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More than shelter

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 10, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

Young LGBTQ people face homelessness in disproportionate numbers due to discrimination, and the challenges are only compounded for those who have to deal with racism and ableism as well. Proper housing where a young LGBTQ person can be their full self without judgement can be the difference between surviving and thriving. That’s why several DC nonprofits aim to provide housing help that goes beyond simply providing shelter.

Last year, Brant Miller reported for GGWash that, “the District’s 2017 Homeless Youth Census found 31% of young people experiencing homelessness self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or queer/questioning, and 6% self-identified as transgender. This aligns with national statistics that estimate about 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, though they only account for about 7% of the general population.”

DC organizations like Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL), The Wanda Alston Foundation, and Casa Ruby are creating affirming housing for LGBTQ young people experiencing homelessness. They provide services like personalized medical and mental health care, job placement, life skills training, and most importantly: A place where they can safely be their most authentic selves.

Housing that helps young people feel affirmed

Jorge Membreño, Director of Youth Housing for SMYAL, explained affirming spaces as places that “embrace who someone is,” whether through clothing practices, bathroom policies, or housing. With funding from the DC Department of Human Services, SMYAL is opening its second youth house in DC this year and expanding the number of beds from 12 to 26. The house has private rooms, kitchens, and counseling all in the same building.

It was important for Membreño to make the house into a place where trans and gender-variant youth could feel like the best version of themselves and also receive the help they need. SMYAL provides case management, skills development, social support, and other services to support self-sufficiency. The support extends until the person is independent, even after they are no longer a resident.

Executive Director of the Wanda Alston Foundation June Crenshaw emphasized the need for a supportive community for young LGBTQ people, particularly people of color. “A lot more youth are experiencing trauma as a result of racism, sexism, poverty, or coming out,” Crenshaw said. “Trauma manifests itself as substance overuse, behavioral or mental health challenges, and physical challenges.”

At the Wanda Alston House, 10 people ages 16-24 can recieve three meals a day, clinical supervision, assistance with finding and keeping a job, and general case management. When a young person enters the program, case workers immediately work to stabilize the situation by finding them safe and supportive housing, rapid re-housing, or a group home with roommates.

At Casa Ruby, youth can find three different kinds of safe shelter options: a 24/7 shelter, a short term living program for three to six months, and a transitional living program that guarantees housing for 18 months. Casa Ruby also provides services for Spanish-speaking LGBTQ youth.

Young trans and queer people are more at risk

LGBTQ kids face discrimination at school, in the workplace, and on the street, especially people of color and those with disabilities. A young person may find themselves without a place to live if their home becomes unsafe because of discrimination. Some kids get kicked out because of their sexual orientation and/or gender presentation, making it difficult to go to school or hold down a job.

Family abandonment leads to a heightened risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline, according to The Center for American Progress. The CAP study found that, “Gay, transgender, and gender nonconforming youth are significantly over-represented in the juvenile justice system—approximately 300,000 gay and transgender youth are arrested and/or detained each year, of which more than 60 percent are black or Latino.”

Finding alternative housing isn’t easy either. The National Coalition for the Homelessfinds that, “youth are also disproportionately likely to become or remain homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing – widespread discrimination in federally funded institutions frequently contributes to the growing rates of homelessness among LGBT youth.”

Shelters are already unsafe for trans and gender nonconforming people, and things may get even worse. In May, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a rule which would allow shelter providers to determine where to place a person looking for a place to stay based on a variety of factors, including their religious beliefs, the individual’s sex as reflected on their official government document, or their gender identity. This would make it easier for a shelter provider to tell a trans person they cannot stay there because their gender identity doesn’t match what’s on their government ID.

All kids need a place to feel safe

The “safe space” debate continues to rage on college campuses, in schools, in hospitals, and online. For conservatives, safe spaces challenge American individualism and grit. They claim nothing is truly safe, so people just have to deal with it. Even within the left, the term denotes “coddling” or being “overprotective.”

The problem with safe spaces also lies within their contested nature. The term has become such a buzzword that it has become watered down and divorced from its original context and intent. Sometimes “safe spaces” will be openly advertised by a sticker, but inside, marginalized people (especially trans and gender-expansive people of color) all too often find the same discriminatory mechanisms at work.

Genuinely safe (or at least safer) spaces are vital for people who have to deal with systemic rejection, degredation, and violence simply because of who they are. They need a respite so they can focus on more than survival. Young people especially need to be around others who accept them for who they are, and help them feel valued and loved.

Crenshaw, herself a queer non-binary person of color, has hope in the power of youth to uplift each other: “There is a great importance to having spaces that accept [people] as they’re currently standing. There’s also a need for youth to see others like them—the collective power of being around like minded individuals.”

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