Homeless Gay Youth in Utah: Challenges and Changes

This year, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth have been in the U.S. media’s spotlight more than ever before. In September, the suicides of at least nine teenagers who faced anti-gay bullying in school brought unprecedented attention to the high rates of bullying that queer students face — and the potentially fatal consequences when schools do not stop it.

Unfortunately, another issue that can have equally fatal consequences has not received such attention: the disproportionate representation of queer youth among the nation’s homeless youth population. According to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness, a report released in 2009 by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless, estimated that between 20–40 percent of the nation’s two million homeless youth identify as  lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

In Utah, that number is higher. In QSaltLake’s story on youth homelessness last year, Zach Bale, then director of Salt Lake City’s Homeless Youth Resource Center, determined that 43 percent of its clients (who range between 16–21 years of age) identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or “other than straight” in the 2008–2009 fiscal year. The number of total homeless youth also climbed by a few hundred. At the time, he cited the poor economy’s contributions to domestic violence, sexual abuse and homelessness among families as the potential source of the increase.

This fiscal year, the number has improved slightly, dropping from 43 percent to 41. However, Bale said that the reasons for that decline were probably financial and may be temporary.

“In terms of the number [of youth] we’ve served, we’ve seen about the same number as this previous fiscal year,” he said. “But what we want to point out is that we had extra money to be available and open more hours at the previous winter, and if we’d been able to maintain at the same capacity we would’ve seen more.”

Even so, the resource center, a number of other state and county organizations, and Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community at large are working hard to help these vulnerable youths in new and innovative ways.

Operation Shine America

In 2009 Chloe Noble and her best friend Jill Hartman walked across the country to raise awareness of queer homeless youth. During the seven month Homeless Youth Pride walk they lived on the streets of several major cities, interviewing and filming local homeless youth and blogging about their experiences, including run-ins with law enforcement.

Since returning home, Noble and a number of Utahns, including Justice Vanguard-member Ginger Phillips, have begun a major initiative aimed at ending what Noble calls “the homeless youth epidemic.”

“It is easy for these youth to feel hopeless,” said Noble, OSA’s founding director. “When facing entire communities who believe that these youth are tearing families apart, and that their presence on this planet is actually ending the human race. What is tearing families apart is the belief that LGBTQ youth are damaged, sick, perverted, impure or unnatural.”

In order to combat the homophobia and transphobia that leads to parents kicking queer children out of their homes, Noble said that OSA is launching a trio of initiatives in 2011: a community awareness training program, a host home program and a homeless youth ambassador program. Although OSA currently has one such ambassador — Katrina Oakason — Noble said she wants to add more to the program’s ranks.

“We began the youth ambassador program with the idea that Katrina would go out and raise awareness of the homeless youth epidemic and help youth,” she said. “Now tons of people are calling for her to speak.”

When asked why high schools were a good venue for raising awareness about homeless youth, Noble said that the teens with whom Oakason has spoken were eager to learn and help.

“These kids aren’t homeless but youth activism is a huge thing right now, and that’s what Katrina was inspired to tell us,” she said. “Katrina said [to us], ‘You tell us we’re the future; well, we are.’ When she spoke at Rowland [Hall-St. Mark’s] High it was amazing. Those kids were so positive about what they had experienced there and Katrina did such a great job. We had a lot of e-mails about how our information helped them.”

“These youth are going to be parents someday, and in that aspect I think we’ve done a lot to prevent homeless youth,” she added.

Host Homes

One of the most pressing needs for Noble is to get homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth into host homes, particularly because Salt Lake City does not currently have a shelter specifically for teens.

“We’re spearheading this program because DCFS [the Department of Child and Family Services] have a lot on their plate and we want to reach out and help with our own community. We want to find families [who are willing to take these youth in].”

Although Utah law formerly prohibited this practice as “harboring a runaway” as a Class B misdemeanor, this is no longer entirely the case. In the 2009 general Legislative session,  Rep. Lori Fowlke (R-Orem) introduced a bill to address Utah’s prohibition of sheltering minors “absent from the home or lawfully prescribed residence of the parent or legal guardian” without that parent or guardian’s permission. The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, passed and amended section 62A-4a-501 of Utah’s law code. Now, an individual must notify a peace officer or “the nearest detention center” by telephone or “other reasonable means” about the location of a minor. Similarly, an adult will not be guilty of harboring a runaway if she or he notifies the youth’s parents, the Division of Juvenile Justice Services or a youth services center of the minor’s whereabouts, or if the parents have abused, neglected or kicked their child out.

