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Center for American Progress Hosts LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Panel

In a Friday, March 2, 2012 photo, Donnie Dawson, 20, left, attends a youth advocacy group meeting at the Ruth Ellis Center, a drop-in shelter for LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth in Detroit. "Ruth's House," is the the only nonprofit agency in the Midwest that focuses on LGBT youths. It offers meals and other basic services, but there are only 10 beds.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Forty percent of the approximately 2 million homeless youth in the United States are LGBTQ. Over the past several years, many metropolitan areas throughout the country have surveyed and researched this population with findings that reveal significant disparities in the quality of life for LGBTQ youth living in shelters and on the streets.

Their day-to-day lives encompass violence, discrimination, poor health, and unmet needs as a result of their homelessness.

As an update to its 2010 landmark report “On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth,” the Center for American Progress has released a new report that promotes key policies after exploring the LGBTQ demographic of homeless youth in the United States. The report focuses on the causes of homelessness, how homeless LGBTQ youth needs are being addressed, and actions the federal government can take to end homelessness among LGBTQ youth.

On Thursday, the Center for American Progress hosted an event entitled Seeking Shelter: Working Toward Safe and Inclusive Spaces for America’s Homeless LGBT Youth with expert panelists: Jama Shelton of Forty to None Project and the True Colors Fund, Shahera Hyatt of the California Youth Homelessness Project, Pamela Sheffer of the Just Us Program and the Oasis Center, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Joo Yeun Chang.

Prior to the panel’s discussion, Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) provided pre-taped introductory remarks about the importance of addressing these key issues that face homeless youth in the U.S. and the need to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act with LGBTQ-specific provisions.  

The panelists then dived into the discussion at hand by opening with a homeless youth’s statement about why they were not welcome in their family’s home: “Being gay was the most defiant thing I had ever done.”

Responding to that statement, each panelist then presented their unique experiences and critiques to address the issue of homeless LGBTQ youth.

Shelton described approaching the issue with a “both/and” response, where activists are both proactive in preventing increases in homeless youth rates while also being reactive to the youth already living on the streets and in shelters. Expanding beyond the “both/and” approach, Shelton encouraged state and local advocates to “build bridges” throughout the country that connect effective policies and practices in these metropolitan areas that see high instances of LGBTQ homeless youth.

Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Chang adamantly addressed maintaining a successful foster care system in the U.S., and that the system should not act as a gateway to homelessness because “every child deserves to grow up in a loving, stable family.”

Hyatt encouraged bringing homeless youth to the discussion with elected officials and leaders in order to put a face and story with the complex problem at hand. As a solution to decrease this rate of homelessness in youth, Hyatt said America needs to ensure youth are enrolled in schools as well as extracurriculars regardless of district limitations (due to the constant moving of the demographic.)

Rounding out the panel discussion, Sheffer shared her experience of engaging a conversation and meeting between LGBTQ homeless youth and medical school students at Vanderbilt University in regards to meeting the health needs of LGBTQ individuals. Watching the youth interact with these future medical professionals, Sheffer witnessed the impact of their personal stories, “Once you give them that voice, you can’t tap it down.”

Douglas Bair is the Managing Editor for Generation Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @douglas_bair.

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