Homelessness in America is at a staggering level. It is estimated that over half a million individuals are homeless on any given night, and out of those, the NAEH estimates that more than a fifth of them identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) youths. (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2015) These young people face a great many challenges because of their gender and sexual identity when they are in need of services. For its part, the state of Colorado is implementing measures to address this segment of the population.
“When I was homeless I had a very hard time finding resources for LGBTQ people. What resources could find were often depleted,” offered Ashley Hall on her experience of being a LGBTQ homeless young adult, adding, “Some shelters do not accept you if you are gender non-conforming. Some shelters run by religious organizations or churches would have clear statements to not accept any LGBTQ people.”
Therein lies the problem that many LGBTQ homeless teens face, lack of resources. Without adequate resources to offer LGBGQ teens a safe and supportive environment, these teens will have to turn to other methods to survive. Most will turn to sex as a means of survival. To them, “survival sex” is the only way to obtain money for food. Once down this road to survival, many teens end up becoming a product of sex trafficking.
State representative Cheryl Secorski, of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) offered her assessment of youth sex trafficking, stating it is a big issue both in Denver and the whole nation “It starts off as a very loving supportive environment, then snowballs very fast. It’s very hard to get out of. A lot of times youths don’t know they are actually engaged,” she added.
One of the ways that Colorado is addressing this issue according to Secorski, is working with several agencies around the state that sit on the Advisory Board for Homeless Youth. In this capacity, the advisory board offers many services that integrate youth representation, state level coordination, and community members that are interested and wanting to participate. These organizations accept homeless youths without discrimination, and offer a variety of services for the homeless. One such organization is Urban Peak, which specifically works with youths in Denver and Colorado Springs, and Attention House in Boulder.
“Urban Peak was the only place I could find shelter when I needed it. Granted it was first come, first serve for beds. I think there was like 30-40 that were available,” said Greg M. “At least, I was safe, and didn’t have to sleep on the streets around Mile High, or the 16th Street Mall. Plus, as the LGBTQ community is small, many of us knew each other which helped being homeless.”
For its part, Urban Peak is leading the way to assist the homeless youth regardless of gender and sexual orientation. They offer services, such as street outreach teams that meet youths on the streets, providing them with food and hygiene items. Within the shelter, they offer breakfast three times a day, showers and computer resources that were indispensable to the like of Ms. Hall, “Without the resources of Urban Peak, I would have only been able to eat three times a week, or would not have a place to bathe. Sometimes I had to bathe in the school sink. It also gave me a place to do homework, as I was in college at this time. It helped to break the cycle by giving me the resources.”
Colorado is also stepping up to the plate when it comes to addressing the limited resources for the homeless and LGBTQ teen communities. One of those ways the state is addressing the issue is by the use of a voucher program called Family Unification Program (FUB), which is a program that assists with housing regardless of gender and sexual orientation. What makes this program unique, is that the state of Colorado has allocated 150 vouchers from this program for youth housing, albeit for young adults 18-24 years of age who have been in foster care. According to Ms. Secorski, it’s the largest youth housing enterprise in the country. “We are leading the way with that,” she added. The state is also reworking questionnaires in regards to the circumstances of individuals becoming homeless and if their gender identity or LGBTQ status played a role. With this information, the state effort to address the homeless issue can direct the needed resources to the appropriate areas. In addition, the state is helping agencies that have mentoring programs within the LGBTQ community. This assistance will offer a solid support base for LGBTQ teens as they will now have a more natural support system in place. These teens will have the ability to interact with someone who walked a similar path and encountered the same struggles as they have. These mentors understand their plight.
While Colorado is making strides to address issues of LGBTQ teen homeless, the one piece of advice that Ms. Secorski offers to parents is, “Know your kids. If you’re not supportive of them, you’re going to miss a lot. I’m a parent, and I would do anything to make my kids happy.”