President Obama’s recent endorsement of marriage equality gives much hope to millions of people in the queer community, however, there is still much more work to be done, especially with regards to the extremely high number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth who are bullied, abused, kicked out, and forced to leave home due to homophobia and transphobia. Research studies continuously report that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population and that approximately 25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, however, there is seldom any follow-up or further investigation into the phenomenon of LGBTQ youth homelessness, which has created a large gap in knowledge in this area, leading to barriers for agencies, policy makers and health care providers trying to respond to the needs of LGBTQ youth, perpetuating a situation whereby this population is underserved and their needs are unmet. What we do know, however, is that a high proportion of LGBTQ homeless youth feel safer on the streets than in shelters due to homophobic and transphobic violence in the shelter system and this desperately needs to change.
My PhD study examines the lack of support available to LGBTQ homeless youth in Toronto and specifically asks: What changes need to be implemented in the current shelter system in order for it to become safer, more accessible and more supportive for LGBTQ homeless youth? Several relevant secondary questions that arise from the main inquiry include:(1) In light of previous research findings which establish a need for specialized services for LGBTQ homeless youth, what kind of specialized services are needed? (2) What kind of training is needed for staff in the shelter system in order to be well equipped to deal with situations of homophobia and transphobia? (3) What underpins and recreates the current problems and barriers that LGBTQ youth face in the shelter system?
These questions are being answered through a series of research stages methodologically comprised of participatory research, critical ethnography, and arts-informed research. The research stages will help identify the changes that need to be implemented in the current shelter system to render it safer, more accessible and supportive for LGBTQ homeless youth. The first stage of the research study examined the adults who work in the shelter system and focused on the training they have received, their levels of preparedness in dealing with situations of homophobia and transphobia, and how the shelters operate. Data collected in the first stage included shelter staff focus groups, one-on-one interviews with shelter Executive Directors, City of Toronto management, and facilitators of shelter training workshops, and observations of three shelter training workshops. The second stage of research identified the local problems faced by LGBTQ homeless youth in Toronto and explored how the shelter system has let them down and their everyday experiences within the system. I conducted 10 one-on-one interviews with youth aged 21 to 29 years. I had originally proposed the third and final stage of data collection to be a Digital Storytelling project with a small group of previously homeless or street-involved LGBTQ youth. Each youth was going to be provided with a digital point and shoot camera and asked to take both still photos and video footage representing the problems they have encountered in the shelter system, as well as a representation of where they found support due to the problems they have encountered in the shelter system. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and difficulty with recruitment, I was only able to complete one Digital Story with one youth.
My preliminary data analysis indicates that the issue of homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system is much greater than our current understanding. Several key themes that have emerged include the need for shelter staff to receive Anti-Homophobia training as soon as possible, as well as LGBTQ terminology training; and the issue of youth facing intersecting oppressions in the shelter system, specifically, homophobia-transphobia-racism-ageism.
This study serves as an important call to action for all levels of government, policy makers, shelter directors and staff, youth, and the general public to improve the shelter system and support services and to increase funding for specialized programs for LGBTQ homeless youth so that the necessary support is in turn available. For more information, please visit: www.ilona6.com
Alex (Ilona) Abramovich
Ilona Alex Abramovich is a Doctoral Candidate in the Adult Education and Community Development program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education-University of Toronto. Alex’s research focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) youth homelessness in Toronto. Alex is currently investigating the changes that need to be implemented in the Toronto’s shelter system in order for it to become safer, more accessible, and more supportive for LGBTQ youth who are homeless. Alex’s PhD study is methodologically comprised of Arts-informed research, Critical Ethnography, and Participatory research. As an artist, activist, and researcher Alex is interested in the use of Digital Storytelling, photovoice, and filmmaking. For more information on Alex's work, please visit: www.ilona6.com