You might notice that the vast majority of my updates in the Tampa Bay Homeless Wiki are about LGBT issues. Well, about six months ago I was working at a coffee shop and finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Tampa. Like many students I was completing an internship with a local organization in the hopes that it would lead to greater career opportunities after graduation. I had been interning with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, helping the data quality team prepare reports for various agencies that use the countywide database system (UNITY), which is used to track all the homeless people in Hillsborough County and the services they receive. My plans at the time were to apply for the Peace Corps, serve for a couple of years overseas in Africa or Latin America and then return to the states where I would attend graduate school. All this changed over the summer.

I returned from a travel abroad course to Ghana and in my email I found a message from the CEO of the Homeless Coalition, Rayme Nuckles. He was informing me that there was a new AmeriCorps VISTA position opening at the Coalition Offices and he was wondering if I knew anyone who might be interested. My plan had been to serve the community anyway; I’ve always had a passion for improving the place I call home. I immediately responded that I was interested in the position. Fortunately, I am the person they chose to fill the role.

The position is the LGBTQI2-S (That’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex and Two-Spirit) Youth Outreach Coordinator. I work with the various members and partner agencies of the Homeless Coalition (of which there are over 60) to find ways of improving services for Homeless Gay and Transgender Youth. For many it may seem like an odd place to focus our attentions. I know that for me it seemed a bit peculiar – why aren’t we just focusing on youth in general? That’s when I began to do some research.

As it turns out we have no idea how many homeless youth there are in the United States, credible statistics range from 500,00 to 1.2 million. According to the biennial homeless person’s count of 2011 we have 177 homeless youth in Hillsborough County – a number we can say with certainty is an undercount. We know that unaccompanied homeless youth become and stay homeless for a multitude of reasons – primarily family violence. It is well known that 75 percent of homeless youth never complete high school. And we know that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association 25 to 46 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Wait. WHAT?!

According to national statistics only about six percent of the total population of the entire country is LGBT, so why is it that between one quarter and one half of homeless youth are from this community? The answer is long and complicated. It begins with the increased acceptance of LGBT people in general. Society is much more willing to accommodate differences in sexuality and gender identity than it ever was before. We see this played out primarily in the media through television shows, in music and in magazines. The gay rights movement has made some great strides in achieving equality over the past few years – federal hate crimes protections, marriage rights in certain states, and the right to adopt in Florida. We also know that someone can grow up as gay or lesbian and be successful, just look at Elton John and Barney Frank.

Unfortunately, this shift has been occurring in the media at a much more rapid pace than it has in the American home – this is especially true of racial minorities where sexuality and gender tend to be more taboo. As young people have more positive LGBT role models they are feeling safer and more certain of their orientation and gender identity at much younger ages (according to GLSEN the average age youth come out as gay is 13.4 years old). For many families it is difficult to cope with such a dramatic change in the way they view their child. Often this leads to misguided attempts to help a child by “fixing” them – or at least stifling them from sharing the family’s new secret with others. In some extreme cases this leads to fighting and physical abuse. This is when youth are told to leave, or choose to leave themselves.

Once a child leaves their home there is often nowhere to turn. This is especially true for LGBT youth. Stigma and homophobia have cut them off from the majority of their peers, as evidenced by bullying and suicide rates. Once it gets to this point the adults who played the most significant role in their lives (their parents) have abandoned them. Also, for many when they arrive in foster care or group homes they are finding that staff is not adequately equipped to work with the unique challenges of the LGBT community (do you let gay youth share a room? Do you allow a transgender male to dress as a female?).

The reality has brought national attention to this issue for youth service providers (though many still haven’t heard). In places such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago there are well established systems to work with youth whose gender or sexual orientation make it difficult to work within the confines of the traditional systems. Soon Hillsborough County hopes to be the next trendsetter in safe space development. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

Currently Hillsborough County has a shortage of beds for all homeless people – unaccompanied youth included. Also, a Bible belt state that focuses on abstinence only education doesn’t allow for educators, social workers or group home staff to learn about, let alone discuss LGBT issues and health in a positive way.

Enter the LGBTQI2-S Youth Coordinator position at the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County.

The three goals of the Homeless Coalition are educate, coordinate and lead. That is exactly what we are doing on this front. While working with various youth geared agencies we are helping them to ensure that we foster a greater acceptance and understanding of the most underserved of populations. We are now offering Cultural Competency courses free of charge to help providers understand how and why they should be sensitive to LGBT youth and their specific needs. We are also working with community leaders to develop a coalition that will help to foster greater general acceptance of LGBT youth within the Tampa Bay area.

This is not an easy task. And it will not be a quick fix. But my team and I are up to the task.

I am elated to be a part of the change, truly the catalyst for the improvement of our community. I hope that sharing my knowledge and experiences will help others come around so we can stop this crisis before any more youth are harmed or lost to the struggles of growing up too soon and all alone in the world.

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