Sunday, October 19, 2014

Meeting the needs of LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness in Alberta



I was recently invited to give a keynote presentation at the Wood’s Homes 2nd provincial Youth Homelessness Symposium: “The Unspoken: Thoughts and Reality – LGBTQ2 Youth Homelessness” in Calgary, Alberta on October 15, 2014. Wood’s Homes is a mental health centre that offers 35+ programs and services in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
They recently celebrated 100 years of helping children, adolescents, and families.

When I arrived at my hotel, I quickly discovered that I was staying at the same hotel that I had stayed at the last time I was in Calgary, approximately 6 years ago, which was my first time presenting at a national conference on ending homelessness. During that time, I was presenting the findings of Master’s research and the discussion on LGBTQ2 youth homelessness was very different back then. There wasn’t much of a discussion. There were more comments than questions, comments such as, “These youth you speak of aren’t really homeless, they have a home, but they chose to leave. They could go back home.” Support service providers and shelters held the general belief that there were no LGBTQ2 youth accessing their services. I was also very different back then. It was my first time wearing a tie in public, which took a lot of courage on my part, because the tie symbolized so much more than just a tie. I was not my full authentic self, which is interesting, looking back now, as I often speak about how difficult it can be for young LGBTQ2 people who cannot bring their full/true selves to programs and how complicated it is to navigate systems and try to access support when you cannot even be yourself.

There is no doubt that the discussion regarding LGBTQ2 youth homelessness is quite different today. The Wood’s Homes Youth Homelessness symposium was well attended, with close to 100 people from youth services across the province of Alberta. The symposium was meant to share knowledge and expertise in addressing the multiple complex layers of youth homelessness. Wood’s Homes worked with a group of young people to create a short video that shared the perspectives of LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness in Alberta, an area that we have minimal knowledge about.


Dr. April Elliot, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, delivered the first keynote of the day, which focused on the health and mental health of young people experiencing homelessness. Dr. Elliot’s presentation provided support services with a better understanding of how to facilitate opportunities for youth to find housing and lead healthy lives.

My first presentation of the day was meant to set the context and provide an overview of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Canada and the distinct needs and challenges faced by this population of youth. Issues discussed included, the overrepresentation of LGBTQ2 youth in the homeless youth population, the underrepresentation of LGBTQ2 youth in shelters, intersectionality, heath care needs, discrimination against trans and gender non-conforming youth, especially, trans women of colour, institutional erasure, and the different ways that broader policy issues actually serve to create oppressive contexts for queer and trans youth. The second half of my presentation was participatory, with group activities that engaged the audience and encouraged everyone to think critically about the gender binary and specific situations and barriers that LGBTQ2 youth deal with on a daily basis.

The youth homelessness symposium received some great media coverage by: Global Calgary, CBC Calgary, and CBC Homestretch.


On October 16, 2014, I presented a second workshop along with David French, Manager of Homeless Supports Initiatives with the Government of Alberta, Alberta Human Services. Our workshop focused on assessing the current state of services across the province of Alberta and investigating opportunities for change. It was a true honour to work with such a great group of people, who are genuinely interested in learning more about LGBTQ2 communities and how they can meet the needs of LGBTQ2 youth in their services.

I have been working in the area of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness for almost 10 years and it has been a tough path to travel, for me as a researcher. It has taken many years of advocacy and activism for this issue to gain any recognition. It has taken a lot of hard work to convince decision makers that LGBTQ2 youth homelessness is a serious issue that must be prioritized.

I have spoken to numerous youth from Alberta, Vancouver, Manitoba, and countries around the world, because queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness often migrate to Toronto hoping to find supportive services and housing. Toronto is often thought of as the LGBTQ2 capital of Canada, the safest and most accepting city. Toronto is a fantastic city to live in and it certainly does offer numerous incredible services.

The Government of Alberta has recognized that ending youth homelessness will require targeted responses for specific subpopulations, which will include critical attention on meeting the needs of LGBTQ2 youth. Over the next 6 months, I will work closely with Alberta Human Services and stakeholders across Alberta to create strategies that can be implemented in youth support services and shelters across the province of Alberta. It is my hope that other provinces across the country will follow Alberta’s lead and begin prioritizing this population of young people, whom have been left out of important discussions and decisions on youth homelessness for far too long.

