By Raven Icaza
Young people who face homelessness have few resources to rely on in Chicago. Patricia Posey, who left home when she was just 17, describes Teen Living Programs, a housing and support program that works with homeless youth as “the day that changed my life.”
“She was living with her mother, she got into repeated conflicts over her sexuality, and she left home. She seemed to have been couch surfing and she was referred to us by a social worker at school,” explained Michelle Goldberg, development coordinator at Teen Living Programs.
Posey is just one of the many young people who experience homelessness because of their sexual orientation. Some parents who do not accept their child’s sexual orientation force the individual to leave home, or they choose to leave because of harassment at school or in their community.
In Chicago, 10,000-11,000 “unaccompanied youth” from ages 14 to 21 made up 11 percent of the homeless population in the past year, according to a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless analysis. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer youth make up 20 to 40 percent of that population.
Beth Cunningham, staff lawyer at CCH, finds LGBTQ homeless youth rates and statistics difficult to pin down.
“It’s a tough population to capture. I’ve heard numbers like 40 percent, but that’s anecdotal,” Cunningham said. She explained, however, that anecdotal numbers give the “best estimate” in this situation.
“Between 40 to 50 percent of our youth at any given time identify as LGBT, and unfortunately that is the reason a lot of the times they are facing homelessness” Goldberg said. “Their families don’t accept it, they don’t feel they have a home in their community—that they are being accepted, and that comes, unfortunately with physical abuse, emotional abuse.”
Despite the growing urge for acceptance, campaigned by many politicians and celebrities like Lady Gaga, and the various anti-bullying programs that have become part of public school curriculums, youth who identify as LGBTQ experience homelessness at a rate much higher than heterosexual youth. Individuals are also choosing to “come out” at younger ages.
“It has been a consistent challenge, and what we’ve been seeing is seeing them much more sooner,” explained Brian Richardson, director of public affairs at the Center on Halsted, a resource center for the LGBTQ community.
Alexis Allegra, associate director of residential programs at Teen Living Programs, confirms the static nature of LGBTQ youth homelessness.
“I think this is a consistent problem and it is not something I have seen drastically change one way or another over the six years I have worked here,” Allegra said.
The struggles faced by LGBTQ youth include sexual and physical harassment, as well as stigmatization at school and home, leading them to run away.
“Youth have either been kicked out of their parental homes or have chosen to leave because of the harsh criticism and intolerance they experience,” Allegra said.
“It’s not just living on the street,” Goldberg explained. “In our eyes, it’s not having a stable home to live in. A lot of the youth we reach out to may not be able to live at home because their parents don’t accept their sexuality and they might live at a friend’s house. They might couch surf– they might stay on the CTA one night, and then go to another friend’s house.”
Only 209 beds are available to homeless youth in Chicago. According to Cunningham, cuts in state funding have lead to a drop in resources and services made available to these individuals.
While housing and outreach organizations like Teen Living Programs and Center on Halsted continue to offer assistance, there is still a need for resources available to LGBTQ youth. Teen Living Program’s Bronzeville Youth Shelter, for instance, has only four beds available for ages 14 to 17.
“It’s more temporary for a lot of runaways that are referred to us by the police department, by the [Illinois] Department of Children and Family Services, and they stay with us between a few hours to two weeks,” Goldberg said.
Teen Living Programs also has Belfort House, a transitional living unit of 24 beds for ages 17 to 23. Here, they stay an average of six months, but can stay up to 18 months as needed. The youth are provided with educational and vocational resources, as well as health assessments.
“It’s a very loving, accepting community. I think because they have other people they can identify with, and staff and case managers who support them and their decisions,” Goldberg said.
Programs like Teen Living Programs helped secure a strong future for Posey, who has since graduated from high school and obtained a job.
“They have struggled so much with loved ones who don’t accept them that what we see are young people we are proud and confident in,” Allegra said. “They are resilient and unbelievably strong.”