A doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto is pushing for the creation of shelters specifically tailored to the needs of queer and transgender homeless youth, who are estimated to represent nearly half of Ottawa’s homeless youth.
Alex Abramovich has studied homelessness for the past seven years and is currently completing his dissertation on the subject. He says the most prevalent factor explaining homelessness among queer and trans youth is the homophobia and transphobia they face within their families.
Family conflict is “the pathway that leads most youth into homelessness,” Abramovich says, and when youth come out as queer or trans this conflict can escalate.
“They are either forced to leave home or they have no other choice but to leave because the abuse becomes so unbearable. I’ve spoken to a lot of youth who didn’t report histories of family conflict . . . they came out and then the conflict began. Homophobia and transphobia cause homelessness.”
In Abramovich’s research study “No Fixed Address: Young, Queer and Restless,” he writes that staff at shelters across the country said they were shocked when they learned no shelters specifically for queer and trans youth exist.
This realization initially shocked Abramovich as well.
“Here in Toronto, which is a place that a lot of youth migrate to, we just have a few evening programs that happen once a week for a few hours. Those programs are amazing, they are really great, but it’s not a safe place to sleep at night,” he says. “It’s not a place where youth can go if they need to get out of a home or if they are experiencing homophobia or transphobia in the shelter system.”
Abramovich would like to see additional training for shelter staff on how to serve queer and trans youth but says changing attitudes in shelters will take years, and homeless queer youth need housing now.
Shelters that employ queer or trans staff are seen as more welcoming to queer youth, who see themselves reflected in service providers, he notes.
However, many of the youth he interviewed also said they don’t feel part of the queer community. “There is no community; they don’t feel welcome. They spoke a lot about feeling objectified and I guess abused by older people in the community. The absence of community — that was something that was really surprising to me,” he says.
Although not a shelter specifically for queer and trans youth, Ottawa’s Youth Services Bureau (YSB) offers sex-segregated emergency housing for those between the ages of 12 and 20.
YSB’s youth shelters feature separate showers and single rooms, which is unique, says executive director Joanne Lowe.
“That assists everybody, not just youth who present in a particular way,” says Lowe, who also agrees that shelters specifically for queer and trans youth would be beneficial.
“Our practices are embedded in ongoing training. I think one of the unique things that has helped us in particular is the youth themselves,” she says. “We have a very strong practice and a very strong value of asking youth and inviting youth to tell us what they need and try to move that into how we evolve our own services.”
Abramovich points to the YSB and Toronto’s 519 Community Centre and Sherbourne Health Centre as organizations that are making progress toward better serving homeless queer and trans youth.
Vancouver’s RainCity Housing project has been trying to create a shelter specifically for queer and trans youth for more than a year. If it succeeds, it would be the first of its kind in Canada.
RainCity first conceived of creating a shelter for Vancouver’s queer homeless youth in 2012 and is now fundraising to match a $250,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation. If the fundraising is successful, RainCity will launch a two-year pilot project.
RainCity’s manager of community development, Aaron Munro, says 30 to 50 percent of homeless youth are projected to be “gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or two spirit.”
“When that population is only 10 percent of the general population, that’s a staggering number,” Munro points out.
“And that number [30 to 50 percent] is projected by everybody to be incredibly low. Homeless youth tend to be a bit more hidden from services,” he adds.
Munro acknowledges that queer and trans homeless youth typically don’t feel safe in shelters and adds that figures from the United Kingdom indicate that the average stay in a shelter for a young person is three weeks, a very short amount of time.
“Which leads me to believe that if there was a landing pad for these kids who are coming out and ending up in the cities, it wouldn’t require a long-term intervention, which is what occurs with a lot of homeless youth because so much trauma has happened to them,” he says. “But if we could provide them services immediately, get them on their feet, connect them to their community, that wouldn’t be necessary, that sort of longer term. I think it’s actually in society’s best interest and in taxpayers’, government’s and our community’s best interest to have these initiatives so our young people don’t face multiple issues after multiple years on the street.”
Munro admits that fundraising in the current economy is tough but says RainCity is committed to bringing the shelter to fruition — it’s just a matter of when.
“We really need to stop viewing these initiatives as simply housing. Housing is more than just housing; it saves young people’s lives and is an enormous benefit to all communities,” he says. “The project that we’re opening is going to be all about natural connections for young people.”
Although Abramovich welcomes the discussions on queer youth homelessness now taking place in Vancouver and Ottawa, he says it’s time we start listening to the youth.
“The huge majority of the youth who I’ve spoken to have said this is what they need; this is what they want. They are living it every single day, and if they are saying that is what they need, then I think it’s time for us to respond to that.”