Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane, Washington.

Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane, Washington.

By now, you have probably heard this stark statistic: approximately 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQ.

This is not the reality or future we want for our community.

Pride Foundation is actively working to address the growing challenge of youth homelessness head-on. In January 2013, Pride Foundation was awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to establish a new Homeless LGBTQ Youth Initiative.

The goal of the Initiative is to build the capacity of service providers to address the needs of homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults (ages 12 to 25), especially those living in rural and remote communities. Last October, Pride Foundation invested a combined $210,000 in three organizations as part of this Initiative. One of those organizations was Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane, WA.

Odyssey Youth Center is a youth-led, adult-supported organization committed to creating, sustaining, and advocating for safe and affirming programs, policies, and services for LGBTQ youth. Their goal is to ensure that LGBTQ youth are safe in their homes, schools, and communities, and have opportunities to thrive and be happy.

Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane, Washington.

Jude McNeil, Executive Director of Odyssey Youth Center

Jude McNeil, Executive Director of Odyssey Youth Center, is committed to creating safe and supportive systems for youth and marginalized communities. His work with Odyssey Youth Center has included training over 3,000 youth providers—building their professional capacity to work with LGBTQ youth and their families.

“As the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness becomes more visible, we are finding that families and systems are not prepared to deliver the range of services and supports needed,” says Jude. “Many times, parents believe they are being supportive in meeting the needs of their children as they come out or discover their identity, but in actuality, the LGBTQ youth feels rejected.”

According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Well-meaning attempts to protect youth from potential harassment, such as ‘steering’ them towards hobbies more typical for their sex (football for boys, for example)…are experienced as rejection by LGBTQ youth and can have devastating consequences for their self-esteem and well-being.”

This feeling of rejection, combined with systems that are non-responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth often leaves youth feeling safer on the streets than at home or in the child welfare system.

To further complicate the situation, many youth providers, child welfare workers, and foster parents have little knowledge about how to best support LGBTQ youth. This lack of information combined with LGBTQ bias leads to a lack of safety and permanency for LGBTQ youth in the system. These youth are moved from placement to placement, never making permanent connections to a family support system.

As Jude shared, “The fact that there are homeless youth in Spokane, and statewide, is reflective of a breakdown in community. It’s the responsibility of organizations, systems, and individuals to make sure all our youth thrive and not just survive.”

Odyssey Youth Center’s Homeless Youth Prevention Program focuses on creating best practices and providing training for child welfare workers and foster parents. Through this work, Jude has noticed there are few organizations or systems in Washington that are adequately meeting the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth or LGBTQ youth in the welfare system.

Due to verbal harassment and violence, many LGBTQ youth in foster care experience multiple disrupted placements. In one study, as many as 56 percent of LGBTQ youth in care spent time homeless because they felt safer on the streets than in their group or foster home (Child Welfare Information Gateway).

When asked to expand on this Jude replied, “Most child welfare staff in the state have received little, if any training on best practices with LGBTQ youth. This is especially problematic around issues such as placement. Further, systems are not providing staff with any sort of guidance on how to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth.”

Given the lack of professional development opportunities, it is not surprising that such a high percentage of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Odyssey Youth Center is partnering with Washington’s Children’s Administration to ensure that the system is providing effective training that reflects recommended best practices. Odyssey is also partnering with homeless youth providers in Spokane to support organizations in adopting LGBTQ best practices and mandatory trainings.

Pride Foundation has also been working with Odyssey Youth Center to create a stronger network by connecting them with other individuals and organizations that are focused on homeless youth. Thanks to funding they received from this project, Odyssey Youth Center was able to hire staff to do homeless youth outreach (youth ages 14 to 18 years old) and research. This outreach includes building relationships with youth and informing them about programs and services that are available to them.

Next year, a team will conduct surveys with homeless LGBTQ youth in Spokane at shelters and transitional housing programs. Surveys will also be collected from youth that do not have adequate shelter. This data will help address the invisibility of LGBTQ homeless youth and shed light on their experiences, and the issues that need to be addressed in the child welfare system. To help with this research and outreach, Odyssey Youth Center will partner with Crosswalk and Youth Family Adult (YFA) Connections.

In Spokane, there are only two shelters available for youth under 18. There are more services for individuals over 18, but most of these services do not take the necessary steps to ensure their programs are safe and affirming for LGBTQ people, especially transgender people, and many are religious-run organizations.

“In order for this initiative to succeed, there needs to be reliable, effective training and a strong network of resources,” remarked Jude. “All youth should be able to safely access resources and not be treated unfairly based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression when seeking housing or related resources.”

Pride Foundation deeply respects and supports Odyssey Youth Center’s groundbreaking work on issues impacting homeless LGBTQ youth in Washington. Working together, we can ensure that all LGBTQ youth have access to the resources and support they need to thrive.

Farand Gunnels is Pride Foundation’s regional development officer for the state of Washington. Email Farand.

Posted In: Blog, Building Organizations, Blog, Washington