In recent years, there has been extensive research in the area of youth homelessness both in Canada and internationally. We have seen a great deal of initiatives towards the movement to end youth homelessness. However, there is a lack of knowledge into the problem of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and 2-spirited (LGBTQ2) youth homeless in Canada.
What we do know is that LGBTQ2 youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population. It has been estimated that approximately 25-40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ2. However, this statistic came from one Canadian study, 14 years ago, and there is not much clarity or understanding what this number looks like today or how to begin scaling the problem of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness on a national level, when services do not collect data on youths’ gender or sexual identities.
The latest round of the City of Toronto Street Needs Assessment included a question about people’s LGBTQ2 identity for the first time. The results confirmed that 20% of youth in the shelter system identify as LGBTQ2, 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 as queer or trans to volunteers conducting the survey, for a variety of reasons that often stem from issues regarding safety; and countless LGBTQ2 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 LGBTQ2 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 Toronto because of the City’s LGBTQ2 friendly reputation and because service providers located outside of the city are often reluctant to admit LGBTQ2 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 homeless youth 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 LGBTQ2 youth in Canada.
Even with the legalization of same-sex marriage and various global initiatives that promote LGBTQ 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 City of Toronto management, at a time when LGBTQ youth homelessness is on the rise.
The risks encountered on the streets and in the shelter system by LGBTQ2 homeless youth versus heterosexual and cisgender homeless youth 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 LGBTQ2 homeless youth, which may be a contributing factor to the dramatically higher risk for suicide and mental health difficulties experienced by LGBTQ2 youth.
NOTE: Although there is minimal Canadian research that focuses on LGBTQ2 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 LGBTQ2 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.