“Going into a new place where… you might not be accepted is a hard choice for someone to make”
Sleeping rough and sex work are seen as better options over staying in a shelter for some LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness. Geoff Bardwell noticed the trend. He’s studied homelessness among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identified individuals at Western University and wrote policy suggestions for homelessness agencies in the City of London.
“Of the 17 people I talked to, seven people had said they’d rather have sex with someone for a place to stay rather than a shelter,” Bardwell said in a noisy coffee shop on London’s east side. In the report, he highlights the words of a young woman who knows this first hand: “if I’m going to be raped, I might as well know the person that’s going to be doing it.”
Those words stuck with him.
“I interviewed her in her home, and she just said it so nonchalant and I just wanted to cry.”
Homelessness significantly affects LBGTQ individuals — particularly youth. Emergency shelters meant for those experiencing homelessness aren’t particularly welcoming or safe for them. Homophobic and transphobic language is thrown around casually. Gendered spaces alienate those who don’t identify as strictly male or female. Tales of theft and violence precede many people’s first visit.
If I’m going to be raped, I might as well know the person that’s going to be doing it.
“If I go to a restaurant and have an awful experience, I’m never going to go there again. So, you can imagine things that are actually impacting people on a social level and a psychological level,” says Bardwell.
Bardwell notes that his study isn’t necessarily representative of the city’s population, but the stories he heard do align with what’s occurring in other locales.
The reasons why LGBTQ individuals are at risk are as diverse as the individuals themselves. Gay and lesbian teens get kicked out of their home after revealing their true identity. Maybe there is also familial conflict — their sexual orientation not the root, but a trigger — that drives them out to safer accommodations.
Or, consider the challenges of someone who is transgender. “Let’s say someone is recently transitioning and now identifies as a woman and they’re applying for an apartment… well they require references,” argues Bardwell. “You need to call your landlords who know you as Bob, but you now identify as Julia, so that’s not going to work. Job references aren’t going to work.”
Youth and those who are transgender are the most at risk of becoming homeless. It’s estimated that 19 per cent of trans men, women and individuals will experience homelessness. Depending on the location, 20 to 40 per cent of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
These numbers are hard to track, though. In London, agencies don’t have databases that can appropriately track factors like sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s if the agencies are even asking the questions at all. Then when the questions are asked, it’s a toss-up whether those seeking assistance will be open with such personal information.
“It is definitely an issue that we don’t know how many people [there] are — do we need specialized services, or do we just need services to make sure they’re competent?” says Chuck Lazenby, executive director of The Unity Project for Relief of Homelessness.
So, instead of focusing on the numbers, Lazenby went out of her way to ensure her staff and spaces were welcoming no matter who enters.While The Unity Project does their best with client data, their database is limited to traditional notions of male and female genders while presuming that all who pass through its doors are straight.
Lazenby was the one who called up Bardwell for advice about how to move forward. The Unity Project is progressive, she highlights, but staff struggle with what language is appropriate for LGBT clients. Or, what if a trans man — someone born female, but who presents and identifies as male — is staying the in men’s dorm? Is this a problem?
“Racism that’s overt is not tolerated. It’s just not in the social service industry,” says Lazenby. “When it comes to gender identity — more so gender identity versus sexual identity — there still feels like an entitlement to not accommodate in the way that people need to be accommodated and I don’t know why that is. People don’t understand it.”
The recommendations that came out of the partnership aren’t particularly groundbreaking or difficult. Most boil down to the requirement that social workers and support persons don’t discriminate a person based on gender or sexual orientation — something already written in the Ontario Human Rights Code. Still, for those unfamiliar with the ever-growing thesaurus of queer identities, it can be a challenge.
“You have to be a real asshole to say we can’t do these things. None of these things are difficult. But I think that it still can be tough for people to wrap their heads around.”
Among the recommendations: shelters should post a sign a sign saying that all are welcome. Perhaps go a step further with a Rainbow Flag in the window.
“Really people wanted just to have an acknowledgement,” says Bardwell. “A lot of people talked about when you walk in, is there a sign there that’s saying ‘we’re inclusive to LGBTQ people?’ Is there a specific person I can talk to who’s an ally. Or people in the shelter who identify as LGBTQ that are staff there.”
“They come to Toronto… and things aren’t easy.”
