Michigan Agencies Tapped For Experience With LGBT Homelessness
Three Year National Study To Be Guided By REC And Ozone House Directors
By AJ Trager
Originally printed 7/17/2014 (Issue 2229 - Between The Lines News)
Two seasoned community organizers who work with LGBT youth in Michigan have been tapped for a groundbreaking national project. For the next three years, LGBT youth advocates -- Ozone House Executive Director Katie Doyle and Ruth Ellis Center Executive Director Jerry Peterson -- will come together in collaboration with other LBGT advocates from around the nation to form a federally funded research group entitled 3/40 Blueprint to Reduce LGBTQ Youth Homelessness, aka Technical Expert Group (TEG).
A $900,000 grant was recently awarded from The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, Family and Youth Services Bureau. It is aimed at addressing homelessness in the LGBT or questioning youth population to determine the best services and programs needed to meet LGBT standards among the homeless in shelters around the nation.
This one-time grant enables researchers at the University of Chicago Center for the Study of Social Policy and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation a way to work together. Meetings have already begun, says Peterson, and the group is working on providing an outline for the nation that will provide more LGBT knowledge when deciding programming.
"The project officers will be gathering input from LGBT youth and from providers about the relevance and effectiveness of the interventions that the project proposes. The proof will definitely be in the lived experiences of the youth who stand to benefit from this project," Doyle said. "We will primarily focus on measuring gains in the areas of safety, health and productivity."
The first year of the collaboration will focus on research and evidence. Peterson says they will determine what is the most useful and create a national youth focus group where the staff, serving the general youth homeless population, will discuss training, issues and policies that can help the LGBT homeless youth community.
So far, investigators for the TEG group are completing a comprehensive review of published literature and unpublished information on LGBT homeless youth. According to Doyle, the next step will be to meet directly with LGBT youth in Transitional Living Programs across the country in rural, urban and suburban settings to collect their insights.
The second year will focus on building a framework, policies, programs and assessments based on the information collected from the first year. The final year will disseminate everything planned on the national level, including the creation of websites as well as educating trainers, consulting with shelters and providing the assessments for each shelter to gauge competency.
"I have contacted TEG members several times already for resources about challenging issues. In addition, one of the most valuable aspects of this particular network is the voices of youth in the TEG. It is not only very powerful to learn from the youth members, but it is amazing to be able to share with youth in Ypsilanti that there are youth in California or Minnesota who are having very similar experiences. Sharing those voices lifts some of the stigma and isolation that many homeless LGBTQ youth experience," Doyle stressed.
Ozone House is an organization that responds to crises 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Doyle says she finds the Ozone House crew caught in a cycle of managing one crisis to the next, and they're very grateful for the TEG project. It will allow them to focus on the needs of LGBT youth in transitional living programs.
Michigan Experience Tapped
Statistics say that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, but Peterson believes that number to be far greater. He came to the Ruth Ellis Center from California a year ago; out west, he spent four and a half years with a six agency collaborative working with family acceptance and the familial rejection of LBGT youth.
As the only mission specific center in the Midwest focusing on the needs of LGBT homeless youth since 1999, REC provides the knowledge and expertise for the technical 3/40 Blueprint Technical Committee. According to Peterson, REC gives a voice to the intersectionality of the LGBT youth of color experience in impoverished urban environments.
"I never tire of the full range of identities and the opportunity to provide a place where people can be fully themselves and to not have to define what that is. They are who they are, and what they are, and it is the most amazing thing in my whole life to provide that space," Peterson said.
Michigan currently has no housing or work protection for LGBT youth or the LGBT community at large. Peterson hopes that what comes out of the committee will set the building blocks to help fix this discrimination, as well as provide for better services in the future.
"If we are putting together a comprehensive framework for how shelters can serve LGBT youth (as a component of also serving the total homeless youth population), these things are going to surface more in urban areas, but they are going on in both rural and urban areas," Peterson said. "Young people are engaging in transactional sex to survive; it's going on routinely. It's those kinds of issues and how to talk about them, how to address them, how to even acknowledge them: issues around harm reduction and how to deal with the trauma that's involved in those life experiences. Those are capacities, that if homeless shelters are really going to effectively provide safe and affirming environments for our young people, they gotta know and understand that."
Katie Doyle has been with Ozone House since 2000 and assumed the role of executive director in 2007. The agency is dedicated to helping young people lead safe, healthy and productive lives through intensive intervention and prevention services and has been supporting LGBT youth since the 1970s.
"When they arrive at Ozone House, many youth have only ever heard - and repeated - negative commentary about LGBT youth. It is absolutely essential that we challenge and correct inappropriate or hostile language or behavior and build everyone's repertoire of safe and affirming behaviors," Doyle said.
