Why homeless LGBTQ youth feel unsafe in shelters

By Erica Lenti - Published on November 5, 2015
girl walking alone on a bridge
Studies show that 21 per cent of homeless youth in Toronto identify as LGBTQ.

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It’s a windy October afternoon when United Church minister Evan Smith and I pull into the gravel lot at the mouth of the Don River in her beat-up Pontiac. Standing tall to our left is a stack of concrete silos. Unkempt brush and a crooked wire fence separate us from the grey, mammoth structures. There’s not another person in sight for as far as I can see in any direction.

This is where Smith used to live.

Back in the late ’90s, Evan was part of the Rooster Squat, a derelict building constructed beside the silos where homeless people, many of whom were squeegee kids, would convene and sleep. (The squat was named after a graffiti rooster was spray-painted onto the silos.) Smith, who identifies as queer and polyamorous, remembers the squat as a safe haven for LGBTQ youth who couldn’t survive in traditional shelters, places where they would be subjected to harassment and violence.

Smith ended up at the squat after she was gay-bashed out of her hometown of Brantford, Ont. She was only 17 at the time, and her options were limited. When the building was eventually demolished, dozens of LGBTQ youth, like Smith, were displaced. They eventually set up camp in Tent City, on the gravel lot where we were now standing, for a short period, until the city evacuated the area after Home Depot purchased the land. The youth then dispersed throughout the city, with nowhere certain to call home. As if not to forget this, Smith has a tattoo of the silos on her forearm, accompanied by a quote from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Such was the reality for homeless LGBTQ youth 20 years ago—and still is for many today. Some gay, lesbian or transgender youth still refuse to access traditional shelters in fear of discrimination; dealing with LGBTQ-specific issues in such shelters has often taken a backseat. Alex Abramovich, a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health who has been a voice for Canadian LGBTQ homeless youth for more than a decade, told me back in March these hurdles are thanks to an indifferent attitude often held at traditional shelters. In his research, Abramovich found homophobic or transphobic slurs, for instance, would be brushed off as “just the way teens talk these days.” In other instances, shelter staff wasn’t aware of any LGBTQ youth accessing their services, let alone equipped to address their specific needs.

In light of these issues, the City of Toronto announced earlier this year that it would fund Canada’s first-ever LGBTQ transitional home. In March, the municipal government voted to allocate $600,000 of its 2015 budget to fund 54 beds, 25 of which would be located at the YMCA’s Sprott House in midtown Toronto; the other 29 will be in a shelter operated by Egale Canada, which is still in the midst of preparations. The YMCA plans to begin accepting applications for Sprott House in early December.

Such funding for LGBTQ youth shelters in Toronto could initiate a wave of change in the way the province views gay, lesbian or transgender homelessness, the start of a shift toward more inclusive aid for some of Ontario’s most vulnerable.

The opening of a transitional house in the city came after nearly a decade of vying for a LGBTQ-friendly shelter space. Abramovich was among those advocates, studying the needs of gay, lesbian or transgender homeless youth since his days as a grad student at York University. His latest research, a Street Needs Assessment published in 2013, found 21 per cent of homeless youth in Toronto identify as LGBTQ. That number may very well be much higher—many LGBTQ youth are hesitant to disclose their gender or sexual identity to researchers, he says.

But that number represents only Toronto; it’s harder to discern how much larger the number may be across the province. Though this past spring the provincial government allocated nearly $600 million to help end homelessness, and a similar initiative last year helped more than 33,000 homeless Ontarians across multiple municipalities, it’s not specified how many were youth. It isn’t hard to imagine, however, how many LGBTQ youth in more conservative areas of the province are forced into homelessness.

The state of affordable housing and shelter in Ontario has been abysmal. In April, the 124-bed Hope Shelter in downtown Toronto closed its doors, and the city has yet to replace the beds in another shelter. The situation is even worse for the 2,000 youth Covenant House estimates end up sleeping on Toronto’s streets every night: despite petitions to save it, the 60-bed Second Base Youth Shelter in Scarborough, Ont. closed last month. Even with a transitional home like Sprott House soon opening, 35 beds specifically for youth have been lost in Toronto alone.

Outside of Toronto, things are just as dire. This June, the only emergency shelter in Kenora, Ont., began charging residents who stayed for more than 10 nights and there are plans to close the shelter next April. In Ottawa, an Aboriginal drop-in centre was forced to close after budget cuts in February.

Smith laments: “We’re actually losing more beds than gaining. Where exactly is everyone supposed to go?”

That’s where Sprott’s mission comes in. Though the shelter is small—and management there is the first to admit this—it brings about a much larger impact on the community it’s built to serve. In cooperation with the 519 Community Centre, an LGBTQ resource centre in downtown Toronto, Sprott staff has been training to best accommodate the specific needs of its forthcoming inhabitants. Traditional shelters could also benefit from this training: Sprott manager Jeanette Blair says the YMCA shelter housed many openly gay, lesbian or transgender youth before it began its transition to an LGBTQ home. Blair says there have also been calls for mandatory LGBTQ training in Toronto’s traditional shelters to better address issues incoming youth may be facing.

Training doesn’t solve the lack-of-beds dilemma, but there are some workarounds. The City of Toronto has also funded a full-time outreach position at Sprott, which will allow one staffer to reach the city’s youth who can’t access a bed in the home.

A province-wide Alberta program that encourages LGBTQ youth to live in “host homes” as opposed to shelters, also supported by Abramovich, is yet another potential solution. The program would allow youth to access housing in supportive environments, and alleviate them of their fears that they will be alienated, harassed or hurt in traditional shelters. Moreover, it relieves the government from their search to find space and money for more shelter beds.

It is a shame that times have not completely changed since Smith was huddled out in the Rooster Squat. But with training, innovative thinking and the hope associated with the opening of Sprott House, perhaps LGBTQ youth can rest a little easier than she did a few decades earlier.

Erica Lenti is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who covers mental health, LGTBQ and women’s issues.

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