When we think of someone who is homeless, we tend to have this image of a scraggly man with an unkempt beard, pushing his belongings in a shopping cart. While this image may certainly be a reality on Vancouver’s streets, another facet of the homeless population is largely ignored and unaddressed.
These are the homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or various other identities (LGBTQ+). These are people that look like the classmates and friends whom we see everyday, but are going through struggles that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.
The very first transitional shelter for LGBTQ+ youth in Canada is set to open at YMCA’s Sprott House in Toronto on February 1. The shelter will provide safe, respectful housing for LGBTQ+ youth ages 16 to 25, supporting them in their transitions to their next steps in life. This is an important milestone for a population that has traditionally been marginalized, ridiculed, and shunned by society.
A study conducted in 2013 on Toronto’s homeless youth population found one out of five of them identified as LGBTQ+. Several had experienced abuse and discrimination within Toronto’s current shelter system, suffering homophobic abuse at the hands of fellow shelter residents.
These people are going through struggles that most of us cannot even imagine.
Unfortunately, the world is still coming to accept the LGBTQ+ community. While major steps, such as the legalization of gay marriage, have been made in many countries, these are only small victories in the heteronormative world that we live in. To identify oneself on the LGBTQ+ spectrum immediately distinguishes someone as being ‘other’ than the norm, a point of difference that will sadly be contested and judged by many.
It is no small wonder that LGBTQ+ youth, who are already going through the challenges of their formative teen years and have to cope with society’s stigma against their sexual orientation, need spaces of acceptance and respect. Trans folk also often have the added physical challenge of transition combined with the social pressures of people trying to define them according to their terms.
Locally, Vancouver has a prominent shelter in the Downtown Eastside called Covenant House, which provides shelter for young people who have experienced trauma or abuse. Social housing and program provider Rain City Housing also dedicated a two year pilot project in 2012 to providing housing and employment for LGBTQ+ youth ages 18–25, on the basis of not only respecting young people’s identity and life choices but also providing them with a community of care.
We at SFU are also lucky enough to have Out On Campus, an organization that facilitates dialogue and education regarding the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientations, while providing valuable resources and lounge space.
However, more of these transitional shelters should be opened across Canada in order to not only provide shelter and relief, but to create a space for dialogue and awareness about the LGBTQ+ community. Positive and open spaces like these can only serve to benefit everyone, and are a small step towards acceptance, rather than simply tolerance, of a community that has been marginalized for far too long.
Most importantly, in spaces like these, people can finally feel at home.