According to Peterson, statistics will show a close 50/50 split between parental rejection and kids that run from the home as the reason why LGBT youth become homeless. He says most of the youth that come to REC would not identify as homeless even though they fit the Federal government's definition, which includes couch surfing and unstable housing, because they understand that anything short of permanent supportive housing is essentially considered homelessness. However, there is stigma related to homelessness and why one is rejected by their family.
"Fear for their safety or shame drives some youth from their homes, and just one night on the streets puts youth in grave danger and limits their choices drastically so that they are much more likely to fall into long-term homelessness. In other circumstances, youth find safety and acceptance from others outside of their home/neighborhoods and leave their home to join up with a new chosen family," Doyle says.
Peterson says REC is thinking about changing how they frame the services that they offer and what their goals are, because there are some young people who do not want to be identified as homeless even though they are.
REC has rules about safety and makes trust a big issue. These kids have had their trust broken with adults over and over again in their lives, and according to Peterson, REC provides a good entry-level framework to work with. They don't search the youth's property, nor does the center require entries to claim pronouns. It's a harm reduction model that honors privacy and autonomy.
"The model basically says we're going to take you as you are where you are, there is no judgment. Rules here are basically about safety, and if you violate them, you cannot be in the space. Otherwise, whoever, whatever, you're welcome. You don't have to tell us that you identify in any particular way initially. After the third or fourth time the youth come back, we ask more demographic information to build rapport and build a relationship. To rebuild the trust that has been broken."
Current Treatment Gap
However, not every center has programs and training in place to accurately aid LGBT homeless youth. The TEG group will work hard at minimizing that treatment gap.
These are the types of strategies that the REC and Ozone House can bring to the committee because not every homeless center conducts safety and acceptance in the same way. These are the kinds of barriers, Peterson says, that need to be removed from other shelters, which he believes will be a challenge. Many of them are faith based or have a set of rules that are fixed and fast about gender and how that is housed and addressed, usually pertaining only to gender binary. Harm reduction and quick acceptance strategies are not present in other shelters where Peterson believes they should be. This extends to sex work, where many shelters will not provide a bed for LGBT youth unless they stop participating in transactional sex.
In hetero-normative communities, says Doyle, adolescence and sexual development is well documented and communicated, from first dates and first kisses to sexual health and marriage. These are all communicated rites of passage. Youth who identify as LGB don't hear many messages about their social and sexual development and therefore don't see a clear path through adolescence. The trans community has even less representation. Many of the messages that get thrown around are often negative, shaming messages about their identity.
"Indeed, LGBT identities are often highly sexualized as a result of ignorance or worse," Doyle says. "As if adolescence weren't confusing enough! Layer homelessness, with its attendant lack of basic resources like a safe place to crash, food, hygiene products, transportation or social networks, and sex work very often looks like a good choice to survive in this pressure-cooker environment."
National Perspective Needed
The 3/40 Blueprint Committee will gather information from around the country. With the help of the University of Chicago researchers, the team will look nationally instead of just locally, for ways to improve the shelter system. For the most part, the current system is incompetent in addressing the needs of LGBT youth, says Peterson.
"You can always do more together than you can do alone," Peterson says. "I am a huge collaborator because there are folks who know all kinds of things that I don't know and never will, and they have personal experience and perspectives. Youth are so unique. You scatter glitter on a page and every piece of glitter is a unique identity of a person. Particularly representing such a diverse group of young people, that building a national network, sharing national knowledge and really taking a look at what's out there is paramount."
Peterson doesn't believe this project would have even been feasible two years ago, where he felt the effort--though desirable--would have been impossible. He believes that, in the past two years, there has finally been enough viable research strictly related to the LGBT youth population experiencing homelessness.
"Even the way we scan through Internet searches is changing. This effort is going to have a far-reaching impact," Peterson says. "As more and more private foundations are seeing the issue and communities are being introduced to LGBT youth homeless demographics, we will see more people paying attention to these issues."
Many kids begin to self identify their sexuality, gender and gender expression around the age of 12 or puberty. Peterson believes that there needs to be a heavy focus on family preservation as well as creating safe spaces for runaway youth.
"In general, the LGBT organizations tend to demonize families who reject their kids," Peterson says, "as well as homeless shelters from around the country who are not putting efforts into family preservation. We have to figure out how to have families stay together and move through this process [of acceptance/coming out]. And that is going to be one of the most critical ways to reduce LGBT homelessness."
"We have a long way to go. A long way to go," Peterson says, "Policies and procedures don't change hearts and habits. They don't."
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