CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Approximately 40 percent of homeless young adults in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a study from The Williams Institute at UCLA Law.
And although LGBT youth make up a disproportionately large percent of the homeless population, there are relatively few safe places for them to stay. A pilot program run by a Massachusetts nonprofit is now working to address that problem across the state.
It’s Thursday night at Youth on Fire, a drop-in center located in the basement of a church on Mass Ave. in Cambridge. A 20-year-old woman in a flat-brim cap is dancing in the center’s talent show. She goes simply by Casanova.
Casanova found Youth on Fire — a place where homeless young adults can get services like showers, counseling and meals — about a year ago, a few months after her aunt took away her house keys for good.
“I was just randomly hanging around Harvard [Square] and one of my friends was like, ‘Do you know where Youth is?’ ” she recalls. “And she just dragged me down. I love it here. It’s so cool.”
She’s currently living on a couch in a friend’s apartment. She’s a community college student, a graphic designer, a dancer and a lesbian.
According to the Williams Institute study, the most frequently cited reason for LGBT homelessness is family rejection.
“When you boil it down, young adults are homeless for three main reasons and that’s that home doesn’t exist, home isn’t safe, or home isn’t supportive,” says Youth on Fire program manager Ayala Livny. “But in terms of why queer identified youth sometimes end up on the streets disproportionately compared to their straight identified peers, I think it is all those reasons coming together.”
Livny says that not only are gay and transgender youth more likely to be homeless, they’re also more likely to engage in risky behavior. To survive, some turn to sex work — exposing themselves to STDs, HIV and violence.
“So whether that is in the shelters where there aren’t safe places for them, whether that’s on the streets in the community, all of these components come together to provide really dangerous situations for young adults who are on the streets,” Livny says.
While young adults can spend their days at Youth on Fire, it is not a shelter — it closes at night. Livny says some of the LGBT youth she sees during the day have been assaulted at night at shelters.
But now, the private nonprofit Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, or MHSA, is introducing a program to house this at-risk population.
“It is permanent housing that’s accompanied by services,” explains MHSA executive director Joe Finn. “We are able to make services available to that tenant that are helpful in supporting that person in their tenancy, depending on what their specific wants and needs are.”
Those services could include counseling, job placement and access to health care. The pilot will provide 32 units of housing in Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts. Youth on Fire is one of three organizations coordinating the housing.
One Youth on Fire case manager is particularly excited about the program. She goes by the name “D.” She has her own apartment now, but she became homeless at age 16 when her family found out she was gay.
“I come from a very strict religious background,” D explains. “And it’s not very popular to be homosexual in the church, so I ended up on the streets.”
D says when she was homeless, she traveled with three other women and she is now the only one who is still alive. One of the women, her partner, died of an asthma attack.
D says the housing program could change lives.
“I can guarantee a lot of them would jump on it because they don’t want to be like this, they don’t want to be here forever,” D says.
Casanova and four other young adults from Youth on Fire have been approved for housing through MHSA. Casanova says having a stable place will help her in school and in life.
“Basically help me to be stable,” she says. “And get my schoolwork done without worrying about where to sleep the next night.”
Eight other Massachusetts young adults have already received housing.
If the pilot is successful, many more could see themselves in stable housing, for good.