Monday, December 22, 2014

Not just during the holidays, but all year round.

I like to take some time at the end of each year to reflect on the year gone by, which is why I usually write an end of year blog post.

At the end of 2013, we were left with the hope that 2014 would bring new and improved strategies and solutions to how Toronto deals with: homophobic and transphobic violence in shelters, the overrepresentation of LGBTQ2 youth in the homeless youth population, and the barriers to accessing shelters and support services experienced by LGBTQ2 youth.
We ended the year with this wonderful article written by Andrea Houston.


2014 was a big year - it was the year that LGBTQ2 youth homelessness finally became part of important dialogue concerning youth homelessness in Canada. There were many significant moments, meetings, conferences, and events that took place over the course of the year, so I’ve decided to feature some of the highlights in this post.

The City of Toronto not only acknowledged that LGBTQ2 youth homelessness is a major problem, but also supported the formation of two working groups devoted to: 1. Updating the Toronto shelter standards through a LGBTQ2 lens. 2. Assisting the City in addressing the needs of LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness. The City of Toronto also reported back positively, regarding the feasibility of creating specialized housing for LGBTQ2 youth; which makes me feel quite optimistic about what 2015 will bring.

In March, I completed my PhD - "Young, Queer and Trans, Homeless, and Besieged: A Critical Action Research Study of How Policy and Culture Create Oppressive Conditions for LGBTQ Youth in Toronto's Shelter System".


My Doctoral research was truly a significant research journey for me and is part of a large body of work that I call my “life work”. The stories that the young people who participated in the study shared with me were beautiful, tragic, sad, enriching, and heartbreaking all at once. I continue to hold these painful and tragic stories close to my heart and transform them into energy that will help me advocate for a safe, accessible, supportive, and affirming shelter system for all LGBTQ2 young people across the country.

This study has demonstrated the dire need for the creation of specialized services and safe spaces for LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness, for stricter policies against homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system, and for more discussions of inclusion and acceptance among shelter providers and workers.
Interest in the issue of queer and trans youth homelessness increased significantly in 2014. Shelters across Toronto reached out for assistance in updating old policies and developing new ones, staff training, and raising awareness about queer and trans youth homelessness. The media also paid close attention, which of course helped bring this issue to the forefront of many important discussions:
NOW Magazine

Metro Morning, CBC

In June, Toronto hosted World Pride and for the World Pride Human Rights Conference, we brought together an international panel (Dwayne’s House, Jamaica; True Colors Fund, New York City; Ruth Ellis Center, Michigan) on LGBTQ2 youth homelessness for a discussion of global responses to LGBTQ2 youth homelessness.


This received more great coverage by NOW Magazine.

Days before the official launch of World Pride, Teal and I deputed at the CDR Committee meeting at City Hall, asking for mandatory LGBTQ2 cultural competency training for all shelter staff and for policies that would help make the shelter system safe, accessible, and supportive of LGBTQ2 youth. This momentous meeting marked an important day for the City of Toronto, a moment that I had waited a long time for.


It was great to see the Toronto Star cover this significant step forward.

I was also extremely grateful to have been selected as an "Honoured Trans Individual" to lead the World Pride Trans March. After many years of advocacy and trying to raise awareness to the issue of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness, it gave me much happiness to see that Pride Toronto recognized that the work to end queer and trans youth homelessness deserved to be highlighted. It was also brilliant to see so many people come together to hold up signs at the Trans March and help bring the issue of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness to Pride.


More recently, I was 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. The 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.

The youth homelessness symposium received some great media coverage: Global Calgary
CBC Calgary
CBC Homestretch

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. I am currently working with Alberta Human Services and stakeholders across Alberta on the development of strategies that can be implemented into all youth serving organizations 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.

Over the past year, we have seen a huge shift regarding this issue and people’s willingness to discuss and address these problems.
People are finally having discussions.
People are starting to pay attention and understand that this is an emergency situation across Canada.
Organizations are coming forward and creating specialized initiatives and programs for queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness.
However, LGBTQ2 youth are still overrepresented in the homeless youth population, and still there is minimal support available, and many support services across the country are unsafe for queer and trans youth due to homophobic and transphobic violence.

It is always amazing to see so many individuals and organizations come together around the holidays to volunteer and help people experiencing homelessness.
It is truly a wonderful thing.

I hope that the desire to help does not end on January 1, because everybody deserves a safe place to sleep at night, not just during the holidays, but all year round.

Everybody deserves a safe place to sleep at night.

As we begin another year and move forward with this important work, it is my hope that we will change the way that we approach this issue.
It is my hope that we will fight even harder to end LGBTQ2 youth homelessness across Canada.

Friday, November 21, 2014

LGBTQ2S Youth Homelessness Initiative


Here is a short video introduction to a new and exciting project I am working on that will focus on long-term solutions to LGBTQ2S youth homelessness in Canada.

Stay tuned for more information and to find out how you can get involved!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2014 #TDOR


Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) held annually on November 20, is a day that is meant to memorialize transgender people who were killed or have died due to anti-transgender hatred and violence. It also raises public awareness of the violent reality that so many trans and gender non-conforming people face on a daily basis.

Every year, new names are added to the memorial list of trans people who have been killed due to transphobia. This year, on November 20, 2014 at 3pm, the City of Toronto will recognize TDOR for the first time by raising the trans flag at Toronto City Hall.

Transphobia destroys people’s lives.
It is dangerous, toxic, violent, and leads to suicide.
Transphobia kills, period.

