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Homeless LGBTQ youth face major challenges with little help

Queer & There

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As temperatures continue to stay low, many teenagers find beauty and excitement in the Colorado snow (when we get snow, at least). Some teens look forward to snow days that cancel school. Others make plans to go skiing or snowboarding with friends and family. However, many local LGBTQ youth can only afford to focus on where they can find shelter from the cold to sleep, or when they can eat something warm.

Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, a nonprofit that serves homeless youth, explains: “While LGBT youth make up about 7 percent of the general population, they make up somewhere between 25 [and] 40 percent of the homeless youth population [nationally, according 2012 statistics from UCLA’s Williams Institute]. Parental rejection, bullying in school, and the failure to create spaces where LGBT youth feel heard, understood and safe all contribute to the over-representation of LGBT youth among the homeless youth population.”

As Kemppainen says, LGBTQ youth may find themselves homeless when parents or guardians disapprove of their child’s identity, and kick them out of the house. Other times, parents will make life difficult for the youth, by, say, forcing them to attend conversion therapy, an ineffective and controversial practice that attempts to “change” a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These youth may run away from an unsafe home.

Some LGBTQ youth who face this risk are not even legally old enough to find jobs, and find themselves unable to earn a steady income. In addition, being kicked out can prevent them from going to school and earning a high school diploma, which makes them less competitive in the already competitive job market, and hurts their chances at a future career. Without a permanent or stable place to live, or money for basic necessities, homeless LGBTQ youth certainly do not have access to health care providers or other important resources, such as counselors. Without these resources, vulnerable youths can easily turn to self-medication through drugs and alcohol, because these “solutions” are more accessible than health care.

Additionally, LGBTQ individuals are more at-risk of becoming victims of sexual assault and human trafficking than their non-LGBTQ peers in homelessness, partially due to a gap in safe sex education. Most sex education programs don’t provide any information on safe sex practices for LGBTQ youth.
When an LGBTQ youth becomes homeless, access to professionals that provide support in dealing with STDs, depression, the aftermath of sexual violence, etc., are vital. Equally important, these professionals need to work as allies to the LGBTQ community and strive to create safe and trustworthy environments, especially when youth lack love and support from their families to be their truest selves.

So how can the average person help combat local LGBTQ youth homelessness? The first and most daunting solution includes continuing to change the homophobic and transphobic culture that marginalizes LGBTQ individuals. This is particularly important for parents.

Kemppainen says parental understanding and acceptance of their LGBTQ child’s orientation or gender identity greatly decreases their child’s risk of becoming homeless, along with their risk of becoming suicidal. Additionally, citywide, statewide or (ideally) nationwide opposition to the practice of conversion therapy would help create a safer, more accepting community for LGBTQ individuals. The American Psychological Association opposes conversion therapy on the basis that: “The potential risks of reparative [conversion] therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.” A Colorado bill to ban conversion therapy has failed to pass in the past four legislative sessions. Lawmakers may put another on the table this year, and if they do we need to support it.

We should also invest in and support to Gay-Straight-Transgender Alliances in local high schools, and local nonprofit organizations that work directly with homeless LGBTQ youth, like Inside/Out Youth Services and Urban Peak. Both of these organizations help LGBTQ youth by creating safe spaces for them to be who they really are — not only as LGBTQ people, but as teenagers — by offering them an accepting community.

The year ahead offers a fresh opportunity to fight for equality for all people, including LGBTQ youth who face many risks by just wanting to be themselves.

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