Noble said that OSA hopes to eventually create host homes for queer youth modeled upon similar endeavors in Minnesota and New York .

Helping the Community Understand

When tackling community issues such as domestic violence prevention and adult homelessness, it is not uncommon for agencies to band together, as several have done at the Salt Lake City’s YWCA’s Family Justice Center. By offering community training sessions about the issues facing homeless youth, Noble said she hopes to see a similar pooling of resources among agencies for combating youth homelessness.

“OSA and DCFS [the Department of Child and Family Services] are members of the VOA Task Force to End Youth Homelessness in Utah. All three are working together with many other dedicated organizations to stop the epidemic in its tracks,” said Noble. “Just like every community, every organization also has a lot to offer the situation. DCFS will be cross-training with OSA, in order to learn how to best serve the homeless youth and others involved. NAMI [the National Association for Mental Illness] is also a huge contributor in serving homeless youth, raising awareness and prevention” as inhospitable conditions on the street put homeless youth at risk for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders.

As part of this effort, Noble also said that OSA wants to work with such groups as the Utah Pride Center, the LDS Church and Catholic Community Services, and to help “build bridges” between homeless youth and those who often have negative interactions with them, like store owners, law enforcement officers and local residents.
But service agencies aren’t the only ones who can help. Noble said that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, as well as the community at large, can also play a part in ending youth homelessness.

“What that means is that the community is able to say, ‘This is what we don’t understand,’ and then we can teach the community what they need to do to help out, and the community can teach the homeless youth on how they can make an effort to resolve this problem,” she said. “What we’re doing is trying to bring everyone back into the room to most importantly understand one another.”

Why No Shelter?

Oakason said that one thing that would give Salt Lake City’s homeless youth hope as well as a future would be a shelter designated for them. Although plans for such a building have been discussed by several community leaders for years, the shelter is not currently being built.

Noting that youth who receive help from and make connections at a shelter tend to “complete high school, escape victimization and make homelessness a fading memory,” Oakason expressed frustration that such a shelter has not yet been realized.

“I am tired of watching my street family struggle to survive,” said Oakason, who is genderqueer and prefers a mixture of female and male pronouns. “Especially when I know many of the houses we walk by are filled with people who have warm beds to sleep in, fridges filled with unwanted food, clothes that have never even been worn.”

When such a shelter is built, Noble said that its staff must be aware of the challenges that queer homeless youth face.

“When I was one of the mangers at The Road Home, one of our young transgender adult residents literally had to live in a large closet, in order to remain safe on the premises,” she said. “We need to place an emphasis on their care and safety.”

Give Them Hope

During the Homeless Youth Pride Walk, Noble said that she often felt hopeless after seeing youth who were suffering from illnesses such as MRSA, who were addicted to drugs and who had turned to prostitution in order to survive.

“I started feeling like there’s nothing we can do and that’s a horrible space to be in,” she said. “But now I have a lot of hope. We’re doing great things, and once we get on the right track these youths will thrive. Katrina went from being homeless to speaking to hundreds of people. She does media work and community awareness training.”

An important thing to remember, she added, is that homeless youth can accomplish great things if they are given assistance and opportunities. Noble said she has seen this firsthand at a workshop she and other OSA volunteers teach every Wednesday at the Utah Pride Center.

“These kids went from being really super sad in our class and now they have that light in their eyes, they’re really motivated,” she said. “I was surprised by that. I didn’t think these youth, because they’re constantly dehumanized, would be so motivated. They call us all the time with ideas.”

Zero, a homeless gay youth who works with OSA, added that as dangerous and painful as the streets can be, homeless youth are generous and treat one another like family.

“We had been on the streets in one city for less than a week,” he said. “I was hungry and hadn’t slept for days. I found another homeless youth who had some crackers. We found another who had half a gallon of milk. In no time, we had a small group of strangers gathered on a street corner, each offering what they had in their pockets. It was an organic family, a true family springing up out of nowhere. And yet, some people can’t even spare a smile for the homeless — and they call us uncivilized.”

On Dec. 3 Operation Shine America will present an art show and photo exhibit of work created by homeless youth at the Patrick Moore Gallery, 2233 S. 700 East. All work will be available for purchase. To learn more about Operation Shine America, visit operationshineamerica.org.

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  1. Why cannot the state establish a system to bill parents who reject their own children? To effect real change, religious denominations that teach parents to discard their LGBT children should also be taxed. But that is probably impossible to do.

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