a 13-, 14- or 15-year old, it’s unbearable,” she said.

Individual identities are so fragile at those ages, and there’s so much going on in the lives of youth. To not be supported by family, their most intimate support structure, makes the situation become unbearable. As a result, many people choose to leave home altogether, Balken said.

“They feel like it’s safer and they have a greater chance to explore their opportunities that way…,” she said.

These individuals will frequently stay with their friends, doing what is known as “couch hopping,” or sleeping on couches and air mattresses because they can’t afford a bed. Eventually, they find themselves with no other place to go but the streets, Balken said. Many of these young people haven’t even come out yet, but they feel that the unsupportive environment is not something they can live with, so they leave.

Balken said part of the contribution to the LGBTQ+ homelessness comes from a part in the adoption system that doesn’t allow any committed, long-term couples who are unmarried to adopt. This knocks out those couples as potential parents to children in need of foster care or adoption.

“We know that some of our young people are not with their birth parents or not in a stable home because of their orientation or because they don’t feel supported in their lives by their parents and we have a system that doesn’t allow youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender to be adopted into a family that could model for them what it is to be an adult and be that person,” she said.

Intrigued with the process of becoming homeless, Natalie Avery created a documentary called “Outside,” which follows the lives of homeless LGBTQ+ individuals. This documentary followed four individuals for five years and was released in May 2012. Avery was a graduate student in film at the University of Utah when she began the project.

“I was in my last year of graduate school and I learned about the issue of couch surfing.… I had never heard of it and I heard that the LGBT population was significantly higher than just the average and that when people were talking about homeless youth, at that time, they were talking about children of families, not invisible youth,” Avery said.

Avery was inspired to take a deeper look into the issue of homelessness and highlight the lives of these individuals, the problems they face and how they handled them. Avery said she was surprised at how fast the fall could be from having a home to getting involved in drugs, finding a safe place to sleep or keeping warm in the winter, some of the many issues they were met with on the street.

“There is this remarkable group of people out there trying to help [these youth] in different ways, particularly the Homeless Youth Resource Center which still exists and is getting stronger and doing a lot for LGBT homeless youth. I was really impressed with the level of service they were getting,” she said.

Many youths take refuge in shelters like the Homeless Youth Resource Center, run by Volunteers of America Utah, located in downtown Salt Lake City. The shelter runs during business hours and offers refuge, hot meals cooked by volunteers, a donated clothing box and group activities to teach life skills and also bring the individuals together.

From July 2011 to July 2012, the shelter served 1,264 homeless youth, and around 30 percent of those individuals self-identified as LGBTQ+.

“Our hope is to meet the needs of youth and help keep them off the street,” said Zach Bale, vice president of external relations at the VOA in Salt Lake.

The drop-in shelter bases its different services on the intake of individuals, mostly aged 15 to 22 years, and what their needs are, Bale said. The center allows youths to come in and get what they need, including showers and laundry, with computers just recently added to provide individuals with aid in job searching. Youth can select everyday clothing from the donations closet at the front of the shelter. A special closet in the back contains clothes suitable for job interviews.

In addition to providing individuals with food, clothes and daytime shelter, a therapist at the shelter is available to work with youths each day to give them guidance and direction on personal matters in their lives. Tanya Ray is a certified counselor who completed a class at the Utah Pride Center where she learned how to be inclusive and friendly toward members of the LGBTQ+ community.

While many may have the classic scenario of getting kicked out of the house after coming out to parents, many members of the LGBTQ+ community feel that leaving home is their best option as far as making their way in the world.