On any given night in the United States, there are over half a million homeless men, women, and children living in shelters or on the streets. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 564,708 people were homeless on any given night. Of that number, the report found that 69 percent were in residential programs, while 31 percent were in “unsheltered locations.” Because many people slide in and out of homelessness due to a variety of factors, the number of people who experience homelessness in a given year fluctuates, and more than one million Americans are estimated to be affected annually.
However one particularly unsettling reality is that children (age 18 and under) represent nearly one quarter of the homeless population. If anything catches your attention, this should. So often the homeless men and women amongst us are “hidden in plain sight”, constituting a seemingly invisible population. But as Christians concerned about honoring the human dignity of all our neighbors, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye. So who is this population, and what are the problems they face?
LGBTQ Homeless Youth
Across the country, there is a major trend amongst homeless youth. Nationally, nearly 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that nearly half of Washington, D.C.’s homeless youth population is LGBT. Why are so many LGBT youth ending up on the streets? Research has found that family rejection has a lot to do with it.
“Family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was the most frequently cited factor contributing to LGBT homelessness,” a Williams Institute report found. The report cited the next most common reason for youth homelessness is when they are kicked out of their home after coming out.
The problem then becomes twofold: there is a shortage of beds available for homeless youth, and a lack of services designed particularly for the LGBT population. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are only 4,000 beds available for homeless youth across the country. This means that shelters often have to turn them away.
“The concern is that in places where there are no beds, and there are no street outreach programs or services, these are the hidden homeless,” Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said in a NBC News article.
Fortunately there are more and more organizations who are working specifically on meeting the needs of this particularly vulnerable population. These organizations often offer unique and specialized care, including family acceptance-related work.
In Washington, D.C., direct service providers like Wanda Alston Foundation and Casa Ruby are working specifically with this population. And earlier this year, the city announced $45,000 in grants from Verizon to two nonprofit organizations serving LGBT youth, in addition to five grants from the city that would go to organizations serving LGBT youth. While direct service providers are doing an excellent job on the ground, they alone can’t alleviate youth homelessness. There is a need for strong government policy, too.
Over the past few years, many cities have implemented policies that deliberately and harmfully target the homelesspopulation. Policies that penalize people for activities such as sleeping in public areas and entering abandoned buildings are designed to push the homeless out. Despite recent efforts by the federal government to roll backsome of these policies, cities across the country continue to pass ordinances that degrade the homeless.
Policies that provide direct assistance to the homeless, such as reauthorizing the Homeless Assistance Grantsprogram within HUD, should also be championed. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) , which is currently seeking reauthorization, would provide funding for many of the services that work to ameliorate the problems homeless youth face. There was a proposal last year to amend RHYA to ban sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in all services provided, and also in the hiring practices of all service providers. This amended language has not, to date, passed, so the original version of RHYA is still intact. As we work toward reauthorization of RHYA, it is important to note that LGBT youth are best served when there is a diversity of providers who have a reasonable degree of organizational freedom in deciding how to best serve these youth within the context of their missions.
Faith-based social services providers have long provided for the physical and spiritual needs of the most marginalized in society, regardless of whether or not those individuals espoused the same belief system as the institutions that served them. RHYA should require that all social services providers, faith-based and secular, provide services to all eligible recipients, without discrimination based on sexual orientation or any other identity characteristic. However, RHYA, as the proposed amendments were written, goes too far in forcing faith-based homeless shelters to hire people who do not conform to the faith-based mission and values of the organization.
Religious homeless shelters are often misrepresented as refusing to serve gay and transgender individuals. However, this is simply inaccurate. In an open letter in MLive, Rev. Michael Brown, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Rescue Mission, wrote, “Because we recognize that Muslims observe different eating habits, we have attempted to accommodate this and to ensure that an alternative is available when pork is served as the main course. There are [also] persons from our community residing at the Gospel Mission who are gay or transgender and many who are not Christian. They are all welcomed to the services of the Mission.”
A Christian Response
With this in mind, Christians should be vocal in our public witness that the homeless should be treated as equal members of our society. Christians should look to address the LGBTQ homeless population on a practical level in their community. This is an area where Christians who have differing views on sexuality can and should work together to address one of the most vulnerable populations in our society today.
There are already service providers working with LGBTQ youth who are homeless. Christians should look to examples such as these to gain a better understanding of what ministry to homeless LGBTQ people, particularly youth, looks like. Christians should not allow the contentiousness of sexuality to deter them from addressing of the most ignored segments of the homeless population.
The dignity of the homeless should not be trampled, nor viewed as mutually exclusive, from developing urban areas. When thinking specifically about the homeless LGBT youth population, Christians must take special care. In many cases, these young people have been rejected by their own families, and perhaps even their church. What better witness than to care for them as we would our own family?
-Joshua Russell is a graduate of Furman University and lives in Washington, DC.