Members of the D.C. Council are trying to expedite the passage of a bill that would reform services for LGBT homeless youth before the next Council session in an effort to address what advocates are saying is a growing problem.
Bill B19-1012, also known as the LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Act of 2012, is sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and has been co-sponsored by six other councilmembers since its introduction in October.
As introduced, the bill tasks the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) with working with the Office of GLBT Affairs to calculate the population of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ, recommend a certain number of beds to be set aside for that population, develop a budget to fund facilities or services accessed by homeless LGBTQ youth, promote policies aimed at preventing or reducing the rate of homelessness among that population, and ensure that the services provided are culturally competent.
Activists and advocates say the bill is a good step forward, but have concerns regarding a number of its provisions.
At a Nov. 19 hearing of the Council's Committee on Human Services, chaired by Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), several youth and LGBT advocates spoke in favor of the bill, but suggested it could be improved. All advocates, for example, urge an amended definition of what constitutes a ''homeless youth.'' Nearly all those testifying at the hearing recommended that the definition be expanded beyond an age limit of 18, to 24.
''We would argue that a young person at the age of 22 at a shelter is just as vulnerable as a 17-year-old,'' said Maggie Riden, executive director of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates.
Eddy Ameen, a member of the Youth Working Group at The DC Center, the city's LGBT community center, testified that some LGBT youth who have used the District's general adult shelters have complained of harassment, threats or physical violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. One such incident occurred at a D.C. shelter in February when a 24-year-old gay man reported to the Metropolitan Police Department that awoke in the middle of the night to find an acquaintance, whom he had known to carry a knife, threatening him and bragging to other residents that he would cut the youth's throat.
Ameen also testified that there are no emergency shelter beds dedicated to LGBT individuals, and that while some facilities adequately train staff to provide culturally competent care, many fall short. Those providing competent care are often at capacity, thereby forcing younger LGBT people to be referred to shelters where they may be subjected to emotional, verbal or physical abuse by fellow residents or staff.
Brian Watson, director of programs at Transgender Health Empowerment and a member of the ICH, echoed Ameen's testimony, saying that he and local transgender activist Earline Budd – in the course of providing sensitivity training – saw that many shelter employees held personal prejudices against LGBT people.
Watson pointed out that the District has only eight beds specifically set aside for LGBTQ youth. Those beds are at the Wanda Alston House, a project of Transgender Health Empowerment. The residence, Watson clarified, is not an emergency shelter, is often at capacity, and houses clients a maximum of 18 months.
Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), who also testified at the hearing, later told Metro Weekly that another concern with the bill is its method of tracking sexual orientation, which he worries may place youth at risk if that information is divulged. He also worries about who may by accountable for overseeing implementation; a lack of preventative services; and a need to expand the overall number of beds available, rather than setting aside existing beds. Representatives from the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) expressed similar concerns regarding the bill's provisions when they testified before the committee Nov. 19.
Overall, Barnett is optimistic about the bill, saying, ''I think it's a good bill, and it's addressing an important issue. But with some changes, it could be a much better bill.''
Meanwhile, The DC Center has collected hundreds of signatures on a petition it will submit to the Council calling for at least 20 additional beds to be set aside for LGBTQ youth, without limiting resources for other homeless residents.
Still in committee, the bill may be amended at a future mark-up session and voted upon by the Committee on Human Services before being sent to the full Council for a preliminary vote.