4 min

City of Toronto strives to improve the lives of homeless LGBT youth

Researcher says 'anything at all' is helpful for overlooked population

It's estimated that nearly half of homeless youth identify as queer or transgender. Credit: Thinkstock

A University of Toronto doctoral candidate is hoping the “emergency situation” of homeless gay, lesbian and trans youth is now on city staff’s radar after a presentation to city councillors Sept 18.

Alex Abramovich has studied homelessness among LGBT youth for the past seven years and says councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Josh Matlow were most receptive to his presentation at a community development and recreation committee meeting concerning the housing stabilization fund last month.

Abramovich informed the committee of the three main findings his research uncovered.

The culture of Toronto’s shelter system has an overall normalized atmosphere of homophobia and transphobia, Abramovich says, and youth participants describe the system as a dangerous place because of widespread discrimination that’s rarely addressed.

“One youth who I spoke to spoke about living in a park for months because he didn’t feel safe in the shelter system,” Abramovich says, noting that his interviewee said he felt safer taking pills to help him sleep through the night, and outside in below-zero weather, rather than being in the shelter system because of discrimination.

Staff at Toronto’s shelters are not being trained on gay and trans issues, Abramovich says, adding that they aren’t prepared to intervene in situations of homophobia and transphobia.

“The 519 Church Street Community Centre provides trans access training, which is a great start, but clearly, we need much more than that. We need ongoing monitoring of training as well,” he says.

Abramovich also told the committee that his data shows “major discrepancies that exist between the rules and policies that have been created by the City of Toronto and what is actually done in shelters.”

Staff and management at the city’s shelters alternate between following and not following the rules, he says.

He cites examples in which trans and gender-nonconforming youth are often denied access to shelters based on their gender identity, noting that shelter workers struggle the most with issues around access to services for trans people.

Another area in need of a major overhaul is the shelter system’s complaints procedure, he says.

“The city receives the least amount of complaints in the youth sector. There have been no known complaints in the youth sector in relation to transphobia or homophobia dating back to 2009. But my study confirmed frequent incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence in the shelter system. The lack of formal complaints lodged by youth is due to youth not being aware of the complaints process,” he contends.

Abramovich ended his presentation by pointing to the final chapter of his dissertation, which contains policy and practice recommendations to improve the shelter system for LGBT youth.

The housing stabilization fund is a $3.7 million fund earmarked to improve the lives of priority populations, including “at-risk seniors and aboriginal households.”

The standing committee of community development and recreation made a recommendation to add gay, lesbian and trans youth to the list of priority populations.

“I specifically did ask that the staff consider the LGBT population a priority population,” Wong-Tam says. “I don’t anticipate that there will be any debate around that.”

The community development and recreation committee has asked Phillip Abrahams, the general manager of the shelter, support and housing administration, to report to the committee on Oct 28 to outline how the allowance “will be designed to meet the needs” of these populations “consistent with the findings of the most recent Street Needs Assessment."

Patricia Anderson, manager of partnership development and support for the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, points to the street-needs assessment as evidence the city is working to improve conditions for gay, lesbian and trans homeless youth.

The city will address safety and accessibility issues through the delivery of staff training and workshops, improve shelter standards and reform the complaints process “to ensure LGBTQ clients receive the support they are entitled to,” Anderson says.

“The staff report also speaks to the development of new partnerships with community organizations working with LGBTQ youth,” she says. “This builds on funding relationships the city already has with such organizations as the 519 Community Centre and Sherbourne Health Centre. The focus of the three projects already in place is to improve access to safe shelter and housing for LGBTQ youth through such initiatives as training for housing workers, housing providers, social work students, social service staff, and staff in the Toronto shelter system.”

These projects, funded through the federal government’s Homelessness Prevention Strategy, will address employment, making workplaces trans-inclusive, increasing resilience and self-sufficiency among LGBT youth, and addressing practical and immediate needs, Anderson adds.

Wong-Tam, who is a lesbian, acknowledges that while the city was aware of the crisis regarding homeless gay, lesbian and trans youth before Abramovich’s speech, she appreciates Abramovich’s findings and plans to meet with him to discuss his recommendations.

“It really reinforced what the staff was already reporting in their findings. I don’t think that it hurts ever to raise those issues at city hall,” Wong-Tam says. “We live in an environment and work in an environment that is extremely heterosexist. We assume everyone is straight. Often the political leaders do not have LGBT issues on their radar. So I think it was very helpful for the councillors to hear that message reinforced, that this is a population that needs attention.”

Wong-Tam says she has spoken with various shelter managers and executive directors who are “very keen to learn more.”

The fact that homeless gay, lesbian and trans youth are soon to be a priority is a “step in the right direction,” Abramovich says, adding “anything would help” because “this is a group of youth that they don’t even consider for anything.”

Abramovich will be in Ottawa Oct 29 to present his findings at the National Conference to End Homelessness.