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Extending a Lifeline to Homeless LGBT Young Adults

Op-Ed on NYC Council Vote and LGBT Homelessness

Cutting off services for people once they turn 18 or 21 is just reinforcing a cycle of misery. A new bill in New York could change that.

On March 7, the New York City Council approved a package of bills that would extend access to youth services and shelter to homeless young adults, many of whom identify as LGBT. If Mayor de Blasio signs the bills into law, New York City can set an example for cities across the U.S. trying to patch up the cracks that homeless and runaway youth fall into on the road to independent adulthood.

Studies have consistently shown that LGBT youth are at a heightened risk of homelessness, in large part because their families have rejected them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In surveys, as many as 40 percent of runaway and homeless youth identify as LGBT.

In early adulthood, something as simple as shelter can be life-altering. Marcelle, a gay 21-year-old, pointed out that raising the age for services "would open so many doors -- I could finish school instead of urgently looking for housing, which is what I'm doing now. It's hard to finish the semester and look for housing, and to manage all of it."

Recognizing this unique vulnerability, LGBT advocates, community centers, and service providers across the U.S. have mobilized to expand LGBT-inclusive youth services. But many of these services end when young people turn 18 or 21, cutting them off before they're equipped with the employment, housing, and financial stability to make it on their own.

This winter, I spoke with homeless young adults in New York City who have aged out of youth services and found themselves suddenly cut off from crucial sources of support. They identified a wide range of services -- counseling, job training, internships, health care, sexuality education, and many others -- that they'd been able to get through youth programs but were now unable to find.

Under the current law, New York City government funding can only be used to provide support services for young people until they turn 21. But few young adults are fully independent at that age, especially if they have experienced homelessness. Maddox, a 21-year-old, told me, "We have to deal with so much stuff, we didn't have time to do things teenagers normally do."

When young people don't have financial literacy, a chance to build savings, or a steady job, it becomes difficult for them to find and keep permanent housing. In the current system, Maddox said, "it seems like they just want you to go from being a young homeless person to an older homeless person."

Even for youth who do not age out of services, support can be limited. New York law allows youth to stay in crisis programs for up to 60 days and transitional independent living programs for up to 18 months. In many cases, that isn't long enough for homeless LGBT youth to make a plan and find alternatives.

Lex, a 24-year-old transgender man, was forced to leave home when he began to act more masculine and his mother reacted with physical violence. As he explained to me, adjusting to those circumstances can take time. "Your family kicks you out, and all of a sudden, you only have six months to get to where you need to be, you're just getting into emergency housing. It's no time, really, to get acclimated."

The consequences of being cut off can be devastating. Kay, a 24-year-old, told me a particularly painful story of a friend who aged out of services last summer and had no place to go: "She had been with her program long enough that she was getting stuff done, but she wasn't where she needed to be. And they abandoned her, the day before her birthday. Nobody checked up on her; nobody asked how she was doing." Shortly after aging out of her housing, her friend was shot and killed on the street.

Under the leadership of Corey Johnson, the New York City Council speaker, the council approved a set of bills that address these issues head on. One would allow city funding to be used to serve young people up to age 25. Another would extend the length of time that young people can stay in crisis programs and transitional independent living programs. In addition to expanding services, a third would require the city to create a system that will meet the needs of all homeless young people.

These changes would benefit homeless young adults generally, but they're particularly important for those who identify as LGBT. Youth I spoke with emphasized the stark difference between services that were tailored for youth and adult shelters. Unlike LGBT-specific youth resources like the Ali Forney Center here, many adult shelters serve a general population. The young adults I interviewed described being misgendered, harassed, and fearing physical and sexual assault from residents who were often decades older than they are.

Mayor de Blasio can make a huge difference for the youth of New York, and in particular for LGBT young people, by signing the youth services bills into law. Leadership on this issue would encourage cities across the country to take stock of the services they provide and see whether they are doing enough to serve homeless young adults. For these young people who face so many challenges, these services can make the difference between falling back into homelessness and becoming an independent adult.

RYAN THORESON is a researcher in the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

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