Thank you, Wood’s Homes for organizing such a great symposium and for choosing to focus on LGBTQ2 youth homelessness. Thank you to the wonderful group of individuals that attended the workshops. It was truly a pleasure working with you.

I am grateful for the phenomenal work that Alberta is doing in the fight to end youth homelessness in Canada.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Welcoming 2014: The year we make it happen


[Homophobia and transphobia] is the number one reason why we have so many homeless people […] A lot of these guys, they do not want to go to the shelter. They stay on the street because they are afraid to be in the shelter. Do you know what they do to you in the shelter? They tie you to the bed and they beat the shit out of you (Homeless youth, 22 years old).

Here we are at the end of 2013, and LGBTQ youth homelessness is still an emergency situation in Toronto, Canada. Shelter workers in Toronto have yet to receive mandatory basic anti-homophobia training and there is still no action plan for how to address the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. We have also yet to see policies that will protect LGBTQ youth from daily occurrences of homophobic and transphobic violence in Toronto’s shelter system.

This is absolutely not okay.

Toronto is a fantastic city in so many ways, and I am very thankful to live here, however, there is no excuse for the extreme lack of support available to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
Toronto can do so much better than this.

Approximately 20 years ago, O’Brien, Travers, and Bell conducted the “No Safe Bed” study, which contributed important knowledge regarding LGB youth homelessness in Toronto. A number of findings from my recent PhD study were consistent with their study; however, I also found that the situation in the shelter system is actually worse for LGBTQ youth today. In recent years, there has been extensive research in Canada and internationally regarding youth homelessness. We have seen a great deal of initiatives towards the movement to end youth homelessness. However, there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding concerning the severity of LGBTQ youth homelessness in Canada.

LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population. Approximately 25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Queer and trans youth are at a higher risk of homelessness due to homophobia and transphobia in the home, and sadly, they often face the same discrimination in the shelter system and on the streets. There is minimal support available to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and there are NO specialized housing initiatives that meet the needs of LGBTQ youth in Canada. This must change.

For a long time, I put a lot of energy towards raising awareness to these issues because it was clear to me that people did not know that LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness in Canada are extremely marginalized and receive very little support. People are becoming more and more aware of these issues. In 2013, folks across Canada and as far as Glasgow contacted me to discuss these issues. The media also paid a great deal of attention to the issues regarding LGBTQ youth homelessness in Canada -

The Current, CBC had a special episode on queer and trans youth homelessness in Toronto: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2013/09/10/vulnerable-lgbt-homeless-youth/

The Toronto Star:
http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/08/12/torontos_homeless_gay_youth_frequently_face_abuse_in_shelters_study.html


CBC Kitchener-Waterloo:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/high-proportion-of-lgbtq-youth-among-homeless-say-researchers-1.1699451


CBC Ottawa:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/half-of-homeless-ottawa-youth-identify-as-lgbtq-1.1699604


And most recently, Andrea Houston covered a great piece:http://dailyxtra.com/toronto/news/toronto-moves-closer-creating-homeless-shelter-lgbt-youth?market=207


(For more 2013 media coverage, please see: http://ilona6.com/press.php

In 2013, the City of Toronto Street Needs Assessment included, for the first time, a question about people’s LGBTQ identity. The inclusion of this question was a result of a meeting that myself and a group of key community leaders had with senior staff at the City of Toronto’s Shelter Operations Unit. The results of the Street Needs Assessment confirmed that 20% of youth in the shelter system identify as LGBTQ, which is more than twice the rate for all age groups. Although 20% is high, we have reasons to believe that the prevalence of LGBTQ youth homelessness in Toronto is in fact higher. For example, many youth chose to not come out as queer or trans to volunteers conducting the survey, for a variety of reasons that often stem from issues regarding safety; and countless LGBTQ youth did not have a chance to complete the survey because they are part of Toronto’s hidden homeless population and do not access support services, also due to issues regarding homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system and drop-in programs.

My PhD study confirmed that the culture of the shelter system is an overall atmosphere of normalized homophobia and transphobia and that it is a dangerous place for LGBTQ youth. Young LGBTQ people have told me stories about living in parks because they do not feel safe in the shelter system:

I was taking so many sleeping pills, so that I would sleep through the night. […] It was safer for me to be popping pills and sleeping outside in minus zero degree weather than being in the shelter system [because of] transphobia and homophobia (Homeless youth, 26 years old).

