When he was 14 years old, Antonio came out to his mother and her boyfriend – a violent man who shot the family dog in the head in a fit of anger. The continuing tension surrounding his sexual orientation continued until he was 17, when he became homeless as a result of the conflict.
The Humbolt Park teen’s story isn’t unique – some 3,000 LGBT-identifying youth are homeless in Chicago, and they experience homelessness at more than twice the rate of their straight-identifying peers.
The most common reason for their homelessness is because of family rejection tied to their sexual orientation or gender identity, with 43% of homeless LGBT youth being forced out by their parents (followed by 32% who choose to leave because of physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home).
Parents Still Kick Teens Out of Home For Being LGBT
It’s hard for many Chicagoans to imagine that parents kick their gay teens out of the family home in this day and age. Yet, a survey of 138 agencies that provide services to LGBT homeless young people found that across the nation, 25% of LGBT teens are thrown out of their homes at some point after coming out to their parents. And while that may be less common in urban, gay-friendly cities like Chicago, we know that many of the 3,000 LGBT teens living in Chicago have come here from the less-progressive suburbs.
Jackie was a straight-A student at her upper-middle-class suburban private school. Active in sports and president of a number of clubs, she says her mother and financial services-industry father expected her to continue to excel in college. She says that at the start of college “my parents came with me to register for classes, and they sat down with my adviser and asked, ‘So, what’s the best way to get her into law school?'”
So she was surprised to suddenly lose their support when she called home at the end of her sophomore year to report progress on her triple major, along with the news that she was dating a girl.
Her mom responded “I don’t know what we could have done for God to have given us a fag as a child,” and hung up on her.
A few days later, Jackie’s debit card stopped working, and she got a call from her older brother who told her that their parents didn’t want to talk to her, didn’t want her to contact them anymore, weren’t allowing her back in their house, were shutting off all of her credit cards, were terminating her mobile phone contract, and wanted their car returned to a specific location before they called the police to report it stolen.
LGBT Identity Creates Additional Challenges For Homeless Youth
Research says that homeless LGBT youth like Jackie encounter the same challenges as their straight-identifying counterparts, though they also have issues unique to themselves.
· While 33% of straight-identifying homeless youth have attempted suicide, 57% of LGBT teens have.
· 41% of LGBT youth have reported engaging in “survival sex” – more than three times the rate of the homeless youth population as a whole.
· They are also three times more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped.
· They have twice the rate of early death than their straight counterparts
· They are 50% more likely to be robbed
· They are 50% more likely to be the victims of physical assault
· They also experience more frequent and more hostile encounters with police (who homeless youth in Chicago are required to report to before certain shelters will accept them).
The Story is Even Worse For Transgender Youth
A young Chicagoan named Isabel who was assigned male at birth and came out as gay to family members was accepted easily. Later, when she began identifying as female, she reports that her parents’ acceptance faded - and her father became abusive.
Transgender youth report an average period of 52 months of homelessness – more than two years longer than the time reported by non-LGBT youth. In part, this is because the vast majority of homeless youth get off the streets through the support of extended family and friends who provide food, hygiene items, clothing, and economic assistance, but – as Isabel’s case highlights - LGBT homeless youth have much less access to familial support who might provide such care.
Research is starting to identify homelessness-related issues for trans youth that are distinct from the LGBT homeless population at large, and early indications are that being trans compounds the challenges.
While only 7% of the national youth population identify as LGBT, 40% of homeless youth are LGBT-identifying. And within the trans subset of that population, research finds that one in five transgendered individuals will experience homelessness at some point in their lives).
In addition to all of the same support that the general homeless youth population and LGBT youth populations need, homeless trans youth also:
· Struggle to identify shelters and housing that will provide them with sleeping and shower facilities that match the gender they identify with
· Struggle to feel safe in dormitory-style shelters that provide sleeping facilities that don’t match their gender identity.
· Need legal support for transition-related issues like name/gender marker changes on legal documents and identification
· Have unique healthcare needs which aren’t as easily addressed as those for the general population – and which doctors themselves aren’t necessarily educated about.
A study found that one third of all transgender individuals who had seen a health care professional in the past year had been harassed or denied care. And while nearly 86% of surveyed primary care physicians said they were willing to provide routine care to transgender patients, only 69% said they felt capable of doing so.
What We Are Doing
At Care For Friends, we provide two avenues of support for LGBT youth. For those who are high school aged, we offer an after-school program that provides a place for students to gather, study, receive tutoring, prepare for college exams, prepare and eat a meal, and just be in community in a safe space.
We know that youth without a high school diploma or GED are 346% more likely to experience homelessness, and within weeks of launching the program, we learned of nearly 300 students who were walking distance of our building who would benefit from participating. Partnering with DePaul University, we have a goal of getting at least three of them enrolled in college next Fall.
For slightly older youth, we’ve also partnered with the Center On Halsted to pick up service for the young people who “age out” of their programs in their early 20s. At Care For Friends, we create a community that doesn’t just connect Chicago homeless with basic needs like food and hygiene, but also connection to life-improving resources like job training, housing, and better mental and physical health.
To support these initiatives, we will be hosting our annual “Sleepout For Homelessness” where we plan on having 200 individuals spend one night with us to fund a year’s worth of programming. Learn more about the event (and sign up as a sleeper, supporter, or volunteer) at www.CFFSleeps.com.