Homeless LGBT youth face discrimination, violence in shelter system

“Almost all LGBTQ people going into shelters have a fear of them, because it isn’t a matter of if it’s dangerous, but just how dangerous it will be. It is horrible to live in that fear everyday. ” – Mouse, 23 years old

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and 2-Spirit (LGBTQ2) youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population across Canada, but underrepresented in homeless shelters.

Although we have known about this issue for over two decades, it has been neglected and inadequately addressed for far too long. This issue has been left out of important dialogue on youth homelessness until fairly recently.

There is a great deal of research and knowledge on youth homelessness in Canada. However, issues specific to LGBTQ2 youth homelessness are rarely the focus. Despite reporting LGBTQ2 youth homelessness as a significant issue, few researchers delve deeper into these problems. As a result, little is known about this population of young people.

We know that there are various reasons that youth become homeless; however, family conflict is the number one cause of youth homelessness. In particular, family conflict resulting from a youth coming out as LGBTQ2 is a major contributing factor to youth homelessness.

What know that LGBTQ2 youth are not only at a higher risk of homelessness, but also face increased risk of physical and sexual exploitation, mental health difficulties, substance use, and suicide, and commonly experience homophobic and transphobic violence within the shelter system. Under the LGBTQ2 umbrella, transgender youth have been found to be at the greatest risk of suicidality. The Trans PULSE study, which is a large Canadian study that investigated health and trans people in Ontario found that 77% of trans people had seriously considered suicide, and that 45%, had attempted suicide.

Discrimination against transgender youth on the streets and in the shelter system is rampant, which is why transgender youth often avoid shelters altogether. Transgender people, especially transgender women of colour, are often the most underrepresented group of people in the shelter system and at the same time the most discriminated against; not only are they dealing with transphobia, but also racism, and oftentimes, homophobia.

Support services play a crucial role in fulfilling homeless youths’ daily needs, such as shelter, food, healthcare, and presumably safety. However, they are not equipped to deal with the wide-ranging needs of youth, which have undoubtedly become more complex and diverse since the first shelters were established in the city of Toronto over thirty years ago. Today’s homeless youth are faced with problems such as: homophobia, transphobia, immigration, legal issues, HIV/AIDS, etc. Support services must be revised and adapted to reflect the changing needs of youth. Funding cuts have created significant gaps in the system leaving many youths’ needs unmet. For example, numerous youth may experience comorbid health concerns (e.g. emotional difficulties and substance use issues), but are forced to rely on resources that may not always be fully equipped to deal with such problems.

The lack of specialized services and knowledge regarding sub-populations of homeless youth make it increasingly challenging for youth to find support and have their needs met. The profound impact that homelessness and the lack of support have on LGBTQ2 youth perpetuates issues relating to substance abuse, risky sexual behaviour, victimization, and crime. These issues make LGBTQ2 homeless youth more vulnerable to concerns such as depression and loneliness. Specialized services are crucial in meeting the needs of homeless youth and decreasing the threat of violence and discrimination.

Not only do LGBTQ2 youth experience challenges when trying to access shelters (e.g. discrimination, violence, lack of support), but also when trying to access appropriate health care services. Barriers such as discrimination, not having a health card, homophobia, transphobia, and too few clinics that are LGBTQ2 friendly and knowledgeable make it difficult to find health care services.

Transgender youth in particular report significant barriers to accessing supportive and knowledgeable health care. The need for transgender youth to have access to health care professionals who have a comprehensive understanding of transgender-related issues and transition-related health care is crucial, with the understanding that the health care needs of transgender youth differ from those of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth. For example, transgender youth may choose to start hormones, which requires monitoring, including regular blood work. The lack of specialized health care services for transgender youth often results in youth turning to unmonitored street suppliers for transition-related treatment (e.g. hormones, silicone injections), which can have severe health complications.

It is important to ask ourselves where the homophobia and transphobia that infiltrate the shelter system and health care services stems from and what sustains it. Do these discriminatory attitudes and beliefs come from a personal place of discomfort? Or are they a result of people lacking the proper education and training regarding LGBTQ2 issues and concerns? Or are they due to a lack of well-established policies regarding LGBTQ2 youth?

Homophobia and transphobia are often a result of cultural, social, and institutional conditioning, however, it is more deeply about ignorance. The institutional culture of the shelter system, in particular, perpetuates heterosexism and cissexism, which is the presumptive superiority of heterosexual and cisgender people and automatic assumption that everyone is heterosexual and cisgender. (The term ‘cisgender’ refers to individuals whose lived gender identity matches with the sex assigned to them at birth e.g. a person who was born male, who identifies as male.) Heterosexism and cissexism, which are also considered institutional homophobia and transphobia, pervade the shelter system, resulting in a system of normalized oppression.

These are complex and layered issues, that have been created by rules and policies that are engrained in a deeply homophobic and transphobic culture.

Therefore, a large part of the solution involves shifting and transforming the culture of the shelter system and support services, which of course, is a complicated and lengthy process. It involves changing rules and policies, creating an accessible method for youth to lodge formal complaints, staff training, and creating new specialized programs. Ultimately, it involves changing the way that we approach youth homelessness. In Canada, our response to homelessness is primarily focused on implementing strategies that make homelessness less visible, rather than actually solving homelessness. For example, a great deal of the money spent on homelessness in Canada is spent on the emergency response, which includes emergency shelters and drop-ins, rather than focusing on helping youth find and keep housing. In our response to youth homelessness, we must consider factors such as sexuality and gender, because these are major contributing factors to youth homelessness.

Over the past couple of years, the City of Toronto has received the evidence that they require in order to address this issue, and in 2015, we will see the first specialized shelter beds for LGBTQ2 youth in Canada, updated Toronto Shelter Standards that reflect the needs of LGBTQ2 youth, and improved LGBTQ2 cultural competency training guidelines for shelter staff, not only in Toronto, but in other cities and provinces across the country, as well.

While this is a great start, there is still quite a lot of work to be done. For example, as a next step we need to begin scaling the issue of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness on a national level, so that we may better understand the prevalence of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Canada, which is something that we have minimal understanding and knowledge about. Research on LGBTQ2 health is relatively new and Canadian knowledge on LGBTQ2 health is limited, particularly knowledge regarding the health concerns and health needs of LGBTQ2 homeless youth. The collection of more comprehensive data would assist in providing knowledge on public health risks, health and social well being, and the unique health needs of LGBTQ2 homeless youth. Other key priorities include, specialized transitional housing for LGBTQ2 youth, mandatory and ongoing LGBTQ2 cultural competency training for everyone working in the shelter system and healthcare professionals, and the need for shelters and support services to follow a more standardized model of care to assist shelters and support services in meeting the needs of LGBTQ2 youth. This will also make it easier to evaluate the work that is being done, and whether or not people’s needs are being met.

We all have a role to play in ending this critical public health and social justice emergency, so let’s get started.

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1 Comment
  • Eva Saphir says:

    It is incredible that in this age, shelter workers agree to work in such a cruel system without attempting to influence change. CAMH is said to practice evidence based treatment, perhaps it also can advocate more strongly for these changes. A statement from them in this area, like their public statement in favour of Medical Marihuana, would go a long way in moving towards justice.


Alex Abramovich


Alex Abramovich is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, Ontario.

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