LGBTQ youth face an 'epidemic' within the COVID pandemic: a lack of safe housing
For National Coming Out Day, USA TODAY NETWORK journalists asked folks in LGBT communities across the Northeast to share their coming out stories. NorthJersey.com
As COVID-19 cases were rising in early summer, Eli, a young homeless man, called upward of 20 shelters in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of a place to stay. He had two priorities: to keep safe from the pandemic and to feel safe as a gay person.
Eli hoped to stay at an LGBTQ shelter because he “didn’t want to put [himself] back into a predicament,” he said. At other shelters, Eli had been harassed and threatened for being gay — and once he was sexually assaulted.
“I’m very lucky that [the harassment] didn't last very long,” said Eli, who asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for his safety. “Not all queer people that find themselves in that space are that lucky.”
Many homeless LGBTQ people who seek housing say they feel unwelcome — or worse. Sometimes they feel they are in danger.
And that was before COVID-19.
Since early 2020, there has been a spike in young people seeking help, several organizations in the Northeast that work with homeless LGBTQ reported. Winter storms and colder weather increased the number of young people seeking refuge.
And more people are seeking fewer spaces. There are limited shelters that can safely house LGBTQ people because systems "are not equipped to deal with" their unique needs, said Nate Fields, vice president of the board of directors of JOY Baltimore, which supports LGBTQ homeless youth.
Those needs include support for mental and physical health, legal aid, access to hormones and identification changes for people who identify as transgender and for their identity and pronouns they use. Plus, shelters that do not exclusively house LGBTQ people may separate guests based on their gender assigned at birth, rather than identity.
"We get a system that lumps them into services that aren't necessarily the ones that [LGBTQ people] need," Fields said.
LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ counterparts, according to statistics from True Colors United, an organization dedicated to ending youth homelessness.
Although 7% of the general U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ, LGBTQ people make up 40% of the nation's homeless youth population.
The pandemic has increased that number, said Chloe Cole-Wilson, a program coordinator with Project SILK Lehigh Valley, which offers various resources to LGBTQ youth in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan area of Pennsylvania. She noticed that COVID-19 circumstances hit LGBTQ youth of color and gender-diverse people especially hard.
"It's been absolutely insane to see the difference in the needs for services," Cole-Wilson said. "It's been very frustrating to find space for [gender-diverse people] regardless of the pandemic. It's an epidemic amongst this population to get those services."
The pandemic made it worse
Finding housing led by providers who affirm LGBTQ youth's identities was a struggle before the pandemic. There's no LGBTQ-focused housing in Baltimore, and there is not a shelter in the Lehigh Valley area that gives transgender and gender-diverse people the unique care they need, said Cole-Wilson.
There are not enough beds for homeless people in New York City, especially during the pandemic, because shelters had to shrink capacities to accommodate social distancing, said Kate Barnhart, director of New Alternatives, a Manhattan-based resource center for LGBTQ homeless youth.
People without a stable living situation are at a particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. They have little access to preventive tools like masks and hand sanitizer, and few places to isolate or wash their hands.
Eli said guests at the last shelter where he stayed would go out to parties and refuse to wear masks. He didn’t feel protected from the virus in that space. He was also at risk because he took public transportation to get to his essential job at a Manhattan convenience store.
“I felt I was being overly exposed, and it did stress me out and sink me deeper into my depression,” Eli said.
Eli was homeless because a family member with whom he had been living didn’t accept his sexual orientation.
When they aren't welcome at home, LGBTQ youth often seek out "chosen families" instead. They form their own support network, often with other LGBTQ people, with whom they may quarantine. Still, these situations are not always stable or COVID-safe.
Many youths who sought JOY Baltimore's help during the pandemic came from "frustrated families," where they weren't welcome because of their sexuality or gender, said CEO Lonnie Walker. Family conflict is the most common cause of all youth homelessness, particularly for those who identify as LGBTQ, according to True Colors United.
New Alternatives worked with young people who got kicked out of homes for coming out well before the pandemic. But during the pandemic, Barnhart noticed a new trend: Families wouldn't welcome young people back home out of fear they had contracted the virus.
Early in the pandemic, limited testing made it difficult for shelters to welcome people safely and for people to feel secure moving from house to house, according to Wendy Kaplan, director of Trinity Place Shelter in Manhattan, which serves LGBTQ youth.
Trinity Place Shelter, where Eli stayed for a period, used to welcome youth just for the night and they'd leave in the morning, but since mid-March, the shelter stayed open 24-7. Kaplan couldn’t let people come and go as freely, and early on paused accepting new people altogether, due to limited COVID-19 testing availability, but calls kept pouring in.
"[Testing] really changed things for folks not having their usual safety nets available, their communities that are such healing places," Kaplan said. "When you have chosen family and your family of origin is not your safe, affirming place, all of that was uprooted in the pandemic for folks."
Along with limited testing, other "institutional barriers" — like a slowdown because of COVID-19 — stand in the way of LGBTQ youth getting the help they need, said Russell Gregory, the interim senior director of emergency housing for the Ali Forney Center, another Manhattan organization that offers services for homeless LGBTQ youth.
Gregory said that before the pandemic, young people stayed on average 30 days in the center's emergency housing nearly, but that doubled during the pandemic because the process to move someone from crisis to transitional housing slowed.
"Most of the young kids that come to us don't have any [identification]," Gregory said. "Part of our whole job and our reason to be is to help young kids establish their identity by accessing those documents. Without those, they tend to stay with us much longer because this process takes much longer."
'Much more intense' for LGBTQ youth
Cole-Wilson said the pandemic is hard on everyone, but it's "much more intense" for LGBTQ youth, who deal with stressors that come with being an adolescent as well as navigating their identity.
"I cannot stress enough that mental health is always something that is a struggle with marginalized people, especially when you have a society [that] pushes back against the very you that you love so much," Cole-Wilson said.
Fields urges large shelter systems to avoid throwing LGBTQ homeless youth "into a big pot" within shelters that cannot meet their needs.
"I wish there was a better way for youth who are LGBTQ to get all the services that are needed," Fields said. "We're still fighting against so many barriers for youth who are LGBTQ that shouldn't exist — not in 2020."
Eli “feared the unknown” when he landed a spot at Trinity Place after his experiences at previous shelters. He ended up being impressed by his experience, which he credited to the staff. He said living in an LGBTQ-focused shelter provided “space to just exist” as a gay man.
“It takes a lot out of [LGBTQ people] to just move within the word,” Eli said. “If you can find a space where you’re among people you don’t necessarily have to explain who you are to, it lets you breathe for a little bit.”