Editor's note: This story was provided to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless by Ayala Livny and Travis, member of Youth on Fire. All rights are reserved and any duplication of this story has to be made with previous consent of the author. We thank Ayala and Travis for sharing this story with us.
In January of 2012, I knew I was going to be homeless; I saw my hours at work getting lower as the holiday season ended, and the housing situation I was in was unable to accommodate me. I frantically talked with case workers at Youth on Fire, and at that point filled out an application for a transitional housing. I became homeless in March of 2012. At that time I realized that the only supports for young, LGBTQ identified people were the case managers at Youth on Fire; and they don't provide a shelter. There is a difference between putting a “Safe space” Sticker – a sticker that shows an upside-down rainbow triangle – and actually being a safe space.
The first problem I faced was the disproportional amount of services that are geared for young people. Most times the programs are specifically targeted either for people up to 18, or for 18 plus. This means I at 22, would be in the same shelter with the same services as people who are in their 40s, 50s 60s. Not only is that extremely inappropriate, but it is very unlikely that a young adult who has their full life ahead of them will need or want the same services as someone who has been homeless many years or is older and has given up on the system.
The biggest problem with the system is that it fails most people. There are so many hoops to jump through, so times and ways you have to verify yourself. I have experienced many times where I will submit a set of paperwork and by the time it is processed that paperwork has expired due to the standards of the system. When I refer to the system, I mean the governmental and state assistance programs like SSI, UB, SNAP, and housing programs.
While I was fighting the system with my paperwork, and verifying my identity, I also spent some time at the adult shelters (remember adult is considered 18 plus). I had been told by a friend which shelters in the Boston area to avoid – the friend had been sexually assaulted at one of them. I tried one of the shelters not mentioned by the friend and found myself meeting the same fate; I tried to get the staff members to help and they refused to get involved, or to even call the police. I also heard of a youth/young adult shelter located in the heart of Boston. I started going to the program there in addition to Youth on Fire so that I could use the overnight services. However, while using the services there I found myself to be discriminated against – by clients and by staff – due to my perceived sexual orientation. While I mostly identify myself as queer, I am also FTM (Female to Male Transgender), and perceived as straight by the majority of standards. I would describe some of the treatment at the youth/young adult shelter as being treated like a pile of shit. I was asked not to sleep on the same side of the room as the men because they were afraid I would touch them; the staff members in charge seemed to agree. If I couldn't sleep in the middle of the “two” genders I would not be allowed to stay. I never thought to out myself as trans because I worried that I would face even more discrimination – people tend to be more transphobic than homophobic.
After staying in the shelter of the program for about a month, I was accepted into a transitional housing program. I stayed there during the summer of 2012, until the program closed down and I was forced out of a place to stay again. At this point, I realized that the safest place to stay for someone like me, someone who is a young adult and LGBTQ identified, is actually on the street. Staying on the street with friends means having constant protection and means not having to deal with staff members who have not had enough training to know what to do when there is a sexual assault, a physical assault or are not trained to know how to handle sexual orientation and gender identity. I feel that the only place I have been to that has all these supports is Youth on Fire, and again, they are only a daytime drop in center.
I feel that the ideal solution is to change the system; for example providing a completely different application for housing to people who are under a certain age, and then process those applications differently and efficiently. However, I also understand that this is not something that can happen overnight. Other ways to help me in the current moment include making drop in centers and shelters really be safe spaces for all LGBTQ identified people (and their straight allies). Maybe this means trainings on how to respond to a derogatory term, or how to respond if a client informs you of harassment, etc. Maybe this means being trained by the people who know it best (“clients”) versus by “professionals” who might have only read a text book. Honestly, people are not textbooks and their experiences are not always validated as real by those who are considered “professionals”. This also means that LGBTQ identified people should not need to out themselves in order to receive safe treatment. For me, that was never an option at the youth/young adult shelter – who claimed to be a safe space. In addition to making all spaces LBGTQ safe all staff members should be trained to handle assault; whether that means calling in back up, calling the police, or physically breaking up a fight. There is no reason for any person to risk their own safety in order to stay inside. A lot of these shelters are understaffed, and the staff that are there are undereducated; the staff members do not want to risk their own safety, which is definitely a reasonable reason to not get involved. However this all comes back to the need for the system to change. If the system is in charge of providing services, there needs to be a change in how those services are provided.
The biggest change that needs to happen in regards to young people experiencing homelessness is that they need their own spaces. The young adults I has met seem much more likely to have an interest in getting out of their situations than the older people I have met. Young people still need assistance finagling the system and making sure all their needs get met and working with people who are not trained to work with them is difficult on both sides.
There are a number of crucial ways to help change this system: Organizations need to separate young adults from older adults in every program, including shelters; and young adults should have different services, and caseworkers who are trained to work with their specific age range. Organizations need to make sure that all places are truly safe places for a person who is LGBTQ identified; this includes the person not needing to out themselves to get the appropriate treatment. And finally, organizations need to provide young adults with shelters, transitional living programs, and stable housing. Altogether, this means changing the system to better work for homeless young adults.