Toronto's homeless advocates can breathe easier during WorldPride.
Not only is the issue of LGBTQ homelessness on the agenda at the Human Rights Conference, but Toronto is finally tackling barriers to queer and trans youth in accessing the shelter system.
"I've seen the most gains in the past year in all the eight years I've been working in this area," says Alex Abramovich, one of the few Canadian researchers studying why LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the youth homeless population.
Abramovich will participate in a panel discussion at the WorldPride Human Rights Conference on Friday (June 27) at the University of Toronto alongside homeless youth advocates from Detroit, New York City and Jamaica.
Earlier this week, a working group struck by council last year submitted a report to the Community Recreation and Development Committee recommending council gauge community interest in operating an emergency shelter or transitional housing for LGBTQ youth. The Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) is supposed to report back on financial feasibility in 2015.
The report builds on the city's 2013 street needs assessment, which provides an annual one-night snapshot of homelessness in the city.
Crucially, the group also recommended that the SSHA develop new emergency shelter standards that take into account the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth, to be implemented next year.
The report notes that LGBTQ youth end up on the street due to conflict and rejection at home and school. They experience higher rates of violence and harassment than their straight peers, despite shifting societal attitudes and legislation such as the 2012 amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code extending protection from discrimination to trans people.
Barriers in the shelter system include homophobic and transphobic staff and shelter users, inadequate washroom/shower facilities and incapacity to support youth dealing with complex issues like gender transitions.
For the first time, surveyors in Toronto asked people using shelter services if they identify as LGBTQ. In the youth system, 21 per cent of respondents answered yes, providing advocates with their first concrete numbers on the issue since a 2000 study that found 25 to 40 per cent of Canadian homeless youth identify as queer or trans.
However, advocates believe the real number is higher, since LGBTQ youth fleeing abuse or rejection at home may not self-identify and do not always visit shelters for fear of encountering violence and transphobia.
"We need to work on the whole shelter system and implement these changes so it becomes a safer and more supportive place," says Abramovich, who credits recent media attention with putting the issue on the agenda. "We also need to create separate transitional housing for LGBTQ youth. This is something that's been done very successfully in the United States."
Learn why youth leave home in the first place, says Jama Shelton.
Abramovich wants a national strategy to combat the problem, in part because data on the percentage of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ is lacking. Attention to the issue varies from province to province: Alberta has been progressive, and in Toronto, youth homelessness outreach agency Eva's Initiatives is creating a toolkit for shelters across the country.
Speaking on the conference panel with Abramovich is Jama Shelton, who worked for nine years at New York City's Ali Forney Center, which provides housing and services for queer and transgender youth, before becoming director of the True Colors Fund's Forty To None Project.
In the U.S., LGBT youth make up 3 to 5 per cent of the overall population, but advocates believe up to 40 per cent of the country's 1.6 million homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
New York City is one of several jurisdictions that provide housing or services aimed specifically at LGBTQ youth. Shelton is now working with U.S. federal agencies and departments to come up with strategies for ending LGBTQ youth homelessness as part of the government's plan to end overall youth homelessness by 2020.
This year, the U.S. government began a pilot program to count homeless youth and ask them about their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Shelton has had some success convening interdepartmental meetings between federal agencies and service providers to discuss prevention and early intervention strategies. "There's movement in some regions of the country," says Shelton. "I'm much more hopeful than I would've been three years ago."
Forty To None provides support to communities like Cincinnati, Houston, Nashville, Miami, Chicago and Seattle where local agencies are already tackling the issue. Shelton's goal is to help bring local schools, child welfare agencies and juvenile justice organizations to the table to do thorough assessments of young people in their systems.
At WorldPride, Shelton will push a holistic approach.
"In the States the service model has been reactive. ‘We need more beds and shelters and we need more things for young people once they're on the street,'" she says. "I don't disagree with that message, but I also think there's a lot of work we could be doing upstream to prevent young people from ever needing the bed in the first place."
Meanwhile, in Jamaica, homeless advocates face similar obstacles but are also up against a patriarchal culture exacerbated by the Caribbean country's colonial-era anti-sodomy law.
Attitudes have shifted in the past five years, and queer Jamaicans who are able to pass as straight are often able to live in their communities, says human rights activist Yvonne McCalla-Sobers, another panelist.
However, poor LGBTQ people who insist on living openly as gay or trans remain marginalized. Six months ago, she founded Dwayne's House, a Kingston-based outreach organization that serves the 20 to 40 LGBTQ youth living in the city's sewer system after being evicted from their home last year.
"They are at the bottom of the pile in the LGBT community. They are at the bottom of the pile in the wider community," she says.
In Kingston, there is one overcrowded night homeless shelter and one day shelter for adults only. Dwayne's House provides food and clothing as well as legal, medical, dental and educational services, and intervenes when youth run afoul of police.
In April, Jamaica's minister of youth and culture announced in a Facebook post the government's intention to create new services for homeless LGBTQ youth. However, the issue is opposed by fundamentalist churches and thus politically unpopular in Jamaica.
"This is not an area that will help politicians at the polls," says McCalla-Sobers.
Her next step is to secure property and funds to establish a drop-in centre that can provide psychological counselling and educational training. After that, she hopes to establish a drop-in shelter and eventually residential housing.
"I have sons of my own. I became involved because I felt there was a need. The problem won't go away, and in fact will worsen if they don't have help or feel there's somebody caring for them," she says. "It's not human to live in a storm drain."
Here at home, the problem of LGBTQ homelessness will persist after the glow of WorldPride fades, and community groups and city staff must continue refining a made-in-Toronto solution that the rest of Canada can learn from.