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A Look at LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in Philadelphia

December 18, 2014 Category: PeopleUncategorized


Kemar Jewel only gets about fours hours of sleep a night. This is a result, he said, of years of housing insecurity that often left him with a stark choice: stay up all night or deal with the risks and discomforts of sleeping on the streets.

Jewel, now 23, spent countless nights between the age of 16 and 20 wandering through the Gayborhood in Center City or visiting friends instead of sleeping. Once the subway started running at 5:30 am, he would get on the Market-Frankford Line and ride it from end to end, Frankford to 69th Street, and catch about two hours of rest on the train before heading to school.  The few times he did find housing, it was often with older men who sexually or physically abused him.

All of this began, he said, the day he came home to his mother stuffing his belongings into trash bags.

“I went on a date with this boy from my high school, and we were downtown. We were walking around, holding hands and stuff like that, and one of her co-workers saw me and then told her,” Jewel said.

His mother told him he couldn’t stay in her home if he was going “be like that” and Jewel soon found himself with five trash bags of his things and no place to live. None of his family members, including his uncle and grandmother, would house him because of his sexual preference.

Jewel did not become homeless due to economic pressure or behavioral problems such as drug addiction or mental instability, as is often the case for adults. Like other LGBTQ youth who have experienced homelessness, the cause was family rejection at a vulnerable and dependent stage of his life.

Family rejection is the leading cause of LGBTQ youth homelessness, according to a national survey of youth service providers, which in most cases means that a family either outright forces a child out of their home, as in Jewel’s case, or a child runs away due to a lack of acceptance.

Whatever the cause, nonprofits have historically filled the role of preventing and alleviating LGBTQ youth homelessness. But what does the sector look like today? How could the city improve services to help people like Jewel find solutions other than sleeping in subway cars?

The scope of the problem

Youth homelessness in general, let alone for LGBTQ youth, is not well understood. The current methods for tracking homelessness depend on individuals accessing public services, which youth don’t access for a number of reasons.

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Cordella Hill, director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, a shelter and housing organization based in Philadelphia, told Metro Philadelphia in spring 2013 that the same methods for counting adults don’t work for children, because they “might stay with friends or friends of friends, they might try to stay in an abandoned building.” In general, she stressed, they don’t use the public services that allow them to be tracked.

Jewel exemplified this reluctance while homeless. Rather than sleep in a shelter, he opted to fend for himself. The reason, he explained, is that he didn’t want to be processed in a system or given other kinds of assistance.

“I recall going in there and them wanting to me fill out all this paperwork, and they were saying ‘we want you to wait and talk to someone,’” Jewel said. “To me, I just needed somewhere to stay.”

What is known about youth homelessness is that close to a quarter of all homeless in the nation are under the age of 18 — around 130,000 youth — according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The report is based on annual counts by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In Philadelphia, there were 1,674 homeless youth counted in 2014, although the overwhelming majority of them were living with at least one adult. The number of homeless unaccompanied youth was only nine. In addition, HUD only counts people living on the streets during a single night in late January, which makes it difficult to completely convey the number of people who have experienced homelessness in a given year — especially those who are in and out of housing.

How LGBTQ youth fit into these numbers is less clear. However, a report surveying LGBTQ service providers across the country found that between 30 and 43 percent of youth served by drop-in centers, street outreach programs and housing programs identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

“I recall going in there and them wanting to me fill out all this paperwork, and they were saying ‘we want you to wait and talk to someone,’” Jewel said. “To me, I just needed somewhere to stay.”

Local service providers also report high levels of housing insecurity among LGBTQ youth. The Mazzoni Center, a Center City-based health organization dedicated to serving LGBTQ people, found that over 50 percent of the 390 youth who used the center in fiscal year 2014 were “unstably housed.”

“We definitely see a lot of young people who are dealing with housing insecurity,” said Bevin Gwiazdowski, a case manager and youth specialist at the Center. “That ranges from bouncing around from a friend’s house to a family member’s house, and sometimes it means they are actually on the streets.”

In most of these cases, she added, the reason for the youth’s housing insecurity is that their family has either forced them out or made them so uncomfortable that they run away.

From shelters to outreach

Despite increasing awareness of youth homelessness, there are still only a handful of shelters and housing programs that serve youth.

“There are three youth shelters in Philadelphia,” Gwiazdowski said, “which may seem like a lot, but it comes to a total of something like 21 beds.”

The shelters are Youth Emergency Service, Baptist Children Services, and Pathways PA (which only serves teen girls). There’s also Covenant House PA’s Crisis Center in Germantown, but it primarily serves individuals age 18 to 21. Minors can stay for 72 hours, and longer if they get permission from a legal guardian or the Department of Human Services to stay.

None of the shelters are dedicated specifically to LGBTQ youth.

“We don’t have any emergency housing facility or shelter dedicated to LGBT youth,” Office of Supportive Housing Chief of Staff Joye Presson told

However, all of the shelters, Gwiazdowski noted, have made some effort to train shelter staff to better accommodate LGBTQ youth.

“There’s been effort to make sure that staff are culturally competent,” in understanding different sexual/gender qualifications, she said. “But there’s turnover in jobs like that, so it’s about making sure training continues.”

 “There’s really not a lot of us,” said Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center. “When I think about youth services in general, there’s not enough for youth — period. So clearly for LGBTQ youth there are even less.”

Hugh Organ, associate executive director of Covenant House PA, said that Covenant House helps LGBTQ youth regularly and has implemented procedures to accommodate them.

“We house youth according to how they identify,” he said. So a transgender youth that identifies as a boy, for example, is placed in a housing arrangement with other boys.

But shelters are not the only way to address the issue. A number of nonprofits have focused their efforts on preventing homelessness in the first place through outreach and support.

Valley Youth House, which has locations in 11 counties in Pennsylvania, provides life skills training to prepare youth to house themselves once they become adults — a program that Jewel took advantage of and which helped him eventually find a home.

The Attic Youth Center is one of the oldest Philadelphia-based nonprofits focused on helping LGBTQ youth through outreach programs designed to preempt youth homelessness by working directly with families on issues of acceptance and understanding. It also offers counseling and programming meant to engage youth and provide a safe haven for them.

Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center, said she believes what her organization does is essential, but also points to a lack of funding and coordination across the whole sector as to why LGBTQ youth are neglected. She also noted that there are simply not enough services to go around.

“There’s really not a lot of us,” Jacobs said. “When I think about youth services in general, there’s not enough for youth — period. So clearly for LGBTQ youth there are even less.”

“I think if we collaborated and got together all the people who are interested in housing LGBTQ youth, we could probably build that continuum, so that a youth at any point could either go to the emergency shelter, or the crisis center or the place where they could just go take a shower,” she added.

Making services visible

For Jewel, at least, homelessness and housing insecurity are firmly in his past. He now lives in West Philadelphia and works as an administrative assistant at the Attic Youth Center. He is set to graduate from Temple University this spring.

Jewel credits his current stability on a range of friends and services that helped him during his nearly four year stint of housing insecurity. Although, he also stressed that the various resources and organizations serving LGBTQ youth should be more connected and accessible to youth.

“Philadelphia has a great gay neighborhood full of tons of resources and people who are willing to help gay youth, but we don’t know about it,” he said.

Further Information

Homeless Youth in Philadelphia: An innovative method for identifying youth experiencing homelessness

Serving Our Youth: Findings From a National Survey of Service Providers Working With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless

LGBTQ Youth Resources for DHS Staff – Winter 2012-2013

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