Will the LGBT Community Protect Our Homeless Youth?

LGBT youth are under attack in our country. As teens find the courage to come out of the closet at ever-younger ages, it is becoming clear that they are shouldering much of the burden of homophobia directed against the LGBT community. While there has recently been widespread recognition and response to the epidemic of bullying against LGBT youth in schools, there has been almost no recognition, and a tragic lack of response, to the epidemic of youth being thrown out of their homes by homophobic parents.

There can be no denying that LGBT youth homelessness has become an epidemic. A report released by the Center for American Progress in 2010 indicated that over 100,000 LGBT youth are homeless on the streets of our nation. As much as 40 percent of the entire homeless youth population in our country is LGBT. Even in a place as liberal and accepting as New York City, an LGBT teen is eight times more likely to become homeless than is a straight teen.

The harm and damage done to our teens by family rejection and homelessness is catastrophic. LGBT youth who are rejected by their families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those whose families accept them. Family rejection makes LGBT youth substantially more likely to suffer from mental health and medical problems, and makes them far more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. The suffering of LGBT youth on the streets is unspeakable; they are subject to incredible rates of physical and sexual assault, they become infected with HIV at alarming rates (as they are often forced to survive through prostitution), and they are at incredible risk of suicide.

Having worked with homeless LGBT youth for 17 years, and having directly witnessed the suffering of thousands of these teens, I have no doubt that this twofold phenomenon of family rejection and homelessness is the most terrible expression of homophobia in our times. It is the most terrible both in its scope, with tens of thousands of teens affected, and in its impact, in that it causes such extreme suffering and harm.

And what has been the response of the adult LGBT community? Appallingly little. In the entire country, fewer than 250 shelter beds have been established for more than 100,000 homeless LGBT youth. Protecting homeless LGBT youth does not register on the radar of the political priorities of our movement. Our national advocacy organizations devote few, if any, resources toward homeless LGBT youth, and have developed no national strategy to respond to their horrific plight.

Recent events in New York City and New York State offer a distressing example of the disconnect between the suffering of our homeless youth and the priorities of our adult community. A census of homeless youth conducted in 2008 found that in NYC there were 4,000 youths suffering from a lack of housing, 1,600 of whom identified as LGBTQ. Yet only 200 youth shelter beds are available to them, forcing the majority to struggle to survive in desperate conditions out on the streets. Instead of responding to the plight of these youths, our governor and mayor have sought to slash the grossly inadequate services that are available. Mayor Bloomberg has tried to cut homeless youth programs by at least 50 percent each year since the census was released. Thankfully the New York City Council has fought his efforts, and he has not been able to gut the few shelter beds available. However, there was no stopping Governor Cuomo; in his first budget after taking office, he cut New York State's support for homeless youth programs by 50 percent -- this in a budget that cut overall spending by 3 percent. Since Cuomo took office, the number of kids we have to turn away from the Ali Forney Center each night because we have no room to shelter them has increased by over 40 percent.

The reason I say this reveals a distressing disconnect is because the mayor, and especially the governor, have both been widely lauded as great friends and champions of the LGBT community, largely because of their support for marriage equality. And gay marriage in New York State has been a wonderful achievement. But can one truly be a champion of the LGBT community if one hurts that community's most vulnerable children? Ultimately, I see the fault lying more so with the adults in our community, as I strongly believe that if we truly made the safety and welfare of these kids a strong priority, then LGBT-supportive politicians would not dare try to throw them in the streets and jeopardize their lives to resolve their budget challenges.

I believe that, in the shock following Cuomo's budget, we are seeing the beginning of a new resolve to protect our homeless youth. I have been joined by other homeless youth service providers, and LGBT advocates, many of whom worked long on hard on achieving marriage equality, to launch the Campaign for Youth Shelter. Our goal is a very simple one: to implement a plan to provide safe shelter for every homeless youth currently suffering on the streets without a roof over their heads. We are calling on the New York City and New York State to combine in providing $3 million in additional funding each year to create 100 new youth shelter beds, until such time as there are no longer waiting lists at the youth shelters. And with the state having projected that gay marriage will bring $391 million in the next three years in additional tax revenues and economic activity, $3 million for our community's homeless kids is a modest request.

To achieve this, we are working to engage the LGBT community in new ways. We are reaching out to local LGBT rights groups, LGBT political clubs, progressive churches and synagogues, LGBT student groups, and LGBT corporate affinity groups; we are asking that they join us in demanding that our youth be protected. Today, Monday, Oct. 24, we are holding a major rally in Union Square, where these forces will join together to cry out that our youth be protected. I believe that if we are loud and strong enough, we will be successful; how can a mayor or a governor justify leaving kids in peril on the streets if they are aggressively called to task for doing so? There is no viable justification for endangering the welfare of a child.

I hope that the Campaign for Youth Shelter will be successful, and I hope that we will inspire similar efforts to protect homeless LGBT youth across the country. Ultimately I hope that we will become the community that our children need us to be.