With a population seven times that of London, Toronto faces a unique problem when it comes to LGBTQ homelessness. Young, queer Canadians from Northern Ontario, the prairies, and the East Coast flock to the city in hopes that they’ll find themselves among the bustling LGBTQ community.
“They’ll take a Greyhound to Toronto and they’ll have a dream that it’s this LGBTQ Mecca where everything will be great,” says Tyler Morden, LGBTQ Youth Housing Coordinator at The 519. “They arrive; they realize things are a lot harder.”
The 519 is an anomaly among social services in the city. The agency is located on Church Street in Toronto’s “gaybourhood.” Behind its unassuming, early 20th century facade, are programs and services that aim to improve the health of the city’s LGBTQ community while ensuring its members are participating in society.
It’s a hidden population and it’s a huge population.
Morden works there finding a place for the dozens of youth who contact him each month to call home. “I have a hard time managing my case load because there’s so many people I’m in connection to,” he says.
Currently he has over 190 open cases. Each client ranges from 16 to 29. The majority are refugees from other countries. The others are locals and those who have descended on Toronto in search of rainbow pastures. They arrive, struggle to find jobs, lose an apartment when they can’t pay the rent, and eventually move to the streets.
The 519 says that 21 per cent of homeless youth in Toronto’s shelters identify as LGBTQ+, but Morden doesn’t believe that number is accurate. “I think the one thing that the stats don’t always capture is the amount of people who are couching surfing who aren’t in the shelter system,” says Morden who considers this group homeless, but notes they’re not counted in official statistics. “It’s a hidden population and it’s a huge population.”
Even though there are nine emergency shelters for youth in the city, none specifically support LGBTQ+ youth. Sprott House, run by the Greater Toronto Area YMCA, opened in 2015 with transitional housing for LGBTQ+ youth. Those who apply and are accepted can live there for up to a year. While Morden commends the work they’ve done, he admits that it doesn’t address the needs of those at immediate risk of homelessness.
Sprott House was groundbreaking for homeless-serving agencies in the city. Kate Miller, the home’s director, believes that it’s helping to push other organizations to become more inclusive to varying identities. “LGBTQ2S homelessness is not a new issue, and artists and youth experiencing homelessness, as well as members of our community have been trying to communicate this for decades,” Miller said in an email. “I hope the next step is people noticing the systemic reasons that LGBTQ2S youth are more likely to become and stay homeless.”
Aura Host Homes in Calgary and Raincity Housing in Vancouver offer similar programs, but on a smaller scale. Aura’s goal is to place homeless LGBTQ youth into supportive and inclusive “host homes,” while Raincity works with youth to help them find affordable housing and employment. Neither offer emergency shelter beds.
“We need signs that say ‘this is a space that is welcoming and safe.’”
Lazenby isn’t convinced that shelters in London need to exclusively serve LGBTQ individuals, though. “I tend to have some issue with specialized services because I find it a little bit of a scapegoat in someways… we all need to respond to humans well,” she says.
The City of London has taken steps to recognize this underreported population. In their most recent “Point in Time” count, a survey to determine how many are experiencing homelessness on a given day, both sexual orientation and gender identity were included.
…the next step is people noticing the systemic reasons that LGBTQ2S youth are more likely to become and stay homeless.
One per cent recorded their gender as transgender or “Other.” 10 per cent identified as a member of the LGBTQ community. A quarter were between 50 and 59, while slightly less were 29 or younger.
Asking about sexuality and gender should be as commonplace as age, Bardwell argues, however people are often nervous to address the topics.
“Surprisingly, even though some people are like ‘we don’t want to ask those questions,’ because they think in their mind it’s a taboo, they’re pretty simple questions,” said Bardwell.
The good news is that most shelter staff agree with developing inclusive practices, even if some worry they might say the wrong thing. For others, LBGTQ inclusive language and practices are obvious. “Everyone is on board, it’s just people are at different levels,” says Bardwell. Both Lazenby and Bardwell worked with Rainbow Health Ontario, a provincial agency, to develop a training manual. Once complete, they hope to make the manual available online for all service providers.
In the meantime, Lazenby is excited to post that sign.
“We’ll be putting it on our website; we’ll be putting it in our brochures. We’ll be saying, ‘this is a place that you can come that you’re going to get treated well.’”