Discrimination and violence against transgender individuals is rampant.
Trans people face disproportionately high rates of victimization, unemployment, health inequities, and suicidality. Trans people of colour, especially trans women of colour face the highest rates of violence and discrimination.

The Trans PULSE project, a large Canadian study that investigated health and trans people in Ontario, found that 77% of trans people had seriously considered suicide, and that 45% had attempted suicide. Trans youth were found to be at the greatest risk of suicidality. The high rates of suicide are extremely alarming, especially during the early stages of gender transition, which is when trans people are at greatest risk of suicide. The early stages of transition are also when young people are often kicked out of the house or forced to leave home.

Coming out is hard for everyone. Sometimes there is no way of knowing how transphobic or homophobic your family and friends will be. Sometimes we are unpleasantly surprised. This is the kind of hate that starts in the home and ends on the streets. This is the kind of hate that leads young people into institutions that are ruled by homophobic and transphobic policies.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and 2-Spirit (LGBTQ2S) youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population: 25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2S. Although there are disproportionately high rates of LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness, there is minimal support available, and support services and shelters often further marginalize this population of young people.

Trans and gender non-conforming youth are frequently rejected by shelters based on their gender identity and are regularly not permitted to access the shelter that matches the gender with which they identify because shelters frequently do not feel equipped to support trans youth. This forces trans youth to stay in a shelter that is not consistent with their gender identity, or to avoid the shelter system altogether.


Regardless of shelter standards and shelter policies, frontline workers struggle most with issues regarding access to services and support for trans people, and shelter staff tend to receive minimal training regarding trans-related issues, needs, and terminology. Staff often do not have an understanding of the importance of asking youth what pronoun and name they prefer, or that trans people can also identify as heterosexual and do not always fit under the umbrella term “queer”.

There is a type of normalization of trans oppression that occurs in the shelter system. Even though major emphasis is placed on access and the ability to access shelters with as few barriers as possible, regardless of people’s gender and sexual identities, it has somehow come to be accepted that not all shelters can accommodate trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

Shelters are often segregated by female and male floors, which have female and male bathrooms and showers. The floor that a person will be placed on has more to do with the staff’s perception of a person’s sex and less to do with how an individual actually identifies, which is highly problematic because not all individuals’ gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth. For example, if someone presents as more gender ambiguous, then whatever the staff member perceives their sex to be, is what floor they will be placed on. This increases the risk for gender discrimination and gender violence to occur within shelters. It also creates significant barriers to access for genderqueer and gender non-conforming individuals, and individuals who are in the early stages of their transition.


The need for transgender youth to have access to health care professionals who have a comprehensive understanding of trans-related issues and transition-related health care is crucial. The health care needs of trans youth differ from those of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, whether they are experiencing homelessness or not. For example, trans youth may need transition related health care, including access to hormones or surgery, or help getting ID and legal name change sorted out. The lack of specialized health care services for trans youth often results in youth turning to unmonitored street suppliers for transition-related treatment, which can have severe health complications. The complexity of these needs intensifies when one is homeless and does not have money, a health card, or a support network.

Being a young person is scary, regardless of your sexual or gender identity. Being a young person who deviates from the norm is terrifying because our culture pathologizes almost every feeling and behaviour that human beings are capable of expressing. The extreme pathologization of gender makes it even more difficult for people to bring their full authentic selves to programs and support services, and to come out as transgender.

Nobody should have to know what it feels like for not having a home simply for being yourself in a world that forces us to be like everybody else, every single day.

Solutions to these issues include practice and policy changes, but first and foremost, people must be respected and treated in their self-identified gender. For example, if someone says that they identify as male, then address them with male pronouns. If someone says that they identify as female, then address them with female pronouns. If someone says that they identify as genderqueer and prefer gender-neutral pronouns, such as they, then address them using they.

Shelters and support services need to be equipped with gender-neutral washrooms. Single occupancy washrooms can be easily converted into a gender-neutral washroom by replacing the female and male silhouette signs with an all gender inclusive sign.

Taking the time to listen to trans youths’ perspectives and needs will help service providers create services that are safe, accessible, and supportive of trans and gender non-conforming youth.

On this day, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, take the time to honour the lives of those who have been killed as a result of anti-trans violence and hatred. Do your part to help end transphobia, not only on November 20, but every day.

Transphobia is an everyday reality for too many individuals.
Transphobia destroys people’s lives.
It is dangerous, toxic, violent, and leads to suicide.
Transphobia kills, period.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Community


There’s something that I need to get off of my chest.
I am profoundly disturbed by the infighting that occurs in the LGBTQ community.
I have been both witnessing and subjected to a type of division that occurs in response to competition, jealousy, and malicious behavior. Rather than working together, and building partnerships and collaborations, people tear one another apart. People are quick to judge and don’t take the time to ask questions and learn about where we have come from or what paths we have traveled.

I worry about the implications that this type of infighting has on the future of our community.

The repercussions of these hateful relations are ugly and dangerous.
This type of hate, ultimately, divides our community and breaks us apart.
It makes us forget what we were fighting for in the first place, and that many of us are fighting for the same causes, for the same rights; many of us are fighting the same fight. Instead we end up fighting against one another, when we could be fabricating a framework that will nurture our diverse and powerful community.

I love being part of the queer community. I love the interesting and dynamic people and relationships that I have been fortunate to build over the years. I am extremely passionate about the work that I do and I will always fight for and stand up for our youth. But this hateful infighting that so frequently occurs, it wears me down and takes my breath away.

Let’s stop with the hate. Let’s be nicer to each other.
Let’s take the time to reflect and ask each other meaningful questions.
Give credit where credit is due.
Rather than competing, try collaborating.

Let's try.

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!