Studies show that providing a safe space is key in engaging and retaining homeless LGBTQ youth in programming.
A safe space can be indicated by something as small as a rainbow sticker or a National Coming Out Day poster.
The strength in the message goes far beyond these physical signs. In their minds, the message of acceptance is what the youth need in order to safely and fully engage in programming.
The youth need to feel that an organization is welcoming and accepts them for who they are.
This is because many of them have experienced rejection and been victimized in the past because of their identities.
The feeling of acceptance soon translates into a sense of belonging and allows the youth to forge new ties with a community of helpers who can provide valuable supports in their rebuilding process.
Statistics point to the fact that LGBTQ youth make up 20 to 40% of all homeless youth. This is more than twice the size of the cohort in the overall youth population.
Observers report that they are taking to the streets younger and younger as the age at which the youth choose to "come out" (i.e., disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to friends and family) has dropped to as low as 12 or 13. This trend is attributed to changing societal ways in recent years, which have decreased the stigma attached to identifying as LGBTQ.
For some, self-identifying earlier means facing the hardship of homelessness at a very young age when they are no longer welcome in their family homes.
LGBTQ youth's attributes run the gamut found in all youth. They are young people with hope and aspirations, resilience and complexity. Like other homeless youth, they find themselves facing adult responsibilities far too soon.
Reports show that many are subject to abuse in large shelters and to a higher degree of exploitation on the streets. Also, many youth are aging out of foster care and the juvenile justice system directly into homelessness.
As seen with other groups, one-size-fits-all sheltering does not work. Shelter reformers are taking note of this as of late, and this is a good thing.
Opening Doors, the federal plan to prevent and end homelessness, has set a goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) is working with 19 federal agencies to accomplish this.
USICH's recommendations include low barrier housing, education leading to employment, on-going support connected to mainstream resources, independent living skills training, and connection to supportive and trusting adults and support networks.
Some groups have already blended these elements to develop very effective programming to empower LGBTQ youth to rebuild their lives.
The vision needs to be for such programs to be readily available throughout the country.
Talking about "rebuilding" hardly seems right at that age, does it?
Maybe "building" would be better to describe the achievement of young people, ages 12 to 24?
This observation is not just about semantics, by the way. It's meant to highlight the need for all program spaces to be or become safe for these young people lest we leave them outside simply because of who they are.
LGBTQ youth deserve the same chance to "build" as all youth.