Throw-Away Kids

Oriignally published in QSaltLake, 12 August 2008

Nationally, between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, according to a January 2007 report released by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In 2007 these numbers held true for Utah according to a survey the Homeless Youth Resource Center, conducted of its drop-in clients. But in January and February 2008 something strange happened: the numbers jumped to slightly over 50 percent.

“Over half of our youth coming in at that time identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning or other,” said Teresa Stocks, Homeless Youth Resource Center program manager. In past surveys, she said, the numbers of such self-identified youth ranged “between 29 and 35 percent.” In trying to puzzle out the large number, Stocks mentions a number of possibilities. It could be that adding an “other than heterosexual” option on their surveys gave youth who don’t identify as lesbian, bay, bisexual or transgender – or who just dislike labels – an appropriate box to check. For reasons the center has yet to determine, the clients they served between January 31 and Valentine’s Day were also somewhat younger than the clients they normally see (that is, youth under the ages of 18). It could be that these youth have simply not figured out their sexual orientations yet, making the “other than heterosexual” box the best fit for them.

“That was the weird thing,” said Stocks. “We weren’t really able to identify why [this was happening], or if in the past it always about 50 percent but people didn’t feel safe identifying that way. We’re really not sure.” Regardless of the reasons, one thing is clear: Utah has long had a number of teenagers and young adults living on the streets and a significant portion of that number are queer youth, many of whom are kicked out of their homes when they come out or when parents discover the truth about their sexual orientation or gender identity. And their situation makes University of Utah psychology student and gay homeless youth advocate Shannon Candice Metzler mad.

“We have an estimated 3,000 homeless youths in this state. Roughly 900 to 1,200 are self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” Metzler, a transgender woman who has herself been homeless for the past 11 months, wrote in a Deseret News letter to the editor on Aug 7. “Many are forced to escape from a home plagued with abuse and hate. At some point parents must be held accountable for throwing their children’s lives into chaos.”

“It’s ridiculous that we say we’re so pro-family values, yet we leave kids to sleep outside in the cold,” said Metzler, who has of late spoken to Utah news outlets including City Weekly and the Salt Lake Tribune about youth whom she says regularly “fall between the cracks” in society. As a queer person, a student of psychology, a parent to two boys (ages 6 and 10) and someone who has experienced homelessness, Metzler said that helping gay and transgender homeless youth is her calling.

“They will get into drugs and alcohol and not be able to further their lives,” she said. “When we take them away from the stability of a home, school, access to food, what kind of future are we giving these kids?”

Soup’s On!

Utah Pride Center Youth Program Director Rachel McNeil is well acquainted with homeless queer youth. In July, she estimates that “about 25 percent of youth we served at the [Center’s] Youth Activities Center were homeless.”

Knowing that many of the teens and young adults (the Center’s Youth Activities Center serves youth age 14-20) who drop by for activities may not have homes to return to, McNeil said the Center has devised a number of programs to help them. One of these is the Soup’s On! program, which provides homeless youth (or any hungry person) with meals donated by community members and local churches. The Center also distributes personal hygiene products and supplies like blankets and jackets in the colder months. Because a queer youth might also come to the Utah Pride Center first McNeil also said that she works closely with the Homeless Youth Resource Center.

“When I have a kid come here and are recently homeless I’ll call the Resource Center and ask them to come over because the youth [often] feels safer here,” she said. When a staff person arrives, McNeil said they work together to see if the young person has any immediate needs to be met, such as pressing health concerns or risk behaviors.

“We help them go through what resources or support they have available to them,” he said. “Often they’ll meet with a case worker at Volunteers of America [the Homeless Youth Resource Center’s parent organization]” to get help with securing a photo ID, getting a job or finding transitional housing.

For youth whose first stop is the Resource Center, Stocks said she and her staff can supply things to meet their clients’ basic needs “from chap stick and Q-tips to showers, laundry and food.” Further, her staff is “well-trained in community resources.”

“If a kid says, ‘I have a toothache,’ we can refer them to a dentist who would see them for free,” she said. For pregnant girls and young women, they can assist with finding prenatal care and singing them up for Medicaid. They can also assist youth with getting everything from photo IDs to food stamps, housing program referrals and even assisting them “in getting a job or writing a resume to taking cooking classes.” For youth who don’t want to or can’t drop in, the Resource Center also has a street team program that distributes basic necessities, food and advice.

