Story by Allison Manolis – @allymanolis
PHILADELPHIA- The June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling to allow same-sex marriage in United States undoubtedly changed the way our country views the LGBTQ community, however it has not solved the many deep seated issues that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people face. This is particularly the case for LGBTQ youth. More often that not, we hear stories of children being kicked out of their homes, bullied and abandoned based on their sexual preferences, leaving many kids under the age of 18 homeless, with seemingly nowhere to turn.
This anecdote about LGBTQ youth being kicked out of their homes has begun to bear itself out in statistics. According to a survey done by the Valley Youth House in 2015, 54% of the homeless youth population in Philadelphia consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning their sexuality in some shape or form. With such a incredible percentage of homeless youth identifying with the LGBTQ community, one would assume that the city of Philadelphia would offer a number of shelters, centers, and supporting organizations to these children who are in need of both a home and acceptance. This, however, is not the case.
Despite the shocking figures and data about the homeless youth population in Philadelphia, there is a total lack of safe spaces for LGBTQ youth throughout the area. In the entire city, there is only one independent youth center that specifically and exclusively serves the LGBTQ homeless community. The Attic Youth Center, located in Center City, Philadelphia, “creates opportunities for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth to develop into healthy, independent, civic-minded adults within a safe and supportive community, and promotes the acceptance of LGBTQ youth in society.” They provide children and teens with counseling, job readiness, academic help, leadership opportunities and other supportive services in order to aid LGBTQ kids in gaining the confidence that they have often been stripped of.
“To be perfectly honest, without the attic I think I would be dead,” said one young person who asked for their name to be concealed, “I wasn’t a happy person before I came here. I just didn’t see a future for myself and once I started coming here I started to see a glimmer of the future, and now its big, bold and bright, in full color.”
The Attic’s active role in the city’s LGBTQ community for over 20 years has not gone without recognition. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the lack of other organizations that are accessible to homeless children who are confused about their sexuality and struggling with acceptance. It is also important to note that although The Attic is a youth center, it is not a shelter, which means it does not provide beds to homeless children. “There are three youth shelters in Philadelphia,” Bevin Gwiazdowski told GeneroCity.org, “which may seem like a lot, but it comes to a total of like 21 beds.” Youth Emergency Service, Baptist Children Services and Pathways PA are all shelters that provide housing for homeless youth, though none of which are intended for LBGTQ children. This is a huge problem, as many children that consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer need specific safe spaces to avoid the harassment they know all too well in relation to their sexuality during their early years of self-discovery.
“Philly definitely still has lots of discrimination, lots of homophobia, lots of bullying that goes on in the school system, lots of people just not knowing what the consequences are of some of their actions,” Monique Walker, Counseling Coordinator of The Attic explained. “The Attic is definitely a safe place for young people who often time feel so unsafe out in the world and even sometimes within their own homes.”
There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut reason as to why there is a absence of shelters specifically aimed towards the LGBTQ youth, however professionals, such as Jacinto Grant, associate director at at The Attic Youth, agree that organizations are making strides to increase the amount of places where LGBTQ youth can find solidarity and comfort.
“Although I do not have an answer as to why there aren’t a surplus of LGBTQ shelters, I do know that people are trying to come together and make things happen within the community,” Grant explained over the phone. “It is hard to find the right group of people who are willing to work to get the funding behind them to make it all happen when the LGBTQ community is such a vulnerable and unseen population.”
Grant illuminated the factors that affect the lack of shelters dedicated to LGBTQ, starting with the high number of staff turnover in homeless shelters and counseling environments. When staff turnover is high, it makes it impossible for children struggling with acceptance to create lasting relationships, and in turn, find adults whom they feel they can trust. As for the shelters that already do exist, but have not been specifically created for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual community, Grant described how many of them lack the proper LGBTQ sensitivity training, which is vital in order for LGBTQ children to feel safe. Sensitivity training, which is used in workplaces, educational facilities, and almost all other professional environments, is used to help employees understand the issues that members of the LGBTQ community struggle with, while developing strategies to minimize these occurrences. Grant explained that many people who identify as LGBTQ struggle to find role models, and become weary due to the constant battle to find a safe space. Incorporating sensitivity training more thoroughly may allow some of the shelters that are not dedicated to LGBTQ youths better cater to their specific needs.
With all of the data and statistics that Philadelphia has about its homeless population and the nature of the children that are included in that populace, it is important to ask why there aren’t more spaces dedicated to their safety and well being. When over half of the population of homeless youth identifies as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer, it is vital for the city to make more arrangements and offer an increasing amount of safe spaces for children of this community to reside and feel safe. For now, The Attic will keep their doors open and play a critical role for the LGBTQ homeless youth of Philadelphia. However, as we imagine the sort of services this city should prioritize, it seems clear that the city should seriously consider channeling resources towards the development of shelters and spaces that cater to LGBTQ homeless youth.