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Toronto offers little support for LGBT homeless youth

I recently interviewed I. Alex Abramovich for Rabble.ca about the lack of support for LGBT homeless youth in Toronto.

I. Alex Abramovich is a Doctoral Candidate in the Adult Education and Community Development program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education-University of Toronto.

Alex's research focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) youth homelessness in Toronto.

Alex is currently investigating the changes that need to be implemented in the Toronto’s shelter system in order for it to become safer, more accessible, and more supportive for LGBTQ youth who are homeless.

Click here to visit Alex's website.

John Bonnar: Why are so many LGBT youth still rejected and kicked out the house when they reveal their identity to their parents?

I. Alex Abramovich: As a society we are encouraging youth to be who they are and come-out, consequently, youth are coming out at younger ages than ever. Nonetheless, homophobia and transphobia are still significant problems in society, schools, and people’s homes. Family conflict resulting from a youth coming-out as LGBTQ is a major contributing factor to youth homelessness. Oftentimes, when youth come-out to their families they are faced with abuse and neglect, and the streets become a safer place than home.

The high prevalence of LGBTQ youth homelessness tells us that it is quite easy to become homeless, especially when you are young and coming-out to an unsupportive family, which is often the case. Not enough people understand the complexities of coming-out and forming one’s gender and sexual identity, and how often homophobia and transphobia is what ‘kicks’ youth out and/or forces them to leave their homes to the streets. 

JB: With anywhere between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of homeless youth identifying as LGBT, why are there virtually no LGBT-specific youth services in Toronto?

IAA: Sadly, I have been asking this question for a very long time.

Firstly, in recent years, there has been extensive research in the area of youth homelessness both in Canada and internationally; however, little is known about LGBTQ youth homelessness.

Secondly, the City of Toronto has a complaints procedure in place for shelter residents and staff to file complaints. However, youth residents file the least amount of complaints and very rarely file complaints related to homophobic or transphobic violence, even though they have reported homophobic and transphobic occurrences as daily in the shelter system.  

The lack of specific services for LGBTQ homeless youth may be due to minimal research in the area of LGBTQ youth homelessness, and because people may not necessarily understand the severity of the LGBTQ youth homelessness crisis in Toronto. 

JB: Talk of creating an LGBT specific shelter has surfaced many times, yet nothing ever comes of it. Why not?

IAA: I would say this has much to do with a lack of funding and essentially a lack of interest from those in positions to make much-needed changes. 

I encourage people to raise awareness to these issues by sharing knowledge, organizing campaigns, rallies, events, and encouraging others to do the same. 

JB: What kinds of specialized services do we need in Toronto?

IAA: My research has revealed the need for a specialized shelter for LGBTQ youth in Toronto. The youth I have spoken to and interviewed have discussed the need for spaces they can feel safe being themselves in and not have to worry about homophobic or transphobic residents and staff. These spaces should include: a place to sleep, hot meals, showers, gender neutral washrooms, clean clothes, subway tokens, and access to health resources.

JB: In sharp contrast to Toronto, New York City has shelters, transitional homes and, now, the state’s first permanent housing facility solely for LGBT youth. Why is a “queer friendly” city like Toronto so far behind New York?

IAA: Not a lot of energy has been put towards LGBTQ youth homelessness in Toronto, on the contrary, a lot of effort and energy has been put towards issues like same-sex marriage. I think perhaps people tend to put their money and time towards issues that directly affect them; often forgetting the most marginalized ones in our communities and not realizing that issues like LGBTQ youth homelessness effect us all. 

Moving forward, the City of Toronto could use the New York City LGBTQ shelters as a blueprint for creating a broader action plan to develop services and meet the needs of queer youth in Toronto. 

JB: In a 2009 Toronto Star article you said, “There are programs for queer youth and programs for homeless youth. But there is very little geared to the specific needs of queer youth who are homeless. And that has to change." Has anything changed? If so, how? If not, why?

IAA: Very little has changed in the past 3 years. The current climate in Toronto around homelessness is not exactly supportive of opening new programs. The mayor’s homelessness task force plans to get rid of the City’s shelter system, meaning that the City of Toronto is in shelter shutdown mode, which would imply that there is little interest in opening new shelters. Unfortunately, I do not think that services for LGBTQ homeless youth are a priority for the City of Toronto.

Ultimately, we need to continue raising awareness to these issues so that more people are informed, and interested in providing support and making the necessary changes. 

JB: In the same article you said that shelter workers told you they had little or no training in queer culture and often didn't feel equipped to deal with the complex issues these youth face. Why is that the case?

IAA: The shelter workers I spoke to had not received any anti-homophobia or anti-transphobia training, which would indicate that training is not always being monitored. Some shelter staff discussed taking an anti-oppression training workshop 10 years ago, when they first started working in the shelter system. The need for staff training to be ongoing was discussed and agreed upon by shelter workers. As well as the need for mandatory and ongoing anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia training for all staff in the shelter system.

JB: What kind of training is needed for staff in the shelter system in order to be well equipped to deal with situations of homophobia and transphobia?

IAA: This is one of the questions that my PhD research will answer. In order for shelter staff to be equipped to deal with situations of homophobia and transphobia, the type of training that is needed includes:-Anti-Homophobia -Anti-Transphobia-LGBTQ Terminology and LGBTQ culture

There should also be stronger guidelines for mandatory and ongoing training, in order to meet the changing needs and challenges faced by youth. 

JB: Toronto's shelter, support and housing division funds 14 youth shelters with 525 beds. But you also advocate for a specialized shelter. What’s the difference between the two?

IAA: I believe we need to hold the whole shelter system accountable and that all shelters should be safe for all youth, regardless of their sexual or gender identities. However, I also advocate for a specialized shelter for LGBTQ youth, which would, first and foremost be a safe space for LGBTQ youth to sleep and not worry about dealing with homophobic or transphobic violence. It would also include programs and resources that would meet the specific needs of LGBTQ youth. 

It is important that we listen to the voices and needs of LGBTQ youth themselves and they have stated the need for a specialized LGBTQ youth shelter.

JB: Why are you interested in LGBTQ youth homelessness? 

IAA: I have been interested in the issues of homelessness for as long as I can remember. Having been a young and queer person who dealt with a lot of homophobia, I quickly understood how easy it is to become homeless when you do not have a strong support network. Once I discovered the minimal support available to LGBTQ homeless youth in Canada, I knew I had to do whatever I could to change that. 

I hope my research fills some of the gaps in knowledge around LGBTQ youth homelessness. I also hope that all levels of government, policy workers, shelter workers and directors, youth, and the general public will be inspired, educated and made aware of these issues by my work, and that we will become a more accepting and supportive city for all youth, regardless of their sexual or gender identities. 

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