“A big piece of what we do here at the Utah Pride Center is trying to prevent homelessness in LGBT kids to begin with,” McNeil added. Utah, she said, is one of only two states (Massachusetts being the other) to offer “cultural competency training” to Department of Child and Family Services workers, to help make them aware of the unique issues facing queer youth and the ways they can make the child welfare system safer for youth of all orientations and gender identities. Currently, McNeil said she takes the three hour training session to workers in all regions of the state.

Eventually, she said she would like to take the training to foster parents and to family preservation workers.

“Say a kid comes out and there are problems in the family. A family preservation worker would step in to try and help them [the family] resolve their issues so the kids can stay in the home,” said McNeil. If a family preservation worker has biases against gay or transgender people or “doesn’t know what to do” to help them, McNeil added that they won’t be able to help queer youth effectively.

The Letter of the Law

In this decade, Utah has taken several small steps towards helping homeless youth. In 2006 Gov. Jon Huntsman signed the Emancipation of a Minor Act allowing teens 16 and older to petition juvenile courts to be granted independence from their parents and the ability to live by themselves, enter into legal contracts, manage their financial affairs and seek independent medical care. This year, the governor also signed HB 23 or Child and Family Protections into law, making it a third degree felony for parents to kick out their children.

However, not all minors have the means to seek emancipation or will be granted it – even if they are attempting to flee an abusive home. And while HB 23 may be able to help homeless gay youth by holding their parents accountable, the bill’s language (including a sentence about punishing individuals who coerce parents to abandon their children) seems more geared to helping youth abandoned by fundamentalist polygamous groups.

Further, Utah law often limits what both Centers can do for youth under 18.

“Legally in this state there’s not much we can do for them without parental approval,” said McNeil. “As a social service agency we can serve homeless youth for up to eight hours without calling Child Protective Services or getting parental permission, and then they’ll check and see if the youth has been reported as a runaway.”

“If a parent doesn’t care or isn’t in contact, what do you do?” Metzler asked.

Although Stocks said getting guardian approval is typically not difficult, the difficulty lies in getting youth age 15-17 to use their services.

“What we find is that most kids under 18 are so afraid of the system in general that they are really unlikely to come into our drop in center,” she said.

But when a guardian can’t be reached or doesn’t grant permission, McNeil said her hands are tied. There also isn’t a lot that she can do in the period between when a homeless teen seeks help and when that help can be marshaled. And with the homeless shelters downtown unable to take in teens and the Homeless Youth Resource Center equipped only to serve drop-in clients, McNeil said that sometimes she has no choice but to give youth food and warm clothing and tell them to come back in the morning.

“They’re not so concerned about what we can do in a week or a month, they want to know where they’ll be sleeping for the night,” she said. “We’re adults and we’re supposed to be protecting these youths, and they shouldn’t be sleeping on the streets.”

Although Volunteers of America runs a transition home for teen girls age 16-18, Stocks said it only has seven beds and can only place girls for 18 months. Both women say their organizations are advocating for the building of a homeless youth shelter, but they don’t see one being built in the near future. “Maybe in five to 10 years,” said Stocks.

Taking Action

In the meantime, the number of homeless youth of all orientations is on the rise in Utah. Stocks said the Resource Center now sees 25-30 youth each day. In 2007 and 2006 she estimates that number was between 10 and 12. Although she and her staff have yet to explain the spike in numbers – which Stocks speculates may be the results both of recent economic down turns and the street outreach program getting the word out that the Resource Center exists – she said the need to help homeless youth is critical.

“I don’t think people realize what kind of impact these numbers can have on a population,” she said.

But for Metzler, Utah just isn’t doing enough. And the problem, she said, is largely one of cultural attitudes towards gay and transgender people. The relative ease by which a parent can throw away a gay child, she said, is little more than “a socially approved way of reinforcing the norms of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

And enforcing those norms has a very human cost, especially as with few laws on the books to help gay and transgender ‘throw away kids.’

“But what about now, when we have kids who will freeze this winter,” she asked. “I want to see something happen now so that when we go from these hot temperatures into cold, we don’t treat them the same as we have been doing.”