Groundbreaking research is helping to convince councillors and staff at city hall that Toronto needs a shelter specifically for homeless LGBT youth.
 
At the Dec 4 committee for community development and recreation, University of Toronto doctoral candidate I Alex Abramovich, who has been studying homelessness among LGBT youth for the past seven years, explained that the situation is bleak for LGBT homeless youth, particularly trans youth, in Toronto. His study, which will be released in March, finds queer youth feel unsafe and unwelcome at most shelters.
 
Abramovich helped Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam draft a motion to create a new working group. The motion, which passed, compels councillors to reform the shelter system to make sure it’s free of oppression and ensure staff members are trained in responding to trauma, Wong-Tam says. 
 
“The working group will look specifically at homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system and report back in the second quarter of 2014,” she says. “The working group will also report back on the feasibility of creating an LGBT youth shelter.”
 
The group will include Abramovich, shelter service providers, researchers and experts. Shelters and organizations taking part include Covenant House, Planned Parenthood, the Wellesley Institute, Homeless Hub, the Sherbourne Health Centre, the AIDS Committee of Toronto and St Michael’s Hospital.
 
After the group completes its work, it will report back to the committee. Wong-Tam says she then hopes to include a funding request for an LGBT youth homeless shelter in the 2015 budget. It would involve city money combined with community fundraising, she says, noting that while it’s too early to comment extensively on costs, the best-case scenario involves using an existing city-owned facility. “[Then] all we would need to deal with is legal costs, construction improvements and capital modifications,” she says. 
 
Abramovich identified key problems in Toronto’s emergency shelter system that make shelters unsafe and inaccessible for LGBT youth — problems that he says could be fixed right now. One example is the shelter paperwork, which forces youth to choose whether they are “male” or “female.”
 
According to the "Toronto Shelter Standards” report, all people have the right to shelter regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It also states that service providers must accept that gender is defined by the individual seeking service.
 
“However, my PhD study revealed that this is actually not the case,” Abramovich says. “Shelter workers struggle most with issues around access around trans people, and most trans people I spoke to feel safer on the streets than they do in the shelter system. This is due to transphobia in the shelter system and staff not knowing how to respond to these issues.”
 
Councillor Josh Matlow spoke passionately about the need for more protection, safety and support for the city’s most marginalized people. 
 
“Are we treating this issue different than we would if a disaster hit Rosedale or Forest Hill?” he asked. “If something big happened in one of the city’s more affluent areas, there would be a disaster plan created that night. The media would be all over it.”
 
Abramovich says city staff are well aware of the barriers faced by trans people, but they have yet to take action. Some city staff members even described access to the shelter system as a basic human right. “[City staff] cannot guarantee every shelter is accessible to trans people because shelters don’t know what to do when a trans person walks in the door,” he says. 
 
Community agencies like the 519 Church Street Community Centre offer comprehensive training for shelter staff. But, Abramovich says, the city has not made this training mandatory.
 
“We need mandatory training,” he says. “We need cultural competency training. We need training around language and pronouns and anti-homophobia training. It may come as a surprise to learn there is no mandatory basic anti-homophobia training.”
 
Frontline shelter staff get mandatory anti-oppression training, but that focuses mainly on racism and sexism, he says. “That is absolutely important, but they need the full picture. The training must be made mandatory. People who are homophobic and transphobic will not voluntarily take anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia training.”
 
“These are really basic things,” he says. “It angers me that I have to keep coming here and do this. It’s almost 2014 and we are still talking about whether there should be basic anti-homophobic training for shelter staff. It is absurd to me.”
 
Phillip Abrahams, general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, says Abramovich’s research is powerful and convincing. He says that he is moving forward with making LGBT training mandatory for all providers and that it will happen “soon.”
 
“While the [current] training is pretty good, and with good intentions, what we are finding out is that in practice, it’s not as great as it should be,” he says. “We need to make sure, and we are working with The 519 on this, to make sure that anti-oppression training is robust enough to get to specifics like LGBTQ sensitivity.”
 
Abrahams says the current mandatory shelter anti-oppression training curriculum was developed in 2002.
 
“There wasn’t as much sensitivity to LGBT issues as there is now,” he says. “It’s time to update.”
 
“In general terms, staff needs to learn how to work with people who experience trauma. We understand that the homeless population is marginalized to varying degrees. Is it enough to meet people’s needs? What we are hearing from people is that it’s not,” Abrahams says.
 
According to 2013 research by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, about 25 to 40 percent of homeless youth between 16 and 26 years old are LGBT, compared to five to 10 percent who identify as LGBT within the general public. “The large number of LGBTQ youth who are homeless tells us that a house is not always a loving home,” it states. “Family conflict resulting from a youth coming out as LGBTQ is a major contributing factor to youth homelessness."
 
Abramovich is also critical of the complaints process within shelters. “Youth are not being made aware of this process when they enter the shelter, during intake, and most of the youth I spoke to didn’t even know there was a complaint process. Even when told about it, many said they wouldn’t use it because it’s not accessible to them.”
 
The fewest complaints to the city about the shelter system come from the youth sector, he says. 
 
“There were no reported complaints about homophobia and transphobia dating back to 2009, even though my study confirms frequent incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence in the shelter system, some that have occurred very recently,” he says. “So these incidents are just not being reported. The city doesn’t know, and if the city doesn’t know, it didn’t happen.
 
“After a youth has been beaten in a shelter due to an anti-LGBT hate crime, they aren’t going to phone or fax the city. That’s the last thing they will do.”
 
Abramovich says a Toronto shelter exclusively for LGBT youth is long overdue. “We have been talking about this for years, and still they won’t address these issues. LGBTQ youth should not have to spend another cold winter living in a park.”
 
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