Gathering accurate numbers and determining the true scope of homelessness is difficult. The people are transient, sometimes don't identify as homeless, or may be hidden as the person is couch surfing instead of sleeping on the street. Trying to track subsets, like homeless youth or LGBTQ youth homelessness is even more difficult.
The Prairie Pride Coalition, has partnered with Illinois State University's School of Social Work to study the issue in Bloomington-Normal. David Bentlin is the president of the Prairie Pride Coalition Board. He says the group has always been interested in youth issues, but youth became a greater priority after a community needs assessment survey ranked youth issues highly. Diane Zosky, Director of Illinois State University's School of Social Work managed the student researchers who helped study the issue and prepare the report, released earlier this year.
Determining the Scope of the Problem
"One of the difficult natures of identifying the problem is homelessness is so invisible. There's no counting, there's no record, no identification. It would be very difficult to really get an accurate representation of what's happening in Bloomington-Normal," said Diane Zosky. "So we went to the professional literature. The three students did a comprehensive review of the professional literature in terms of what is the nature of homelessness with LGBTQ youth, what are the situations that are catalysts for these youths finding themselves homeless, what are the concurrent and consequent issues they deal with being on the street and what are some of the services and best practices communities in how this is addressed."
"Here's an example of how it's so difficult, even on a national scale. The estimates can vary. The U.S Department of Housing estimates 53,000 young people might be homeless as any one time. Yet the National Center on Family Homelessness says the number could be as high as 1.6 million," said Zosky. "We do know that generally as many as 40% of the them identify as LGBTQ. There's something very particular happening with these young people who find themselves homeless."
"LGBTQ youth find themselves in family situations where they're not accepted, where their orientation isn't accepted or gender identity isn't accepted. Family members don't understand. If they're not thrown out their financial support is withdrawn from them," said Bentlin. "They're not getting any support at home that leads them to seek shelter in other places."
"Often family discord is the base of that, but what Dave is talking about is a whole different element in terms of LGBTQ youth. It's not just family discord. It's family rejection which is quite more damaging to young people and traumatic for young people," said Zosky.
Risk on the Street
"For all kids on the street there's a high risk for violence. I think that risk goes up exponentially when we're talking about LGBTQ youth, directly tied to their sexuality. It may be through exploitation. It may also be through means for survival, survival sex," said Zosky. "But youth are put in a very precarious position in terms of danger. Risks for things we take for granted: malnutrition, food insecurities, medical care on the street. Even things like, we've heard of people moving a lot and they lost their glasses."
"The Prairie Pride Coalition has been in touch with the Department of Children and Family Services to try to bring to central Illinois a pilot project introduced in Chicago earlier this year. It's a project where they're encouraging same sex couples to foster and adopt some LGBTQ youth. Because what we're finding is these LGBTQ youth have particular needs that often times can be met by same sex couples. You know, there's some mentoring possibilities there in addition to offering them a safe environment. That's another way we're trying to address this issue locally."
"One of the things we've done is reach out to some community organizations. The main community organization we've reached out to is Project Oz. They're one of the main pipelines for homeless youth in this community. They're aware of the problem and they've also been working with the ISU Pride organization on campus and were a recipient of (funds from ) the charity drag show that took place last spring. They used the money to put together a workshop earlier this year, a workshop that addressed this issue," said Bentlin. "So I think they are a prime partner and I think that's where we've found we can be most helpful is being a collaborative resource with organizations and social service agencies like Project Oz."
"I'm a member of an LGBTQ student support fund at ISU. We receive applications from students who are often times in a situation where there's...the threat of being homeless or they are homeless and they're doing things like couch surfing and they're really reaching out to us for some financial support to help them get back on their feet and at least get them through their college studies," said Bentlin.