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.