At the end of 2013, the City of Toronto acknowledged that LGBTQ youth homelessness is a problem. In 2014, the City will begin to provide support in the form of a working group, mandatory staff training, and by updating policies. The City also promised to report back on the feasibility of creating specialized housing for LGBTQ youth.

It is my hope that as we move forward towards the creation of specialized housing and supportive initiatives for LGBTQ homeless youth, that we will place importance on community engagement and that we work together as a community to build partnerships with individuals and organizations doing similar work.

My wish for 2014 is that significant changes will be implemented in Toronto’s shelter system, in order for it to become safe, accessible, and supportive of LGBTQ youth, and that specialized housing for LGBTQ youth will be created in Toronto, so that this group of youth does not have to spend another cold winter living in a park.

Alex Abramovich

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pride 2013

I have been celebrating Pride for about 14 years now.
I officially came out approximately 12 years ago during Pride, and then I had a second coming out 3 years ago during Pride. Needless to say, Pride has always held a very sentimental meaning for me.

Every year I go to the parade on Sunday just to cheer on the marching parents and families of PFLAG and every year I cry when I see those proud parents and families.

Pride is about so much more than the naked people, sex, and partying that the media portrays it to be. Pride is not just about commercialism and tourism. There is so much more to Pride that is rarely portrayed in the media. It is a time to come together, stand tall and be proud of who we are. Pride is about making space for all the queer and trans folks who are silenced, made invisible, and pushed to the margins on a daily basis. It is about celebrating our rights and accomplishments, and focusing on how far we have come. Pride is also a time to reflect on all we have been through to be able to be fully authentic, which for many can be a painful reflection.

People often talk about how “safe” Toronto is for LGBTQ people and how homophobia and transphobia no longer exists. While Toronto may be safer than many other cities for queer and trans people, homophobia and transphobia are definitely alive and well in this city.

25-40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ, however, Toronto does not offer the necessary services to provide safety and support to our youth. Sadly, homophobia and transphobia are rampant in Toronto’s shelter system.

Even though Pride is a time to celebrate and be proud, I think it is important to think about and raise awareness to the issues around LGBTQ youth homelessness because a large proportion of queer and trans youth will be struggling to find a safe place to sleep and a hot meal to eat, not just at Pride, but all year round.

My hope is that by Pride 2014, Toronto will provide support to LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and my Pride reflection will be very different.

On that note, I wish you all a safe, reflective, and fun Pride weekend!


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Toronto: It's Time to Start Supporting LGBTQ Homeless Youth


I recently wrote a Blog Post for the Huffington Post. My Blog Post discusses LGBTQ youth homelessness in Canada and the lack of support available, because Toronto, it really is time to start supporting LGBTQ youth who are street-involved and homeless.
If you're interested in reading, here is the link:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/alex-ilona-abramovich/lgbtq-homeless_b_3343050.html

Thank you,
Alex

Friday, May 17, 2013

Digital Storytelling Project - Teal's Story


The film "Teal's Story" is part of a Digital Storytelling project from my PhD research study, which investigates LGBTQ youth homelessness in Toronto. I created the film with a very courageous young trans woman named Teal. "Teal's Story" visually illustrates her experiences in Toronto's shelter system and how she navigated daily occurrences of extreme transphobia. My hope is that this film will raise awareness to the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness and begin a much needed shift in the shelter system. Everyone NEEDS to see this. Please watch and share "Teal's Story".

"Almost all LGBTQ people going into shelters have a fear of them, because it isn’t a matter of if it’s dangerous, but just how dangerous it will be. It is horrible to live in that fear everyday." (Teal, 23 years old, Digital Storytelling project)

A special thank you to the The 519 Church Street Community Centre for supporting this project.

Please watch and share the film:

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia



Today is International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Today we raise awareness to the ongoing violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ people around the world every single day.

Toronto may be considered one of the safest cities in the world for LGBTQ people, however, the prevalence of homophobic and transphobic violence is often normalized and invisible.

25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. Queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness often feel safer on the streets than in shelters, due to the extreme homophobia and transphobia that occurs in the shelter system. But still there is minimal support available in Toronto and still we do NOT have specialized housing for LGBTQ youth in Canada.

I hope everyone can take a moment today to think about this and to help raise awareness because this type of discrimination affects us all.