Queer Youth on the Edge of Belonging

Rates of youth homelessness in America are falling—but only broadly. While this is, of course, promising, as overall rates have fallen gay and trans youth have continued to be overrepresented as a percentage of the youth homeless population. As far less visible members of an already hidden part of society (that being homeless youth), and being a community that largely does not wish to be identified, estimates of the population of queer homeless youth in the United States range drastically. While a 2019 report to the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 21% of the homeless youth population in the U.S. are gay and/or transgender, the researchers acknowledge that the real number could be anywhere from 20 to 40% of the overall homeless youth population (Voices of Youth Count 2019). To put this number into context, queer youth are estimated to compose roughly 5-10% of all American youth, and many individuals and organizations across the U.S. have also suggested that this range is too conservative. Some estimate that as many as half (or more) of all homeless youth are queer. For Black and Indigenous queer youth, this number also becomes bigger, highlighting the intersectional nature of the issue. However, despite the queer community’s overrepresentation in the homeless community, the unique, overlapping challenges faced by queer homeless youth of all backgrounds, and queer Americans’ growing visibility in the public, queer homeless youth continue to be largely invisible, and their needs largely unmet. 

Section I. Existing Approaches

Policy approaches to addressing queer youth homelessness fall, largely, into two categories: preventative policy and restorative policy. Preventative policy deals primarily with social structures, community support, and education. Restorative policy, conversely, deals mostly with caring for those who are already experiencing homelessness, producing best outcomes, whether emotionally, healthwise, or socially, and working to establish long-term stability for individuals so that homelessness does not become a terminal state for them. 

Previously, policy approaches to queer youth homelessness dealt primarily with, at best, restorative action and, more realistically, harm reduction. Harm reduction is, for many agencies, still a main goal: a youth.gov overview on “Homelessness and Housing” focuses primarily on harm reduction for queer homeless youth living in shelters (youth.gov). These recommendations deal, first and foremost, with sensitive hiring practices, community partnerships, and trauma-informed care. While important, this approach only addresses one aspect of a deeply complex issue like youth homelessness amongst a doubly or triply marginalized population. Preventative policies recommended in the report are promising but vague, with one recommendation being simply to “locate LGBT-sensitive outreach, services, and housing options in or near predominantly black and multiracial communities equitably” (youth.gov). With reports such as these, there are notable gaps in that the preventative policy suggestions aim to do little to change the material realities of queer youth, and thus will likely have questionable impacts on the material realities of queer youth homelessness.

In recent years, however, institutions have begun to fundamentally change their approaches. Firstly, they have begun a transition toward preventative policy as a means of combatting queer youth homelessness before it happens, and are increasingly looking more toward community organizations as places of both healing and material support for queer teens experiencing homelessness. Government institutions like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have also prioritized bettering their data collection and interpretation practices regarding both queer and cisheterosexual homeless youth as a means of creating more effective preventative and restorative policy (Voices of Youth Count 2019:24).

According to the 2019 policy report on youth homelessness presented to the HUD by Voices of Youth Count, a research center that focuses on understanding the state of homelessness in America, this is, at least partially, brought on by a new focus on addressing the specificities of all homeless youth’s experiences, and on understanding how individuals’ identities play into their experiences in order to better both preventative and restorative practices. This shift in interest also could be brought on by the creation of new, more effective approaches to connecting with queer homeless youth (in Voices of Youth Count’s policy brief, they note exclusively employing formerly homeless youth to reach out to youth currently experiencing homelessness, with the understanding that vulnerable youth struggle to establish trust with those who have not given them a reason to be trusting) (Voices of Youth Count 2019:26). Understanding documentation and outreach as a kind of relationship for which trust is required has seemingly improved institutions and researchers’ ability to understand and aid queer homeless youth, a population which has been and continues to be difficult to identify. Voices of Youth Count, in their 2019 policy brief, noted that the results of their survey regarding the percentage of homeless youth that are gay and/or transgender, which was found to be approximately 21%, might have beeen inaccurate “because some youth may have felt uncomfortable sharing information about their sexual orientation” (Voices of Youth Count 2019:30). When research gaps like these persist, it can be expected that the gaps in both preventative and restorative policies’ effectiveness will also persist, a concern noted throughout many of the research policy briefings I was able to locate.

Christopher Street Pier along the water | Image by Jim Henderson (2008)

Section II. Media Analysis

Media representations of the realities of gay and trans homeless teens are few and far between—perhaps due to the “hiddenness” of the issue that Voices of Youth Count note in their 2019 policy brief as well as the grittiness of the stories themselves (Voices of Youth Count 2019:viii). In recent years, however, a few filmmakers have explored the issue through film and documentaries. Two such cases are Damon Cardasis’s Saturday Church (2017) and Elegance Bratton’s 2019 documentary Pier Kids. In many ways, the two films parallel each other: both are set in an early 2010s New York City, filled with the spirit of precariousness that haunts queer life yet still deeply grounded and whole. 

