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Representatives of both local and national D.C.-based nonprofit groups shared their experiences of working with homeless LGBT youth Thursday night, May 31, at the ”LGBT Youth Homelessness Town Hall,” an event sponsored by Capital Pride and The DC Center, the city’s LGBT community center.
Panelists – who strongly encouraged attendees to consider foster parenting or mentoring at-risk youth – pointed out that the Wanda Alston House, run by Transgender Health Empowerment, is the only LGBT-specific youth shelter in the city, with room for just eight residents.
Brian Watson, director of programs at Transgender Health Empowerment, said one of the reasons why there are so few resources is invisibility in that many homeless LGBT youths are not actually living on the street.
”Our kids are smart,” Watson told the audience of about 50 people. ”We know how to get around. We know how to use what we have to get what we want. We know how to survive, and our kids know how to survive.”
Watson said LGBT youth might hang out around bars, for example, in hopes of meeting a patron to go home with, or meet people online by using libraries’ public computers.
”They use resources so that they don’t have to sleep outside, [or] they stay with friends,” he said. ”Because people don’t necessarily see the need, there’s not an issue of homelessness in the community. But trust and believe, there are probably hundreds of youths out there that are not stably housed.”
Many of the panelists, speaking in the Phillips Classroom of the Hotel Palomar a few blocks from Dupont Circle, mentioned that the D.C. metropolitan area has a large number of LGBT youth who are African-American. Youth advocate Amena Johnson, a member of the Prince George’s County Youth Equality Project, a task force dedicated to ensuring the safety and well-being of LGBT youth, said homeless young people are usually dealing with multiple issues, such as bullying at home and school, as well as race and class issues.
Tre’Ona Kelty, of the organization Beautiful U Yes U, said many of the LGBT kids she sees come from Pentecostal or Baptist homes where they may be ”beat up” or ”browbeaten” by religious leaders, family or other adults in positions of authority. The remedy, she said, is educating the adults who deal with these youth. That education could be as rudimentary as pointing out that one can’t ”catch” homosexuality.
Leandra Gilliam, of D.C.’s Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), stressed the vulnerability of these youths, saying, ”Young people use a lot of mechanisms where they’re ‘rolling stones,’ and wherever they can lay their head, wherever they feel they can make a connection, even if it’s not a positive connection, it’s something.”
Throughout the meeting, moderated by Metro Weekly co-publisher and editorial director Sean Bugg, the panelists, joined by David Mariner, director of The DC Center, asked attendees to sign a petition calling on District government to create 20 safe beds for LGBT teens. While some shelters may claim to be LGBT-friendly, Watson said he’s gotten reports from Wanda Alston House residents contradicting those claims. Youths have told Watson of shelters being unwelcoming to LGBT youth or otherwise dangerous. Because of that, Watson emphasized, is that space for LGBT youth is at a premium.
Jeff Krehely, the vice president of LGBT research and communications at the Center for American Progress, said while other cities are experiencing an increase in homeless LGBT youth, need outweighs available resources.
”I think that’s why we need to make this more of a federal issue,” Krehely said. ”That’s where the money is really coming from, and I think everybody in this room knows that poor people, disadvantaged people aren’t a priority in this country. If you’re not in the middle class, and you’re not in the upper class, you’re not really on policymakers’ radar screens right now.”
Panelists – as well as two audience members from the Latin American Youth Center, which provides information on foster parenting and runs the Host Homes Program of temporary housing for youth – emphasized the temporary nature of foster parenting, that it doesn’t require a multi-year commitment.
”This problem is not going to be solved by one person,” said Watson. ”It’s going to have to be a community effort.”