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Visioning underway for gay homeless youth shelter

Group seeks input at early stage

An ad hoc group of concerned youth workers is trying to build support for a new homeless shelter for gay and trans youth.

The Spectrum Youth Needs Committee (SYNC) is holding community consultations around Toronto to determine what homeless queer youth need and how best to proceed with the project. One outreach meeting was held Dec 9 at Harbord Collegiate Institute and more are planned for Toronto’s north, east and west ends.

Alex Abramovich, who has been studying the homeless queer youth problem as part of her PhD thesis at University of Toronto-OISE, says that between 25 and 40 percent of homeless youth are estimated to identify as lesbian, gay, bi or trans. Most often these youth leave home or are kicked out due to physical or emotional abuse related to their sexual identity.

Some report feeling unsafe in the existing shelter environment because of homophobia and transphobia from staff and other residents, Abramovich says. This is a particular concern among trans youth, who often say they feel unwelcome in gender-specific shared environments like dorms and bathrooms.

The need for better services for homeless gay, bi and trans youth has been discussed for years, but momentum picked up this fall when city council candidate Michael Erickson made the establishment of a queer youth shelter a key part of his platform. Although Erickson lost the election, he says his support for the project acted as a “lightning rod for people who’ve been doing work on this.”

“We had an initial meeting,” Erickson says, “and a few of us took responsibility to hold community outreach meetings, so we would have a broad base of people who wanted to contribute their time and ideas to the project.”

If the first consultation is any indication, a host of obstacles must be overcome before the proposed shelter becomes a reality, not least of which is resolving the many conflicting desires and goals of the project’s boosters.

A fundamental question is whether there needs to be a queer-only shelter at all. Some participants in the most recent consultation suggested that it might be better to improve services for queer youth within existing shelters, as homeless youth might be reluctant to enter a shelter that identifies them as queer.

Erickson says that hoping to make the existing shelters queer-friendly is misguided.

“I don’t think it’s possible,” he says. “The shelter system replicates the presence of homophobia in our society. You can’t ask youth going through the most traumatic point in their lives to be on their best behaviour.”

Other questions focus on practicalities. Should it be in the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood or not? How would a shelter operate? Would it be an emergency shelter for short-term stays with fewer beds and services available, or is a longer-term transitional home necessary to help queer youth live independently? Should the shelter be run by the city or operate independently through donations from the community?

Those at Harbord seemed united on other core needs for queer youth accessing a shelter. An ideal shelter would have private, gender-neutral beds and bathrooms available for trans residents. It would also have medical, counselling and job-training services, and safe communal spaces. Many also expressed hope that there would be queer-identified staff on site.

“One of the things I’ve experienced in the past doing this kind of community work is that we’re focused on critique and consequences,” says Erickson. “But it can’t be worse than it currently is. Suicide is the number one cause of death for youth in our province, often because of identity issues. Youth are dying because they don’t have this.”

SYNC is seeking members to contribute their time, skills and ideas. Email synctoronto@gmail.com for a membership form and to find out when future consultation meetings will take place.