Coming out means going homeless for some LGBTQ youth in Nova Scotia
No one knows how many homeless LGBTQ youth are out there
Some LGBTQ youth in Nova Scotia are reportedly squatting in abandoned homes and old hunting camps as they struggle to survive after coming out to their parents and being thrown out of their homes.
Still more are couch-surfing at the homes of friends or trying out homeless shelters.
But no one knows how many are roughing it, making it hard to convince governments, non-profits and donors to spend money and resources on this specific kind of homeless problem, say researchers.
"On top of being homeless, on top of trying to find somewhere to go, on top of not knowing where their next meal is coming from, they're also worried about encountering transphobia and homophobia or being assaulted," said Adam Dolliver, the executive director of SHYFT Youth Services in Yarmouth, N.S.
SHYFT offers temporary housing for homeless youth and offers several outreach and support programs for young people.
Dolliver estimates 15-20 youth a year have come to SHYFT after being thrown out after admitting they weren't straight to their parents. In the run of a year, SHYFT has about 150-200 youth come through its doors.
Others choose to try and make it on their own.
"We have people who will go and break into hunting camps in the woods or we have some empty buildings here in town, empty homes, so they'll break into there and stay there. So it doesn't look like we have a problem if you look down Main Street, you don't see people camped out sleeping," said Dolliver.
This problem isn't just hidden away in Yarmouth. Across the province and throughout the country, no one has a good handle on the seriousness of LGBTQ youth homelessness, said Jacqueline Gahagan, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University's faculty of health.
"The root of the issue is that we don't have great data and we certainly don't have great support for homeless LGBTQ youth," said Gahagan.
She said LGBTQ youth have a lot of difficulty finding shelters that openly support their sexual orientation or gender identity. Even once youth get in, they can still experience discrimination and violence.
More training for shelter staff, education and acceptance programs for shelter residents, construction of separate LGBTQ bathrooms, or LGBTQ-only shelters have all been floated as possible solutions.
But all of that requires money and it's hard to get cash from the government or other donors without being able to describe the size of the problem.
"When people start asking you, 'How big is the problem?' and you don't actually have accurate data to draw from that becomes a problem in terms of bumping this issue up the list of priorities," said Gahagan.
She said the most recent estimates suggest there are 40,000 homeless youth in Canada and anywhere from 25-40 per cent of them identify as LGBTQ.
Even those numbers are suspect, said Alex Abramovich, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who has studied LGBTQ homelessness.
"It's always an underestimate. That's because so many youth don't have a chance to fill out these surveys, No. 1. And No. 2, a lot of youth don't feel safe actually being honest and coming out and answering honestly when these questions are asked. Up until very recently questions regarding sexual orientation or gender identity weren't included in any of these surveys," said Abramovich.
"So the LGBTQ population has really been left out and erased in many cases."
Things are starting to get better, however. Abramovich said organizations are starting to try and figure out how to better serve the LGBTQ community.
That includes the federal government's national housing strategy, which is run by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In an email, CMHC said the strategy is spearheading "innovative new housing research, data and demonstration projects. This will fill gaps in our knowledge, share the best ideas and shape the future of housing policy in Canada."
It's already given out a $10,000 cash prize to recognize work by Abramovich for a study he and others did examining Canada's first LGBTQ2S transitional housing program, operated by the YMCA of Greater Toronto.
In May, another project was announced that would provide 26 transitional and five emergency units for LGBTQ youth who are at risk of becoming homeless. These new spaces are also being set up in Toronto.
'The most vulnerable of our population'
That's all good news, but it takes a while for that kind of progress to make its way from the big cities down to places like Yarmouth, said Dolliver.
"I do think that government does need to take a closer look at homelessness and affordable housing and to make some real substantive changes in the whole country," he said.
"They're the most vulnerable of our population and we seem to be treating them as throw away people, that they're just throwaway kids, they're not worthy of time and energy and resources and care, and that's simply not true."
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