LGBTQ Forum Panelists
Kim Szarmach

Panelists demanded that D.C. government and all residents of the District act to end LGBTQ youth homelessness at Street Sense’s forum, Out of the Closet, Out of a Home, on June 22.

When Darrell Gaston started working as a housing specialist in the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, there was only one shelter with nine beds for LGBTQ youth in the city. There are now 30. However, many LGBTQ youth still don’t get to a shelter that can meet their specific needs. Forty-four to 50 percent of unhoused youth in D.C. identify as LGBTQ and the city is only beginning to provide services to accommodate them, according to Gaston.

“The issues don’t always end when [LGBTQ youth] go to a shelter,” said Laura Durso, senior director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

Many homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ face discrimination from shelter staff and residents. At shelters where boys and girls are separated, they are sometimes forced to live with people whose gender they don’t identify with. Many healthcare providers they are connected with are not trained in LGBTQ cultural competency.

Even shelters dedicated to LGBTQ youth don’t have the resources they need to ensure they won’t end up back on the streets. The Wanda Alston Foundation has eight beds and provides 18 months of pre-independent living. Despite all of the services the foundation provides, 43 percent of its residents will be homeless again in 12 months, at the end of their stay.

“It’s only 18 months to deal with a whole host of traumatic issues,” said June Crenshaw, the interim executive director at the Wanda Alston Foundation.

These LGBTQ youth come to shelters with an array of backgrounds. Some become homeless because of family rejection or religious beliefs, but poverty is the main contributing factor. Additionally, 85 percent of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are African American.

Outside of shelters, LGBTQ youth who have experienced homelessness rely on their community for support , according to Jhane Fletcher, peer education coordinator at Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders (SMYAL). This makes it hard for LGBTQ youth to save money to pay for safe, stable housing.

“I don’t feel like LGTBQ folk only have to worry about themselves, they have to look out for … other people, especially their chosen family,” Fletcher said.

Crenshaw told the audience to ask people experiencing homelessness what they need and give it to them. LGBTQ youth need well-funded, comprehensive services from the city government and the support of the wider D.C. community. “It is all of our responsibility to know about this issue and really do something about it,” she said.