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:

The Toronto Star:

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo:

CBC Ottawa:

And most recently, Andrea Houston covered a great piece:

(For more 2013 media coverage, please see:

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