The Plight of Baltimore’s Homeless LGBT Youth
By Steve Charing
They seemed to get along as well as any Baltimore family that has a 16 year-old. But when the religious mother and stepfather of Antoine Williams (not his actual name) discovered he was gay, they immediately put him out of the house.
Following the incident, the parents of one of Antoine’s friends allowed him to stay with them for the next six months. When that expired, Antoine lived on the streets until he ended up moving in with five other gay youth and an older 24 year-old gay male. They lived together in a single room—all six of them—migrating from a motel on North Avenue to another on Resisterstown Road.
To feed themselves and pay the motel charges, all of them became prostitutes on the streets of Baltimore. As a result, Antoine contracted several sexually transmitted diseases (STD) as well as HIV.
Two years later, Antoine’s parents allowed him to return to their house. They still didn’t get along. He then moved in with a much older male in Baltimore to whom he was dependent. It was a relationship that in order for Antoine to be housed and fed, the older man demanded sexual favors from him. Antoine was exploited.
A couple of years later, Antoine found his own place, and at 24 today, he seems to be doing relatively okay.
Notwithstanding Antoine’s HIV status and other physical and psychological issues, this is one of the better outcomes when a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered youth must confront the streets of Baltimore. That usually happens following a tumultuous family crisis generated by a parent forcing their child out of the house upon learning that he or she is LGBT or that they are so unaccepting of the child’s sexual orientation, the teen must run away to change the environment.
We perceive homeless people to be older and living on the streets, in doorways, alleys, abandoned houses and cars, under bridges and overpasses, sleeping on benches and grates and occasionally making their way into emergency shelters.
Indeed, according to the most recent census taken of the homeless population in January 2007 by Baltimore Homeless Services, a component of the Baltimore Health Department, four out of five homeless are over age 35. The factors causing adult homelessness are more likely to be economic-related or the result of mental, physical and substance abuse problems.
Living in the Shadows
Homeless teens who are unaccompanied (not part of a homeless family but are out on their own), including LGBT youth, also spend a significant time on the streets. But they are more apt to seek shelter with friends, extended family members, lovers, or occasional strangers like the ones Antoine met. This is referred to as "couch surfing"—finding any place to crash, however temporary, unstable, transitional and risky that may be.
"Homeless youth in Baltimore, ages 18 to 24, comprise the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population," says Nan Astone, a professor and faculty member at the center of Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
A significant number of the homeless youth aren’t captured by the census because so many are in these transitional environments (categorized as unstably housed). Since the census survey is conducted at a point in time when homeless congregate at shelters, soup kitchens and social service centers, on a given day there may not be homeless youth present at these locations to be counted.
Moreover, homeless young people, including LGBT youth, tend not to reach out for assistance at these centers either because they eschew such mainstream intervention, distrust adults, fear they may be placed in foster care, or they are not aware of the services available. They are simply hiding in many cases.
Accordingly, these youth are dwelling under the radar, and their population is woefully underestimated. That is critical when determining the magnitude of the problem.
The Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative (BHYI) with technical assistance from researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, conducted a parallel youth count in 2007 and found 272 unaccompanied minors and unstably housed young people under the age of 26 in Baltimore City. A majority of youth counted, 157 (58%), were between 16 and 19 years old. Of those counted, 145 (53%) were female, 108 (40%) were male, and 19 (7%) were transgender.
The Baltimore public school system estimates there are as many as 2,289 homeless young people in Baltimore.
In the BHYI survey, there is no breakdown in the statistics regarding sexual orientation other than the transgender category, and again, these are extremely conservative numbers given the lack of visibility of homeless young people.
(A BHYI-Bloomberg School census of homeless youth for 2009 was recently undertaken, but the findings will not be available for several months.)
Forced to the streets
A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force report estimates that one third of American homeless youth are LGBT. Nicholas Ray, the author of the report says, "Ultimately …the crisis begins with family conflict and institutionalized homophobia."
Many LGBT children who are thrown out of their houses (referred to as "throwaways") have been victims of parental physical abuse or family conflict. They lack basic resources, education, skills, or a plan for the future. Some try to attend school but struggle; others drop out altogether. It’s not easy to succeed in school when their next meal is uncertain.
The throwaways are vulnerable to criminal behavior, sometimes through gang involvement, as well as becoming victims of robbery, rape and assault. They are also exposed to many risks that lead to poor health—STD’s, including HIV, survival sex (sex in exchange for money, drugs or shelter), pregnancy, depression and are more prone to consider suicide than other homeless youth.
These family crises that result in being forced out can be largely traced to the religious views towards homosexuality by parents. Clearly if the parents of LGBT teens are more tolerant, the throwaway problem would be mitigated. The support organization PFLAG—Parents, Families of Friends of Lesbians and Gays—has had an on and off presence in Baltimore for years. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of interest by city parents to sustain the chapter, and the families of LGBT city youth are not being served.
