In Case You Missed It: NowKalamazoo took an in-depth look into the Kalamazoo County homelessness crisis in a Nov. 2019 special edition called The Homefront. Since the crisis continues, we are republishing the articles below. Click on the picture of the cover to read a digital version of the magazine.
Giving Hope to Homeless LGBTQ Youth
NowKalamazoo explored the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo County in the Nov. 2019 special publication The Homefront.
They came from within our community, elsewhere in southern Michigan, neighboring states, and as far away as Colorado. They felt unsafe at home or were outright told to leave because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — often a family decision rooted in an interpretation of their religion.
They often arrive at risk of running out of hope.
“But when they find out there is help out there, they get excited,” Sara Jacobs, program director of Out Proud Safe, an LGBTQ homeless youth support organization in Kalamazoo County, told The Homefront. “Often, that hope is restored.”
Out Proud Safe has helped 380 people in the past two-and-a-half years, Jacobs says, mostly from Kalamazoo County, and expects that number to exceed 400 by the end of this year.
Jacobs is part of a nascent, evolving support network in Kalamazoo to tackle what researchers, the federal government, advocates for ending homelessness, and groups protecting LGBTQ people all conclude is a life-threatening nationwide phenomenon.
A study of youth homelessness in the U.S. published in January 2018 in the Journal of Adolescent Health found “growing evidence on the heightened risk of experiencing homelessness among LGBT youth.”
Across all demographics of young people in the U.S., the study found that there was “a significant need for prevention and youth-centric systems and services, as well as strategies, to address disproportionate risks of certain subpopulations.”
In a 2018 report, the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Research Center, which focuses on informing policymakers on matters related to vulnerable youth, found that LGBT youth are 120% more likely than other youth to become homeless.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness explicitly said those who identify as LGBTQ are at significant risk of both becoming homeless and experiencing additional abuse, according to a 2018 report on unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness — i.e., those without a family or guardian.
Rejected by Their Own Families
Out Proud Safe says Kalamazoo mirrors the national average. Up to 40% of homeless people between 13 and 24 years old identify as LGBTQ. Jacobs says that in her past two years as director, Out Proud Safe has helped more than 200 young people navigate services for the homeless in Kalamazoo.
Of those, 80% are homeless because young people who come out to their family often find rejection to the point they are kicked out, said Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, a minister at Kalamazoo’s First Congressional Church. It’s a shocking decision rooted in an interpretation of religion, she says.
“Most of the time, the news comes out of the blue,” says Schmidt-Lee. “There are feelings of abandonment, rejection, and fear in these young people. It’s a traumatic event, and many of them don’t know where to go next.”
Liam (whose name has been changed to maintain his family’s privacy) was 18, living with his parents, preparing for high school graduation, and needed to leave home.
My dad was a pastor and didn’t like the idea that I was gay,” he told The Homefront. He had “emotionally abusive parents,” though didn’t think he was under any physical threat. “Pretty much everything else was on the table.”
He was prepared to couch surf instead of living with his abusive family. But a friend knew of an “accepting” family through a tutoring group they all attended. Instead of becoming homeless, Liam moved in to their home in Three Rivers.
“They let me come in as one of their children,” he says.
Liam graduated, and is now preparing to move to a place in Kalamazoo.
In general, there’s a shortage of affordable housing in Kalamazoo, and even more so for populations with very specific housing needs — including a safe space. That is why the Kalamazoo County Public Housing Commission is looking at buying a house to be used for transitional housing for LGBTQ people age 18 to 24.
“They may have been thrown out of the house because mom is a bigot or dad is a bigot. They don’t have a place to go. I’m not faulting their family. That’s how they were raised,” David Artley, chair of the commission, told The Homefront. “There isn’t a lot of safe, affordable housing for them to go to. There’s [also] a bigger moral principle, called humanity. There was a groundswell to do this project.”
Jacobs says Out Proud Safe is working with its parent organization, local health awareness and education organization CARES, the housing commission, the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, and OutFront Kalamazoo to secure a building that will do more than offer shelter and supportive housing to 18-24 year old LGBTQ homeless population. It will house Out Proud Safe’s growing programs, including a nascent effort to protect underage homeless youth.
About four years ago, OutFront Kalamazoo — formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Resource Center and part of Out Proud Safe’s coalition — began looking into the needs of young people who are both disproportionately homeless and face enhanced dangers associated with being unsheltered such as drug and alcohol use, mental and physical illness, abuse and human trafficking.
Working with The Faith Alliance, a group of local religious organizations, including Schmidt-Lee’s church, Out Proud Safe is trying to leverage resources from faith-based organizations to families into a practical effort to protect LGBTQ youth from both inclement weather and bigotry.
Once an LGBTQ youth is out on the street with no permanent shelter, their chances of taking their own life, sliding into substance abuse, engaging in sex work or becoming the victim of human trafficking automatically goes up, Jacobs says. LGBTQ youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
LGBTQ youth in Kalamazoo have reported that local emergency shelters don’t protect them from being bullied by other homeless residents, Jacobs and Schmidt-Lee both say. The Ark Shelter, operated by the Diocese of Kalamazoo’s Catholic Charities, is the only local shelter that currently takes in unaccompanied minors, which earns it praises for giving LGBTQ youth a refuge. The Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, which doesn’t accept unaccompanied minors, operates men’s and women’s shelters but determines placement based on the sex listed on a government-issued ID card, which can be an anxiety-raising prospect for a person transitioning from one gender to another or who otherwise identifies as a different gender than their official ID states.
For the underage population, The Faith Alliance and Out Proud Safe is preparing local families to host minors in need of shelter. A stay with a family could last between six to eight weeks, during which social workers would attempt to bridge the gap between the young person and their family, with the goal of reconciliation and eventual reunification. The program’s pilot participant was an 18-year-old placed with a family last year until the student finished high school. The program is expected to begin operation in 2020.
“We really do have a moral obligation to help these young people feel loved and accepted and let them know there are many people who want to help them on their journey,” Schmidt-Lee says.