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Jama Shelton

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Organizing a New National Movement to End LGBT Youth Homelessness

Posted: 04/10/2013 6:40 pm

"You have no idea what it is like to be me!"

I heard a version of this line many times during my nine years providing social services to young people experiencing homelessness in New York. To generations of parents and schoolteachers, it may sound like the petulant refrain of a rebellious teen, but I heard something else in the words. I am now directing the True Colors Fund's new national project that asks you to listen too. The Forty to None Project is the first and only national organization solely dedicated to ending LGBT youth homelessness.

I heard an absence. The young people were, as often as not, not really yelling at me. They were howling at the parents, family, teachers, and neighbors who were not there to hear them, adults who would not listen to them or authority figures to whom they felt they could not really talk.

The young people I was working with were lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), and they were often homeless because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some flee intolerant households; others are escaping abusive living situations. More than a quarter are told to leave by parents who will not accept their children as they are.

I heard a fact. We all crave acceptance, and the LGBT young people I've worked with are no different. They are remarkable in their authenticity and brave in living their truths. They understand that their sexual orientation or gender identity is something that they cannot change, and they should not have to change in order to be accepted.

Unfortunately, even as the LGBT movement makes progress in other areas, such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell and marriage equality, an increasing number of LGBT youth are experiencing homelessness. A growing body of research suggests that even though LGBT youth make up only 3-5 percent of the overall population in the U.S., up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

I heard a need. Though remarkably resourceful, LGBT homeless youth are left on their own, and this makes them vulnerable. Once on the streets, LGBT youth are seven times more likely than non-LGBT homeless youth to experience violence. And while many homeless shelters and service providers are welcoming to LGBT young people, others are not. Some shelter environments are threatening or belittling to gay and transgender youth who turn to them for help.

Local centers have opened around the country to respond to the growing numbers of LGBT youth experiencing homelessness, but the time has come to raise national awareness of the issue. Cyndi Lauper's True Colors Fund recognized the need for national leadership around LGBT youth homelessness and, after spending more than a year researching the problem and existing resources, it launched the Forty to None Project.

I heard a challenge. The goal of the Forty to None Project is to raise awareness about and bring an end to LGBT youth homelessness. That may sound like a tall order, but this is the civil rights issue of our day, and I did not become involved in this work to sit on the sidelines. Those young people who yelled at me didn't make me want to quit; they motivated me. I went back to school in pursuit of a PhD in Social Welfare so that I would be prepared to more actively engage in challenging ideologies and improving the systems that address LGBT youth homelessness, and break down the barriers these young people face once they become homeless.

I wanted to better understand how to tackle the systemic issues that I saw young people come up against in their efforts to build successful independent lives. And I wanted to share what I learned with the nation -- gay and straight, transgender and cisgender, rich and poor, rural and urban. Because homelessness among LGBT young people is not only a "gay" issue; it is an issue for everyone who cares about our country's future.

I heard myself. Of course you can never know what it is to live another person's life; in this respect those hurting young people were right. But in another way they were wrong -- because I did have an idea of what they were going through. I know what it is like to be told that you have to leave. I know what it is like to be young and scared and without a home because of my sexual orientation and gender identity. But I also know that that does not have to be the end of the story. I stand with the Forty to None Project to create better endings for LGBT young people.

If you hear these things too, please spread the word about the campaign and help us go from Forty to None.

 
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