Cardasis’s Saturday Church tells the story of Ulysses, a Black, fourteen year-old boy from New York City who has just lost his father. In the wake of the loss, his mother is forced to take on the role of provider, and his deeply religious aunt takes over the job of caring for him and his brother. Ulysses soon encounters a group of gay and trans young adults one night after fleeing to the Christopher Street Pier (a setting that the film and Pier Kids share), and the group guides him through his love for femininity and fashion, the world of ballroom, and experiencing love and desire. This coming-of-age process, steeped in art, emotion, and femininity, is contrasted with the stale oppressiveness of the masculine role Ulysses is expected to fill at home, a divide the film highlights through the use of vivid color, music, fashion, and expressive body movement in its depiction of queer ballroom community. His queer community, composed exclusively of gay and trans young adults who experienced homelessness themselves as teens, allows him to live freely and transgressively through queer cultural and artistic forms while also remaining in the shelter of his nuclear family. When his relationship with his family finally fractures over his gayness and femininity, a more fluid, queer sense of belonging, centered primarily around people, relationships, and histories, keeps him in place. Quite literally, it is the transgender sex worker Ebony who nurses him back to health after he becomes homeless and walks him back home to his mother as a full person. The center holds because of queer community, and the ways in which queer people have learned to take care of each other. 

Similarly, Bratton’s Pier Kids documents the communities Black queer homeless youth form for themselves, and the art, culture, and languages they create. The documentary highlights a community that dwells primarily on New York City’s Christopher Street Bridge, composed of Black transgender women, bisexual men, gay men, genderqueer people, and any other identity on the spectrum of queerness. Many of the people Bratton speaks with say that they came specifically to the area to be a part of the community, and many others note that this was either the first or one community out of very few which welcomed them and affirmed their existence. As they’re filmed throughout their daily lives, they vogue (a form of dancing most commonly found in ballroom), they dye their hair, and they sit with each other and gossip. There is a sense that the culture they have formed in this space is both protective and creative, similarly fashioned to the way their identities are lived out. As the community experiences death, ostracization, life changes, and the monotonous passing of each day, the shape of their community remains strong and growing, taking in new people that require its presence in their lives and saying goodbye to those who transition into more stability. Krystal, a young trans woman, serves as a sort of intermediary between these two states, and her home is often filled with her “gay kids,” queer homeless that pay very little to live with her as they transition into new, stable lives. 

These films offer two important commentaries on (or perhaps suggestions for) the realities of queer homeless life. First and foremost, they demonstrate that queer people’s care for one another and the systems of care that have been created, both formally and informally, are important for the well-being of queer youth. This works as a preventative measure against homelessness, as shown in Saturday Church, and as both a restorative measure and harm reduction, as shown in Pier Kids. Steeped in the long history of queer community, queer care practices, and identity affirmation, these two films offer guidance for the ways in which institutions can understand queer life and the lives of queer homeless youth. This also offers an opportunity for combining tradition with institutional intervention, so that neither community nor institutional knowledge is neglected in providing for such a vulnerable, high-risk population. 

The films also highlight how intersectional understandings of queer youth homelessness matter, as race, class, culture, religion, and chance converge to create violent, hopeless circumstances throughout the countless stories of Black queer homeless life the films contain. 

Section III. Policy Recommendations

Taking into consideration both the perspective offered by media representations and the research on queer youth homelessness examined by existing policy briefs, it seems that specific, intersectional, intracommunity solutions would be most effective in addressing the unique needs of queer youth—those who are homeless, those are likely to soon become homeless, and those who are at little-to-no risk of experiencing homelessness. As the policy report and the two films demonstrate, queer people tend to thrive in community with other queer people. In Pier Kids, it’s told again and again that the people who live on the Christopher Street Pier come to be in a joyful, resilient community with one another regardless of their circumstances. That is true of most people in queer communities. Therefore, in order to effectively prevent queer youth from becoming homeless and to encourage queer belonging in society, government institutions might look to invest resources in and grow the existing structures and communities queer people have built for themselves, as well as to allow for the development of new structures and communities where they have not already been put in place. 

Because, for most of its history, the queer community in America has been largely without financial resources and therefore has learned how to operate on low costs, this investment would not likely be costly, and many communities already have existing, if a little small and underfunded, structures and spaces. Nashville itself has the Oasis Center, a center for marginalized youth which offers special services and community for queer youth—those who are safe, those who are at-risk, and those currently experiencing homelessness. Its JustUs program, one of a couple targeted at queer youth in Middle Tennessee, is run by queer people, and seeks to address the whole experience of queer life, from counseling, financial resources, community groups, paid-for trips, and a physical, affirming space to exist peacefully. Communities and programs like these, which draw from individual, local, state, corporate, and perhaps federal resources offer a sustainable way to prevent queer youth homelessness and restore queer youth experiencing homelessness to stability and comfort. Supporting them, financially and physically, in places where these organizations have often already identified a need is an easy, relatively low-cost way to address such a complex issue. 

Conclusions

Given the ongoing overrepresentation of queer people in the United States’s population of homeless youth and the recent legislation attacking the well-being of both queer youth and homeless individuals, institutional policy interventions have become increasingly necessary and pressing in recent years. Despite government institutions’ promising shifts toward a more comprehensive, community-partnered approach to policy addressing the needs of queer homeless youth, the change has been slow to come and has struggled to address the immediate material needs of queer homeless youth. Policy that is led primarily by existing queer communities and incorporates the existing practices, culture, and knowledge longheld by queer people offers actionable direction, and a way to take the first step on a long journey of change and justice. 

– A. Littlejohn-Bailey

References

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