As DC’s Homeless Youth Grows, Cyndi Lauper’s Forty to None Helps
Longtime LGBT advocate and pop star Cyndi Lauper, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, used her celebrity status to help with more effective methods of counting homeless teens, in time for the annual homeless count during the last week of January.
"For far too long gay and transgender youth who are experiencing homelessness have not received the attention, resources and support that they desperately require," said Lauper in a statement. "The first step in being able to do that is to understand how many people are actually in need."
In a national public service announcement produced by Lauper’s LGBTQ advocacy organization The True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project and aired on WEtv, she asked volunteers to "Make Everyone Count" by helping agencies collect data on the homeless through the annual point-in-time counts that take place in 3,000 U.S. cities. The Forty to None Project was launched in 2012 after leaders of the organization visited 12 U.S. cities, including the District of Columbia’s organizations, like the Sasha Bruce House and the Wanda Alston House, that service the homeless.
But this may not be as easy as it sounds. As Washington, D.C. homeless advocates are learning, while LGBT teens are vastly overrepresented in the homeless population -- making up as much as 40 percent of national homeless youth, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless -- effectively counting them and providing appropriate services are complicated by budgetary limits.
In the District, members of the D.C. Council have tried to get a better grasp on LGBTQ homelessness through the LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Act of 2012, a bill sponsored by Councilmember Mary Cheh, that would push the Interagency Council on Homelessness to calculate the LGBTQ homeless population and set aside a certain number of beds for this community while providing services based on their needs.
Local advocates agree that special attention needs to be paid to this population, but disagreement remains over exactly how to do so. Methods of counting LGBTQ homeless teens are still an area of contention. This year HUD is has done a special Youthcount, which will include statistics about gender identity and sexual orientation, in nine cities, but Washington, D.C. is not one of them.
"I am obviously sympathetic to the issue, but how do you ask every homeless kid if they are LGBTQ? I mean Q?!" asked Councilmember Jim Graham, the openly gay chair the Committee on Human Services. "Do we ask them if they are questioning their sexual identity? That type of question is hard, and then there has to be a satisfactory answer."
Meanwhile, city funding for homeless teens has been cut this year, and shelter providers say it would be all-but-impossible to set aside beds for a specific sexual orientation.
At Sasha Bruce House, the number of emergency beds for teens seeking shelter was reduced in 2013 from 16 to 5.
"We are at capacity, and had sixteen kids who wanted spots we couldn’t service just in the last week," said Deborah Shore, the executive director and founder of Sasha Bruce Youthwork. "It’s like King Solomon’s decision to split the baby. We need to expand the pie."
And many groups in the District serving homeless teens add that the only way to do so would be to create additional facilities to specifically serve the needs of the LBGTQ population.
"Many young people we work with would prefer a LGBTQ specific housing program, so they know that the staff is culturally competent to refrain from making discriminatory comments, and understands their specific challenges, like handling family rejection," said Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL).
Currently, a single site like this exists in Washington, D.C., called Wanda Alston House, and provides eight beds. But in light of the enormous need, this still leaves the majority of LGBTQ teens seeking a place to stay in the cold. The facility receives 25 to 30 applications monthly, but can host only about 15 teens a year, since some stay as long as 18 months.
"We want this bill passed soon, but there needs to be funding put behind this, not just for beds," said Brian Watson, the Director of Programs at Transgender Health Empowerment, Inc., which runs Wanda Alston House. Along with other housing advocates, Watson recently met with Councilman Graham about proposed changes in the LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Act.
"There must be mandated training for all shelters and housing providers to better meet the LGBTQ community’s needs," said Watson.
For more info on the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Project, visit http://truecolorsfund.org/