Half of homeless Ottawa youth identify as LGBTQ

Between 40 and 50 per cent of homeless youth in Ottawa identify as LGBTQ, according to the Youth Services Bureau, and that statistic has become a national "epidemic," according to one expert.

High number of homeless LGBTQ youth an 'epidemic' across Canada, expert says

The downtown drop-in centre in Ottawa, run by the Youth Services Bureau, provides support services for youth. It has been providing more support for LGBTQ youth in recent years, according to a program co-ordinator. (Kristy Kirkup/CBC)

It is estimated nearly half of Ottawa's homeless youth population identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ), and one-Toronto based researcher calls the issue an "epidemic" across Canada.

When Megan Davey was 15 years old, she was part of this statistic. Her father struggled with drug abuse and problems at home were compounded as she explored her sexual orientation, she said.

"At my house, my parents never took it seriously," Davey said. "I was kind of like the black sheep in the family."

Megan Davey, now 22, was homeless at 15 as she explored her sexuality. She now identifies as pansexual, meaning she's attracted to all genders and sexes. (Photo supplied by Megan Davey)

Davey decided to leave home to find herself and she sought help at Ottawa's Youth Services Bureau (YSB). She then ended up at the organization's emergency shelter for young women and later in their transitional housing program.

"The shelter was really welcoming, they were really accessible, they were really non-judgmental, they made it really easy to find myself," said Davey.

LGBTQ youth leaving home

Davey, now 22, identifies as pansexual. She said she is attracted to all genders and biological sexes. Davey knows other people who have had to leave home as they came to terms with their sexuality.

"From my experience, I have seen a lot of families that are not accepting of that," she said. "Most people think it is a phase or they just shun it because it’s not part of what they would deem as the norm."

LGBTQ youth homelessness in Ottawa sits at around 40 to 50 per cent, according to Ruth Dulmage at the YSB. Comparatively, a Statistics Canada survey in 2009 indicated only two per cent of the Canadian population openly identified as LGBTQ.

Dulmage is a co-ordinator of health promotion at the YSB, which offers a range of drop-in services, programs and housing for youth. She said the organization has worked for more than two decades to make its programs more welcoming to LGBTQ youth.

"I think, going back even into the early 1990s, YSB has had a number of out, queer staff who realized that queer and trans youth had specific needs that weren't necessarily being met and people started to work together," said Dulmage.

Similar rates across Canada, expert says

Alex Abramovich, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, has been studying LGBTQ homelessness for the past seven years.

Ruth Dulmage, a co-ordinator of health promotion at YSB, says youth homelessness is made of between 40 and 50 per cent LGBTQ. (Photo courtesy of the Youth Services Bureau)

He said few studies are available to illustrate rates of LGBTQ homeless rates in Canada, but he said research indicates the community is over-represented in the national homeless population.

Abramovich identifies as queer and said he connects with his work on a personal level.

"Nobody should have to know what it feels like to not have a home simply for loving or being attracted to another human being," he said. "Some days this work is really hard and it is difficult to have hope … but I feel very passionate about this work."

Abramovich said the primary cause for youth leaving home is family conflict, but abuse may worsen when young people reveal their sexual orientation. He added some Canadian queer and transgender youth end up on the street because they are forced to flee "extreme homophobia or transphobia" at home.

Davey, meanwhile, hopes young people that are struggling with these problems can learn from her story. She encourages them to reach out to available resources in Ottawa.

"You’re not alone," she said. "There are many, many people that are struggling with the exact same things or similar cases."