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Why Some Homeless Youth Fear Shelters

05/28/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT
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A homeless person sleeps on a snow covered sidewalk on December 23, 2008 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. A week after a homeless man was found dead in Park Viger, other homeless people were still sleeping outdoors in very cold conditions. Temperatures plunged in Canada below freezing, with the central province of Saskatchewan reporting four below zero degrees Fahrenheit (negative 38 Celsius) Monday morning, and further east around 20 centimeters (eight inches) of snow covered Montreal. AFP PHOTO/ ROGERIO BARBOSA (Photo credit should read ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, there has been extensive research in the area of youth homelessness both in Canada and internationally. We have seen a great deal of initiatives towards the movement to end youth homelessness.

However, there is a lack of insight and interest into the problem of LGBTQ youth homeless in Canada.

What we do know is that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population. It has been estimated that approximately 25-40 per cent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. However, this statistic came from one Canadian study 13 years ago, and there is not much clarity or understanding what this number looks like today or how to begin scaling the problem of LGBTQ youth homelessness on a national level, when services do not collect data on youths' gender or sexual identities.

We also know that youth frequently migrate to Toronto because of the City's LGBTQ friendly reputation. Service providers located outside of the city are often reluctant to admit LGBTQ youth into shelters and end up sending them to Toronto with the false promise that there will be support available. But the truth is that a high proportion of queer and trans homeless youth feel safer on the streets than in shelters due to homophobic and transphobic violence that occurs in the shelter system.

Although we have this knowledge, still there is minimal support available and there is NO specialized housing for LGBTQ youth in all of Canada.

Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage and various global initiatives that promote LGBTQ equality, homophobia and transphobia are still deeply ingrained in our everyday behaviours, language, and in the policies of many institutions, such as, the shelter system; however, they are often normalized and invisible in such settings.

I am currently completing my doctoral research study, which investigates the changes that need to be implemented in Toronto's shelter system in order for it to become safe, accessible, and supportive of LGBTQ youth. Several relevant questions that my study answers, includes: What is holding up and sustaining the homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system? How does homophobia and transphobia occur in the shelter system and how is it managed? And how do broader policy issues serve to create oppressive contexts for LGBTQ youth?

The youth I have spoken to over the years have described Toronto's shelter system as a dangerous place for LGBTQ youth because of prolific homophobia and transphobia. I have heard stories of youth living in parks because they did not feel safe in the shelter system due to daily threats of homophobia and transphobia.

I recently created a short film with a very courageous young woman named Teal. The film was a Digital Storytelling project, which was part of my PhD study. "Teal's Story" visually illustrates her experiences in Toronto's shelter system and how she navigated daily occurrences of extreme transphobia. My hope is that this film will raise awareness to the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness and begin a much-needed shift in Toronto's shelter system.

As Pride celebrations quickly approach, we should take some time to think about the high proportion of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and we should raise awareness to these ongoing issues faced by so many young people in Toronto.

It is time to acknowledge that LGBTQ youth homelessness is a major issue in Toronto and we desperately need specialized support services. Everyone deserves a safe bed, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. Let's make this happen.

Please watch and share "Teal's Story": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhEX12aZC1A

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