TORONTO — Akia Munga started looking for a new home three months before their lease in Toronto was up. Even still, the 27-year-old, who is agender and goes by they/them pronouns, was terrified they wouldn’t find anything in time.
They work three jobs and had the money to pay for a room, and yet were still being turned away from an estimated 30 listings, they claim as a result of homophobic and transphobic landlords.
Potential landlords told Munga they didn’t want “politics” in the house. In addition to the fact Munga is agender, they work as a harm-reduction advocate in the Greater Toronto Area, and are working a harm-reduction program themselves for substance use. Restrictions on residential drug use also left them vulnerable.
“We don’t do drugs, no smoking and XYZ. These are all things that are like, part of my identity,” Munga told HuffPost Canada.
Munga said they even offered to pay first and last month’s rent within an hour of touring potential homes.
They have recently found a new place, but the memories of homelessness persist. Munga spent two years in and out of shelters and transitional homes in their early 20s. They said they left home because they were fleeing domestic violence, and have been unable to get back on their feet as a result of the discrimination they’ve endured.
According to Munga, they were asked to leave one residence because they were bringing home gay and trans folks, which made the basement-residing landlord uncomfortable. On another occasion, while sleeping on their friend’s couch, they were asked to leave, as their friend’s partner was uneasy with Munga’s queerness, they said.
When asked what shelters they lived in, they responded, “You want me to list them all?”
There’s shelter, but not necessarily safety
Alex Abramovich, a researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and a University of Toronto assistant professor, has spent more than a decade researching homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth. He believes the homelessness epidemic in the community is a result of a large gap in policy to safeguard the vulnerable population from homophobic landlords and tenants.
When LGBTQ+ youth find themselves in a dire situation, shelters still may not be safe, due to a lack of anti-homophobia training from staff and forced gender-conformity, even though an estimated 25 to 40 per cent of the homeless population are LGTBQ+. Abramovich has found that while some youth accept these challenges, others opt to sleep outside in order to maintain or improve their mental health.
While they have always had good experiences in shelters, Munga said they have seen others physically assaulted and harassed because they identify as LGBTQ+. “You really take your chances with your life when you live in a shelter,” they said.
With so many young people ending up on the streets, LGBTQ+ specific housing options are in demand.
RainCity, a social housing initiative in Vancouver, provides housing to select chronically or episodically homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Participants are eligible for a housing subsidy or are able to move into supportive housing.
The RainCity team provides outreach support in getting youth connected to their local community, help reconnecting with their families, and assistance getting health care, including access to gender-affirming surgery. “Young people who are interested in gender-affirming surgery, and who would otherwise be able to do that, aren’t able to do that when they’re homeless,” said Catharine Hume, RainCity co-executive director.
Every week, residents sit around a table and have a community dinner where they share their experiences and advice.
Residents filled out a questionnaire at the beginning and end of their time in the program, and all reported improvements in housing stability, as well as “improved skills, including maintaining their housing, finding and keeping a job, and setting and accomplishing their goals.”
Other Vancouver-based resources are shifting to more inclusive crisis efforts. Covenant House Vancouver offers a short-term residential crisis centre for LGBTQ+ youth, where trans, non-binary, gender-queer and two-spirit youth can request to sleep in either an inclusive male-identified or female-identified space. Its Toronto operation runs a supportive lodging program that provides LGTBQ+ youth with private rooms in a group home overseen by a mentor.
In May, the federal government announced it would commit more than $4.3 million to support the Egale Centre, a facility in downtown Toronto that will combine counselling, emergency shelter and transitional housing for LGBTQ+ youth ages 16 to 29. The centre, still under construction, will house 26 transitional units and five emergency beds.
But, front-line advocates warn that a few one-off efforts simply aren’t enough to pull vulnerable young people up from the cracks.
Hume and Abramovich agreed that homelessness for LGBTQ+ youth is disproportionately high compared to other populations. Sixty-nine per cent of RainCity’s participants self-identified as transgender, but less than one per cent of the general population self-identified as trans in a recent U.S. survey. “Says much about who is left out of the LGBTQ+ movement, who is showing up on our streets, and who is staying outside,” said RainCity.
Abramovich has worked on numerous policy changes to better address LGBTQ+ homelessness, but said these policies don’t reflect the large number of queer people who are homeless.
He said policies will often address minority groups as a block, instead of addressing the unique needs and precariousness of LGBTQ+ community members. He points to Alberta’s Youth Housing and Shelter Guidelines as legislation that gets it right.
Watch: Alex Abramovich on creating safe and supportive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Story continues below.
The National Housing Strategy aims to spend more than $55 billion through public, private, and non-profit avenues on funding, grants, and loans over the next decade. This initiative aims to “ensure Canadians across the country have access to housing that meets their needs and is affordable.”
Abramovich said both the National Housing Strategy and Canada’s Homelessness Strategy “don’t prioritize LGBTQ2S populations as they really should.” However, both policies note that they are committed to supporting vulnerable populations by funding housing-based research, building new and updating old homes, and supporting local organizations. This begs the question why the LGBTQ+ community is experiencing homelessness at such staggering numbers.
“Homelessness continues to be on the rise, despite a fairly significant amount of investment in housing and supported housing; there’s just a lot of catch-up to do.” Hume said.
But for those like Munga, it goes far beyond strategic planning and statistics.
“Housing is so much more than just a building,” they said. “Housing is one of the things that people who are marginalized, that’s the one thing that we crave, and that you do anything to protect as long as possible.”
With a home, said Munga, “I feel like I can breathe.”
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