"Too many parents of LGBT kids are confused and uninformed," said Colette Roberts, chairperson of the Howard County chapter of PFLAG. "I get many phone calls from parents in Baltimore who are unable to travel to our meetings, and the best I can do is mail them literature. While helpful, they need much more in the way of education and support than a mailing can provide."
Limited choices for LGBT Homeless
If and when these LGBT youth seek out a public shelter, straight kids are more likely to be treated better, according to Ross Pologe, a venerable advocate of Baltimore youth issues. Young LGBT people, especially males, are often subject to harassment and violence at these shelters. "We have so much baggage about sexual orientation in our society," Pologe laments.
Ross Pologe, who for 33 years has been associated with the Fellowship of Lights, a facility that had provided shelter for runaways, ages 12 to 18, works with BHYI. "LGBT youth who are kicked out of their homes are not likely to seek help. They need stable housing." He urges alternatives to foster care as a key to help solving this problem.
To be sure, foster care has not worked well in Baltimore, especially for LGBT teens. The conditions are often intolerable. Foster parents who are religious have tossed LGBT kids out. When they are in foster care the kids are frequently harassed or shunned, pushing them to run away to escape. On a given day, 100 youth are missing from the foster care system.
The numerous homeless teens who wind up in the juvenile justice system face even greater challenges in getting placed in acceptable foster care.
Support is scarce
Community youth activist Kenneth Morrison, who at 19, helped organize a support group called Kevon’s Room in 2004 for Baltimore City’s LGBQT youth ages 13 to 21. As stated on the group’s MySpace page, its mission was to make Baltimore City a safer place for LGBT youth.
"Baltimore's youth have enough issues from poverty and crime to the lack of adequate education. Being ostracized by your family and community should not be one of them," according to the statement on the page.
Kevon’s Room had about 220 members and worked with both gay community centers and churches. But the group disbanded in 2007 when homeless LGBT teens comprised over a third of all the kids. "There just are no resources for homeless gays. No safe place for gays," Morrison said plaintively. "There was nothing we can do."
"If there is a neglected, forgotten community in Baltimore, it is the dozens of homeless LGBT youth," said Aaron Merki, who along with other attorneys and law students, are in the process of establishing the Freestate Legal Clinic in Baltimore to address legal issues facing LGBT youth. "Often they are sick, malnourished, abandoned by friends and family, and forced to prostitute themselves in order to shower and eat."
As bad it is for gay and lesbians to find adequate shelter, the problem is more acute for the transgender youth. According to the BHYI census, 15 of the 19 (76%) transgender youth surveyed were unstably housed.
Attorney Lisa Kershner, who is another founder of Freestate, is appalled by the plight of transgender youth. "[They] face discrimination, hate crimes, and for the many who are homeless, are even being shut of shelters and left to fend for themselves on the street where they are at even greater risk for abuse and violence," Kershner said.
Homeless LGBT youth require stable living conditions to overcome the long-term challenges they face. While Baltimore Homeless Services does a good job in trying to cope with adult homelessness, it does not have specific services geared towards homeless youth. Likewise, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore lacks a specific program that is dedicated to LGBT homeless youth.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Without question inadequate funding had been a great impediment to area providers as is a true sense of the quantitative scope of the problem. However, the aforementioned Baltimore Homeless Youth Initiative, which had conducted the parallel homeless census, is a collaboration of Government and community agencies trying to find better housing for youth for ages ranging from 14 to 24.
BHYI and other providers are attempting to create a building in the city’s Southern Park Heights neighborhood to house approximately 40 homeless youth. This housing opportunity, called Restoration Gardens, is expected to be available for occupancy this summer.
In Montgomery County there are plans afoot to establish a residential home dedicated to LGBT homeless youth. Hearts and Homes, a service organization for youth in need, is working with Equality Maryland, PFLAG, other organizations in the private sector as well as local government to make this possible. At the beginning, the residence is expected to have 6 to 8 beds.
Although the home will be situated in Montgomery County, youth from across the state can be referred to the home, says Carrie Evans, Director of Policy and Planning for Equality Maryland.
Several services will be offered. "We will provide 24-hour supervision with counselors, mentors, treatment, access to jobs and education," said Rex Smith who founded Hearts and Homes in 1964. "Besides housing them, we need to be teaching kids about their self-worth."
Lining up money for up-front costs is essential. "Our first order of business is raising the operating funds for the home, so we have formed a fundraising committee to devise a plan," said Evans. "Once we get some dedicated money we expect things to move forward quickly." A target date has been set for July 1.
"Homeless youth are not just younger forms of homeless adults," said Nan Astone.. "They are different in many, if not most, ways."
And LGBT homeless youth are different still and face greater challenges especially since they dwell below the radar.