The end of the two-year legislative session is coming up and if the past predicted the future, we would not see anything interesting come out of the legislature until the last minute of the last day of the session (July 31).
But in an interesting and welcome move, the fiscal year 2013 budget just signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick contained a measure that authorizes the creation of a state commission on unaccompanied homeless youth. (Unaccompanied homeless youth are those living on the streets without a parent or guardian. In other words, those who’ve likely been kicked out of their homes or have run away to escape abuse.)
The commission will be charged with making recommendations to state agencies, policymakers and elected officials about how to make things better for these young people. MassEquality, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth and the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition will each get a seat on the commission. This seems odd until you think about the fact that an overwhelming percentage of these kids are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
Last September, the American Journal of Public Health published a study by researchers from Children’s Hospital who found that 25 percent of lesbian and gay youth and 15 percent of bisexual youth in the Commonwealth were homeless.
Let me state that for you again: 25 percent of lesbian and gay and 15 percent of bisexual young people in this state are estimated to be homeless. Just about three percent of heterosexual youth are homeless. The data for these estimates came from a biennial survey of Massachusetts high school students called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that is funded by the US Centers for Disease Control. The survey does not ask students if they are transgender, which is why there are no statistics on them. I would expect that they would be much worse than the 25 percent rate of homelessness for lesbian and gay youth.
That Massachusetts, of all places, can be an unsafe, unwelcoming place for LGBT youth is a head-scratching mystery. It’s also an outrage.
But if we want solutions to this problem, one of the first places we should look is Youth on Fire, a program of the AIDS Action Committee that serves street-involved youth up to age 24. Youth on Fire is not a shelter, but it provides a safe haven during the day for kids who are on the streets 24/7. They can get a shower, a hot meal, do their laundry, play pool, watch television, see a doctor, talk with a counselor or veg out on the couch with headphones on and not talk to anyone.
About 30 percent of the kids who go to Youth on Fire are LGBT. Youth on Fire has gone out of its way to meet their needs by hiring LGBT staff and creating programming for them, including providing healthcare that meets the unique needs of LGBT youth. They do this because the need is significant.
Consider the following information, which comes from Mandy Lussier, the Safe Spaces Coordinator at Youth on Fire, in testimony she delivered last month to the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission:
“The issue of queer youth homelessness is part of the bigger issue of general youth homelessness; many of the challenges that queer homeless youth face are the same issues that straight homeless youth face. The difference is that a number of the issues and challenges are magnified by sexual orientation and gender identity. I could talk for days about the myriad of issues that queer youth face – from survival sex work to substance use to mental health to violence to employment to discrimination. But the issue I would like to focus on today is the lack of safe and appropriate shelter for homeless queer youth.
“At Youth on Fire, we constantly struggle to find safe shelter for our members and especially for those who identify as GLBTQ. Many have had to flee their home or have been kicked out of their home due to physical, emotional, sexual, or mental abuse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, they then find themselves in shelters where they face the same abuse from their homeless peers and at times from staff themselves. Many times, our members will tell us that being on the street is safer for queer kids than being in a shelter – that staying outside, often alone and with no guarantee of food or any shelter, is the least dangerous place for a queer kid to be.”
At the absolute minimum, this state needs safe shelter space for queer youth. It’s a band-aid solution. We need to end the problem of homelessness overall, not just for queer youth but for everyone.
In the meantime, these kids need a safe place to stay at night.