Aaron Munro and his co-workers at RainCity Housing and Support Society are trying to raise funds and attract volunteers to a new project aimed at housing and supporting homeless queer youth in Vancouver.
The project, partially funded by a $250,000 grant from the Vancouver Foundation, will house up to six homeless queer youth (aged 19 to 24) full-time and will serve as a community hub for youth to connect with peers, mentors and community-service providers.
However, in order for the Commercial Dr community house to open its doors, RainCity needs to raise another $250,000 to match the Vancouver Foundation grant.
“What we see with youth who spend a lot of time on the street is they don’t have the ability to be able to spend that time to think about who they are, who they want to be, what they’re excited about,” says Munro, RainCity’s director of community development.
Munro hopes the project will eventually link youth with mentors in the community who are successful in a career field they’re interested in pursuing. “We’re forming a LGBTQ2S community advisory group as we move forward, and we hope that members of the community will want to be involved in many ways, including coming over to teach or learn from youth how to garden, cook or mentor youth in their place of employment,” he says.
Munro plans to work with organizations for queer youth such as YouthCO, Trans Youth Drop-In, GAB Youth and Watari, which supports at-risk youth primarily in the Downtown Eastside and in East Vancouver.
“There is nothing like it right now,” says Michelle Fortin, Watari’s executive director. Having worked in the field for 28 years, Fortin says there is a definite need for this type of housing project aimed specifically at queer youth.
A 2007 study from BC’s McCreary Centre found queer youth were “over-represented among marginalized and street-involved youth: one in three females and one in 10 males identified as gay, lesbian and bisexual.”
The report also indicated that the number of queer youth on the streets is growing.
Munro thinks this could be attributed to more queer youth coming out earlier. The downside to youth coming out earlier could be finding themselves on the streets earlier if they lack support, he says.
“I think particularly youth who struggle with either gender identity or sexual identity, they really need that time, and they need positive community around them to be able to build themselves into the kind of person they want to be,” Munro says. He hopes RainCity’s pilot project can serve as a model for other community housing projects across Canada.
Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, of UBC’s Department of Nursing and principal researcher of the 2007 McCreary report, agrees that the project is unprecedented in Vancouver.
“This is a fairly cutting-edge approach. To my knowledge, there have been only a few queer-focused shelter or housing programs that have been developed for LGBTQ young people, and I think they’ve mostly been in the US, in New York, of course, and San Francisco, in Seattle and in Detroit,” she says.
An attempt in 1999 to build a group home for homeless queer youth in Vancouver failed to get off the ground due to poor management and in-fighting on the board of directors. Though the Pride House project was aborted, its 2002 needs-assessment study echoed the call for queer services for street youth.
“Our research among street-involved youth shows those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are more likely than heterosexual youth to experience several different kinds of violence, from threats and insults to physical assaults and even sexual exploitation,” Saewyc says.
Munro says he could have used this kind of support and housing while travelling as a young adult across North America. Now 35, he considers himself lucky to have found strong mentors and support networks in San Francisco and Vancouver.
“One of my biggest hopes for this project is that we create an environment where people can build an identity that is positive for themselves,” he says.