The emergence of COVID-19 has greatly exposed the fragility of the American economy and social safety nets established to support underserved communities. COVID-19 reveals to many that the United States and the world are severely underprepared when it comes to combating new and more virulent outbreaks of disease and other disasters. We’ve found that these occurrences disproportionately affect some of the most vulnerable members of society, from the uninsured and underemployed to the homeless population, where we find many LGBTQ+ youth.
In places like New York City, schools and universities have shuttered for fear of further spread of COVID-19, placing severe strain on organizations like Safe Space NOVA and others that provide safe and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth already faced with stigma, food insecurities, and isolation. With universities closing, some youth have no home to go back to and are forced to make other arrangements, from staying with friends to finding municipal shelters to call home, further increasing their risk of exposure to this dangerous virus. Many shelters across the country are already crowded making it difficult for youth to remain safe.
A report released by the Human Rights Campaign highlights the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people. The report shows that as expected, LGBTQ+ people are more vulnerable to the health risks of the virus — they’re less likely to have health coverage and are more likely to suffer other chronic illnesses. They’re also more likely to work jobs in highly affected industries such as food preparation and service occupations, often with more exposure and higher economic sensitivity to the COVID-19 crisis. Further complicating this situation, 29 percent of respondents to a survey said their employer offers paid leave specifically for medical reasons and that they were eligible to use it.
At Safe Space NOVA, a community nonprofit in Alexandria, Va., where I volunteer, we are in communication with our youth, some of whom are at universities across the country, inquiring about necessary spending cash and access to food. We’ve also moved to virtual programming and engagement to help the youth feel connected and reduce isolation as much as possible in this time of great need, but each day this becomes increasingly difficult.
As this virus continues to surge, transgender youth are put at an even greater risk, and some organizations are fighting the discriminatory practices targeting transgender youth at shelters across the country. Several organizations have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for its refusal to enforce rules barring federal grantees from discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community. “LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers,” said Gregory Lewis, CEO of True Colors United, one the entities suing the federal government. “Transgender youth are at especially high risk and face unique types of discrimination and trauma while experiencing homelessness.”
Although the times are very challenging, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty outlines areas where we can all advocate for our youth and other vulnerable members of the public to include calling on our policymakers and schools to center equitable access to all services including:
Modifications to curricula and distance learning, including access to course materials, and remembering that not all students will have access to computers, the internet, or other digital methods of learning;
Access to food and monetary aid, and ways to effectively distribute aid to homeless students and unaccompanied minors who may not be able to reach common distribution points;
Setting up processes to keep up with currently identified students experiencing homelessness and to identify students who may be losing housing during this hard time;
Heeding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on refraining from forcing people, including children and youth, into group shelters during the pandemic;
Prioritizing access to housing and health care, especially for unaccompanied youth who usually may not meet requirements for certain housing or aid programs.
There are things we can all do with our time to help ease the burden that this virus has unearthed. You can volunteer your time to help support our youth, whether it’s donating funds to organizations on the frontlines working with LGBTQ+ youth or your time by helping coordinate resources. This is a call to those in the community who may also have social work and counseling skills that can help facilitate virtual therapy sessions to let our youth know that they are standing not alone behind the curtain of society and that in this time of crisis we are all looking out for them.
Charles A. Sumpter Jr. is a board member at Safe Space NOVA.