In 2007, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released a study on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender-identified homeless youth that placed their numbers between 20 and 40 percent of all youth on the streets. Given that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services places the number of homeless youth in the nation’s towns and cities between 574,000 and 1.6 million — homeless populations being notoriously difficult to quantify and track — this is a substantial, and frightening number.
Even more alarmingly, Salt Lake City’s Homeless Youth Resource Center, which serves youth ages 16 to 21, found that the capitol’s numbers are higher than the national average. In the most recent fiscal year (2008–2009), the resource center estimated that 43 percent of its clients identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or “other than heterosexual”— a number they determine by surveys given to their clients. Just as troublingly, the number of clients served this year has jumped substantially from 622 in the 2007–2008 fiscal year to 855. From two years ago, the number of youth served has shot up by 110 percent, said Zach Hale, Division Director of Homeless Services for Volunteers of America, Utah, the organization that administers the Homeless Youth Resource Center and a number of other facilities for Utah’s homeless population
“The economy is affecting [the overall numbers], and I think it’s affecting it in two different ways: physical and sexual abuse,” he said. “As stress levels rise in families, patience is kind of lacking, so we see that more violence goes on. When we’ve talked to other agencies in the valley that work with rape survivors and domestic violence, they have seen increases as well.” The second reason, he continued, was the lack of jobs, especially for young people, who are often kicked out of their homes when they cannot find work to support themselves.
“A third reason is families being unable to take care of them, because of the entire family being evicted and becoming homeless,” he also noted.
Statistically speaking, the pressures Hale describes are often worse for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and otherwise queer youth. NGLTF’s 2007 report also found that 26 percent of such youths were kicked out onto the streets after coming out to their parents or caregivers, up to 33 percent had engaged in survival sex, and 42 percent abused alcohol. Devastatingly, nearly half have also attempted suicide.
Unsurprisingly, these youth often have needs their straight cisgender [non-transgender] counterparts don’t have.
“It’s really the disconnect from their family,” said Hale. “All our youth have that to some degree, but I think the manner by which LGBT youth are kicked out or choose to leave for lack of support is unique and probably is a significantly traumatic event in [their lives]. And then there’s not really feeling accepted … valued because of who they are as people. And I think another thing is needing a supportive environment to find out who they are and what they want to be, and a space where they can feel comfortable expressing attraction and their sexuality. That’s a necessary thing as well. In our community there are only so many environments and spaces in which that exists.”
Although the situation for Utah’s queer homeless youth is often bleak, particularly in the persistently sluggish economy, there have been some bright spots. Thanks at least in part to Chloe Noble and Jill Hardman’s Homeless Youth Pride Walk, the needs of homeless queer youth — and the center that serves them — have been on many people’s minds. Subsequently, donations have poured into the center.
“The level of in-kind giving has exceeded our expectations and is allowing us to help meet the needs of over 850 homeless youth,” wrote Michelle Templin-Polasek,
Director of Community Engagement for Volunteers of America, Utah. “We find ourselves in a unique position going into the holiday season this year. At this time we are not in need of any further in-kind donations.”
So, rather than food and items of clothing — with a few notable exceptions, such as men’s boxer shorts — the Homeless Youth Resource Center is most in need now of financial donations to help continue its services and to keep growing. Each weekday, the center offers youth a safe place to stay during daylight hours, shower and laundry facilities, and access to clothing donations, meals cooked twice daily and a food bank for youth who need to take food with them when they leave. The center also has case managers who can help youth with such tasks as getting ID cards and access to everything from medical care and subsidized housing to substance abuse treatment, disability benefits, and even help with transportation. Two staff members also coordinate a street outreach program to help youth who don’t know about the center or who are too distrustful of authority figures to drop by with such basic needs as food and toiletries.
This year has also seen the creation of another full time position at the center — an unemployment specialist who helps youth secure job training and find work. The position, said Hale, is funded through the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust, one of the several organizations to which Utah taxpayers can donate on their state tax forms.
“We’ve had success,” he said. “[This position] started just a couple weeks ago, and we’ve had about 16 youth engaged in that, and four are employed.”
The center is also preparing a number of activities for the holidays, such as a dinner the day before Thanksgiving and a holiday feast in December. The annual open house, which is usually held in November, will be pushed back to February 2010, Hale added.
“At that time we’re going to be announcing our future plans and service gaps, where we’re going to go with those things,” said Hale.
Currently, the Homeless Youth Resource Center is in need of a few specific items: Smith’s gift cards, fast food gift certificates, sleeping bags, all season two to three person tents, bus tokens, winter coats in all sizes and men’s boxer shorts and boxer briefs in medium and large sizes. The community, said Hale, both the community at large and the valley’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender population, have been generous all year long, and he hopes to see that trend continue.
“The word is out we’re in need,” he said.