In recent years, there has been extensive research in the area of youth homelessness in Canada and internationally. We have seen a great deal of initiatives towards the movement to end youth homelessness. However, there is still a lack of knowledge of the problem of LGBTQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and two-spirit) youth homelessness in Canada.
What we do know is that LGBTQ2S youth are overrepresented in youth homelessness; based on a book published by the COH and A Way Home Canada, about 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ2S. We also know that some issues disproportionately affect LGBTQ2S-identified youth, as highlighted in the following statistics from the book, Where Am I Going to Go?:
- Over 80% of LGBTQ2S students report being aware of LGBTQ-related discriminatory practices and policies in their schools
- The majority of LGBTQ2S Indigenous youth (three in four) said they were enrolled in school.
- 59% of Indigenous LGBTQ2S youth said that they attended alternative schools.
- Over 38% of Indigenous youth who identified as LGBTQ2S were unable to access mental health services when they needed to, whereas 27% of Indigenous heterosexual cisgender youth said the same.
- LGBTQ2S youth were more likely (51%) to say that they were homeless or street involved due to an inability to get along with their parents, compared to hetereosexual cisgender youth (36%)
- LGBTQ2S youth were more likely (34%) to say that violence or abuse made them leave home, compared to hetereosexual cisgender youth (16%)
In 2014, the BC Homeless & Street-Involved Youth Survey included a set of surveys for homeless youth between the ages of 12-19 years old. They asked a diverse set of questions regarding life circumstances, risk exposures, assets and supports, health and risk behaviours, health outcomes, sexual orientation, gender identity and questions regarding Indigenous identities and life circumstances, such as whether youth have ever lived on a reserve. The surveys found that over half (53% or 358) of the youths surveyed identified as Indigenous, and of these Indigenous youth 34% (122 people) identified as LGBTQ or two-spirit.
There are a number of factors that make it difficult to keep an accurate account of how many LGBTQ2S youth are experiencing homelessness, including: the omission of LGBTQ2S-related questions in PiT counts, inadequate training of staff about how to appropriately and sensitively ask LGBTQ2S youth questions, the grouping of trans persons under the label of “sexual minority” making it difficult to differentiate individuals’ gender identities from their sexual identities, and other concerns about data synthesis and the safety of LGBTQ2S youth when collecting data.
In 2013, the City of Toronto Street Needs Assessment included a question about people’s LGBTQ2S identity for the first time. The results confirmed that 20% of youth in the shelter system identify as LGBTQ2S, which is more than twice the rate for all age groups. Although 20% is high, we have reasons to believe that the prevalence of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Toronto is in fact higher. For example, many youth choose to not come out when conducting the survey, for a variety of reasons that often stem from issues regarding safety; and countless LGBTQ2S youth did not have a chance to complete the survey because they are part of Toronto’s hidden homeless population and do not access support services, also due to issues regarding homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system and drop-in programs.
We also know that LGBTQ2S youth are at a higher risk of homelessness due to homophobia and transphobia in the home and they often face the same discrimination in the shelter system. Queer and trans youth frequently migrate to cities such as Toronto because of the city’s LGBTQ2S-friendly reputation and because service providers located outside of the city are often reluctant to admit LGBTQ2S youth into shelters and end up sending them to Toronto with the false promise that there will be support available. However, a high proportion of queer and trans youth experiencing homelessness feel safer on the streets than in shelters due to homophobic and transphobic violence that occurs in the shelter system and because shelter providers are not fully prepared to deal with homophobia and transphobia.
Although we have this knowledge, still there is minimal support available and there are no specialized housing initiatives that meet the needs of LGBTQ2S youth in Canada.
Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage and various global initiatives that promote LGBTQ2S equality, homophobia and transphobia are still deeply ingrained in our everyday behaviours, language, and in the policies of many institutions, such as, the shelter system; however, they are often normalized and invisible in such settings. Due to gaps in knowledge and a lack of reported incidents, discrimination against queer and trans youth remains largely invisible to shelter workers and management, policy makers, and other service providers.
The risks encountered on the streets and in the shelter system by LGBTQ2S youth versus heterosexual and cisgender youth experiencing homelessness differ largely due to frequent incidents of homophobic and transphobic violence. Not only are the risks and barriers encountered different, but also the needs of LGBTQ2 youth differ from those of their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. For example, the challenges of dealing with coming out, trying to form one’s gender and sexual identity, and the burden of social stigma and discrimination, in addition to the everyday stresses of street life, greatly impact the well-being of LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness, which may be a contributing factor to the dramatically higher risk for suicide and mental health difficulties experienced by LGBTQ2S youth.
NOTE: Although there is minimal Canadian research that focuses on LGBTQ2S homelessness, the majority of research that has been conducted in this area focuses on youth. This is true for a number of reasons including the large percentage of “out” youth compared to the adult population, the distinct needs youth face compared to adults and the fact that family rejection is a major contributing factor to LGBTQ2S youth homelessless. However, given that youth homelessness often leads to adult homelessness there is also a need to address similar issues in single adult, couples and family shelters.