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politics

Dire Gaps in Services for LGBTQ Homeless Youth

Research shows that Toronto needs to become more accessible, supportive, and safe for LGBTQ youth.

Toronto has long been known as something of a haven for the LGBTQ community. It’s become a destination for same-sex marriage ceremonies and celebrations, for Pride parties people talk about until the next one, and as a new home for many seeking a vibrant and welcoming place to live. But for homeless LGBTQ youth, it’s something of a different story.

“Due to Toronto’s LGBTQ-friendly reputation, LGBTQ youth frequently migrate to Toronto expecting to find support and safety, which unfortunately is not always the case,” says I. Alex Abramovich, a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education whose research focuses on LGBTQ youth homelessness.

In Toronto—which, says Abramovich, is the homeless capital of Canada—the incidence of LGBTQ youth homelessness is on the rise, and agencies serving homeless youth have reported challenges in providing support to this population. Approximately 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, compared to the approximately five to 10 per cent of the general population who identifies as such. Yet the City of Toronto does not operate a single shelter specifically for LGBTQ youth.

“We also know that many LGBTQ homeless youth feel safer on the streets than in shelters due to homophobic and transphobic violence in the shelter system,” says Abramovich. “Despite these findings, there are few specialized support services, and no specialized shelters or transitional housing for LGBTQ street involved youth in Canada.”

Abramovich recently completed a study that found a dire need for specialized services that create safe spaces for LGBTQ homeless youth, for stricter policies in the shelter system against homophobia and transphobia, and for more discussions about inclusion and acceptance among shelter providers and workers. The results of this study (which will make up Abramovich’s dissertation) will also appear in a free ebook published by the Homeless Hub this spring that will focus on applications for the research findings.

Safety is a real concern for homeless LGBTQ youth, who face significantly higher rates of criminal victimization and daily incidents of homophobia and transphobia. LGBTQ homeless youth are also at greater risk for substance use, risky sexual behaviour, and mental health difficulties, and these risk factors are amplified by the lack of available support.

Abramovich’s research also reveals that we don’t properly understand the consequences of this state of affairs. For example, we do not know enough about how the lack of specialized services impacts this population’s health, well-being, and length of time on the street; nor do we fully understand how experiencing intersecting or multiple oppressions—racism and homophobia, for instance—both on the streets and in the shelter system, impacts LGBTQ street involved youth. “Professionals working with homeless youth, as well as the general public, need a solid understanding of the impacts of homophobia and transphobia on LGBTQ people’s lives, and of the ways in which the LGBTQ community has been and still is marginalized and oppressed,” Abramovich says.

For all that we perceive our city as that safe haven, we actually do not have a thorough understanding of the connection between homophobia and homelessness, nor of the challenges of coming out and the struggles some face in forming gender and sexual identity.

While the City of Toronto does not have any shelters for LGBTQ youth, other cities have invested in these resources, something that Abramovich says we should learn from. Until then, our lack of specialized programs and a supportive atmosphere may have critical consequences.

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