LGBT youth homelessness is an extraordinary problem, and advocates trying to treat the symptoms are saying that LGBT rights organizations and allies are not doing enough to address it. At a panel discussion in New York City last night entitled “Sleeping in the Streets or Walking Down the Aisle? Prioritizing LGBT Youth in Our Struggle for Equality,” panelists discussed the scourge of homelessness and how little attention it’s getting:
CARL SICILIANO (Ali Forney Center): I am proud to be part of the gay rights movement. I’m not proud of what we’ve done for our young people. We can do better. … We have to acknowledge we are in an adult-centric movement.
LEW FIDLER (New York City Councilmember): A responsible adult doesn’t leave a child sleeping on a subway grate at night.
KAI WRIGHT (Journalist): The problem is a handful of people in the queer movement who try to build a more positive space are small, underfunded, and not supported.
TOBIAS WOLFF (University of Pennsylvania Law Professor): [Unlike passing marriage equality or repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell,] this is an ongoing issue we’re going to have to continue engaging with.
It is estimated that 20-40 percent of all homeless youth are LGBT even though only 5-10 percent of youth are LGBT. This disproportionately high number is very much due to family conflict and abuse that leaves the youth feeling unsafe or unwelcome in their homes. There is also systemic discrimination and oversight in child welfare systems and homelessness programs. Unsurprisingly, the compounded discrimination leads to severe physical and mental health disparities for these youth.
Currently, there is very little support to address LGBT youth homelessness. New York City’s Ali Forney Center offers 57 beds, but its executive director, Carl Siciliano, is fighting desperately to keep Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) from cutting its funding in the state budget. Shelters in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Detroit offer an additional 10-20 beds each. At best, there are 200 beds available each night nationwide for the hundreds of thousands of LGBT homeless youth, who often find other shelters to be unsafe because of bullying and harassment from other residents.
In 2009, a Pew poll showed that more Americans perceive the LGBT community to be discriminated against than any other group. The progress of issues like marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections may help reverse this trend (thanks to millions of dollars channeled into advocacy campaigns) and minimize the impact of stigma, but in the mean time, LGBT homeless youth continue to struggle to find the support they need to survive.