Shining a light on homeless LGBTQ youth

  • by Beck, Adele Carpenter, and Tommi Avicolli Mecca
  • Wednesday May 11, 2011
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It is estimated that nearly 2,300 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in San Francisco are homeless.

In 2007, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Coalition on Homelessness concluded in their joint study, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness," that 40 percent of homeless youth in this country identify as LGBT. One would have expected a tremendous outcry in the queer community when that study was released. Especially here in San Francisco.

Where was that outcry?

You'd think that a community such as ours, which is capable of raising millions to promote gay marriage and to fight "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," would have poured a lot of effort and money into housing young people by now. But, where are those resources?

Programs that support transitional age homeless youth are usually left out of local and national fundraising strategies that allocate millions of dollars for lobbying efforts in the name of our families and the safety of our community. What about the homeless queer youth who reside on the streets and who are looking for family and safety, but instead often encounter exploitation, violence, and criminalization under laws which make it illegal to sit or lie in public?

They need services, but where are the queer youth services in San Francisco?

An activist group spearheaded three emergency winter shelters, a food program, and a shower project for homeless youth and others in the Castro in the late 1990s after the dot-com boom caused a sharp spike in rents throughout the city, making it impossible to afford an apartment. Those services opened despite unbelievable opposition from merchants, landlords, and residents. When the last of the shelters folded, the Youth Empowerment Team secured $750,000 in city funds for 29 beds for LGBT homeless youth under Larkin Street's Castro Youth program. That program is now down to 22 beds and looking at more cuts this year. Not to mention the devastating cuts to the LGBT Community Center's Transitional Youth program, which packs in over 300 youth a year for food and resources.

Meanwhile, the LGBTQ youth space at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center was shut down in 2010. Advocates have been negotiating with the Recreation and Park Department for nearly a year to have it re-opened, but it is clear that consistent staffing, hours, and overall youth access to the space, will continue to be compromised. The Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center has been forced to reduce its open-door programming for transitional age youth due to lack of city support, and its internship program, which was cut last year, is facing a possible total elimination in the budget of the Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The closure of New Leaf: Services for Our Community's youth substance abuse treatment program was a hard hit for those attempting to access LGBTQ friendly substance abuse counseling and mental health treatment. While the clinicians at Dimensions Clinic do an excellent job, services meant to engage youth in treatment have not been fully restored.

Clearly, the community needs to speak out.

This Saturday, May 14, queer youth and allies are taking part in a national effort to shine a light on homelessness among queer youth. Hosted by Operation Shine America and the AJ Fund, youth organizers will provide makeovers, video and photo booths, art workshops, freeze tag, and a free dinner donated by Food not Bombs. This begins at 6 p.m. at the Civic Center. At 7:30 p.m., youth art from the AJ Fund will be used to decorate a march that will make its way toward Harvey Milk Plaza. Marchers will remember AJ Trasvina, a local youth who spent his last years providing support to homeless queer youth.

At Harvey Milk Plaza, we will illuminate our lanterns and shine a light for a homeless youth open mic. Participants are encouraged to wear purple and bring candles. The event will culminate with a sleep-in at the plaza that is a separate event organized by Welcome Ministry. Later, some plan to perform a peaceful street sweep with handmade brooms and signs, symbolizing the poor being displaced by lack of access to space and support.

Through stories and information, we will illuminate the local and national issues of homelessness among queer youth, much of which is caused by rejection by family and community, the high cost of rent, criminalization, and a lack of employment opportunities and training.

It's time for all LGBT organizations and our community to make homeless queer youth a priority by allocating resources to these vital services. Not from year to year, but for many years to come.

Beck, Adele Carpenter, and Tommi Avicolli Mecca are all members of the newly formed coalition, QUEEN, or Queers for Economic Equality Now.