The growing issue of homeless LGBTQ youth in Richmond and beyond
Homelessness among RVA’s youth is on the rise and those among that population who identify as LGBTQ continue to face unique issues.
A 2012 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute found that 40 percent of homeless teenagers who were served identified as LGB or T. The study also states that, “Family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was the most frequently cited factor contributing to LGBT homelessness. The next most frequently cited reason for LGBT youth homelessness was youth being forced out of their family homes as a result of coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”
“Many of our youth are LGBT and their biggest worries are about being accepted,” said Natalie May, president of Change the World RVA, a non-profit that provides support for local homeless youth.
May said that the lack of a solid support system in the teens’ lives often leads them to feel nervous around new people, particularly adults. Change the World RVA works to give the students they work with a chance to feel accepted in a safe space environment.
The organization accommodates 12 students at a time, and provides services like financial aid, access to a food pantry and clothing closet and mentor programs for students to begin to build up their own network of resources.
“These are kids who have been bailed on their whole lives,” May said. “Learning how to foster those networks is probably the most important thing. It involves social skills, it involves asking for help, it involves giving help. We see the value in that in so many ways.”
May said last year there were 1,743 homeless students in Richmond Public Schools, an under-reported number, as many kids won’t come out and say they have nowhere to go at the end of the school day. Richmond is not alone in seeing such distressing numbers, a 2014 study from the Department of Education estimated about 1.4 million students in the US are homeless, double the number recorded in 06-07; Virginia had just under 20 thousand.
For advocates like May, the biggest need is mental health services for kids in the system, particularly a resource to diagnose and treat mental illnesses the kids face.
Another contributing factor to the rise of teen homelessness nationwide is the opioid epidemic, said Jeanne Hollingshead, director of the foster care and adoption program at the Lutheran Family Services of Virginia.
“When families are struggling with substance abuse issues, they’re not parenting well,” Hollingshead said. “There’s not a simple solution for parenting issues because it’s not just about having enough money; it’s about just having support, resources, and sometimes parents struggling. They make poor choices, they may abuse drugs, they may abuse their kids and because of that [the kids] get removed.”
The most recent foster care report published by the Virginia Department of Social Services found that there were 328 children in the city of Richmond who were in foster care in October 2016, 6.2 percent of the state total.
Services provided by the Lutheran Family Services of Virginia are funded by the local Department of Social Services. She also said there was legislation proposed at the federal level to fund prevention-orientation services, as opposed to just support once the child has left the home, but that bill never passed the Senate.
“The number one reason a child is taken by the Department of Social Services is just that a child is not safe in the home that they are currently in,” said Maurice Gallimore, the foster care recruiter and trainer for the Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. “That could be neglect, it could be sexual abuse or it could be physical abuse.”
Lutheran Family Services also focuses on helping children who are 14 years or older get ready for eventual independent living, such as classes in financial management or training in household skills.
A common problem teenagers in foster care often face is a limited number of foster families willing to take in an adolescent, as opposed to a younger child. Hollingshead said parents often feel they can handle younger children more easily than teenagers, causing a gap in the available family for older children.
“Teenagers in foster care can definitely appear more scary than they actually are,” Hollingshead said. “If you look at the stuff that’s written about them, you’re going to see stuff that’s behavioral, with scary behaviors about something they’ve done in the past. You don’t necessarily know the circumstances of why they would have done that, you just see what they did, and you see the results of it, whether it’s law-enforcement involvement or school suspension.”
““The best thing to do is to remind the adults who are interested in becoming foster parents that our kids are constantly being judged.,” Gallimore said. “Everything they do, a note is being taken and written down. So, you cannot always judge a book by its cover and we have to give these kids the benefit of the doubt that not everything that is written is true.”
Top image via Flickr – Homeless youth from upstate New York in Dupont Circle, NW . WDC . Saturday afternoon, 3 December 2005 – Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography
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