Kim Leighton, stands in front of snow-covered Montana mountains holding a sign that reads “I’m a philanthropist and together we can end LGBTQ youth homelessness.”

 

I was born and raised here in Helena, Montana. I grew up playing sports, spending time with friends, running up the big hill behind our house, and enjoying everything Montana has to offer with my family. We went camping, hiking, and I tried fishing with my dad (and quickly learned it wasn’t my thing).

Like many of my chosen family in the LGBTQ community, I knew something about myself long before I came to terms with it. Thoughts ran through my head with some of my female friends. I knew I had feelings for them beyond just friendship but I didn’t have the resources or the people to talk with to figure out what that meant.

On top of feeling alone in my confusion, everything around me told me I was supposed to like boys. Even though I felt like I was a good person, all the messages I was receiving—the messages so many young people receive—told me I was wrong and bad, that I was unhealthy and not normal.

 

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Unfortunately, 20 years later, these are the messages that too many of our young people across Montana continue to hear: from the media, from their families, from their schools, and from their communities.

As I travel around our vast state as a Regional Philanthropy Officer at Pride Foundation, I meet people who are interested in learning about the issues that continue to impact LGBTQ folks and their families in Montana—and particularly youth.

The issue I am asked about most often is LGBTQ youth homelessness—especially since we shared the story of Alex, one of the youth participants from the youth homelessness convening that Pride Foundation co-hosted in fall 2016.

While many of these activities are in progress, I wanted to share a snapshot of Pride Foundation’s recent work to address the critical and timely issue of youth homelessness in Montana:

 

Establishing and coordinating a workgroup to tackle this issue head-on:

This dedicated workgroup is made up of a diverse group of stakeholders including funders, service providers, and youth who have experienced homelessness first-hand, and social workers invested in creating lasting change.

 

Addressing legal barriers that LGBTQ youth often face when seeking services:

Following a roundtable discussion with workgroup members in March, we are exploring solutions to strengthening minors’ rights to attain economic self-sufficiency.

In partnership with Robin Turner at Montana Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, we are working to bring forward potential legislation next session to address liability concerns regarding a minor accessing overnight shelter. We are also exploring other non-legislative solutions to these liability concerns.

For example, many shelters require guardian permission before providing services to youth. Requiring written permission is especially problematic for youth who have been kicked out of their homes or forced to flee, or youth who are currently living in abusive situations. Unfortunately, this is often even more of a problem for LGBTQ youth.

The goal of the workgroup is to understand the complex issues that LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are facing, and then focus our efforts on strengthening minors’ ability to attain economic self-sufficiency. This means breaking down barriers to opening a bank account, obtaining a driver’s license, renting an apartment, and much more.

 

Engaging those most impacted through advisory groups:

Throughout the past three months, we have been meeting with local organizations such as Tumbleweed in Billings, Sparrows Nest in Kalispell, Empower MT in Missoula, and the Montana Continuum of Care Coalition with hopes of establishing a statewide Youth Action Board.

Once established, these groups will serve to center the voices and leadership of youth experiencing homelessness. Eight youth experts have signed up for this Youth Action Board so far.

We have also been asked to join the Citizen Advisory Council under Lewis and Clark County that focuses on intentional and thoughtful criminal justice reform. This will be an opportunity to raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of housing instability on LGBTQ youth and youth of color, and how the juvenile justice system can contribute to this issue when exiting youth into homelessness.

 

Addressing homelessness at the local level:

Since August 2017, Pride Foundation has been partnering with a local Helena City Commissioner on local opportunities such as:

  • Transforming vacant building space into public housing, youth shelters, and community spaces for youth experiencing homelessness.
  • Increasing access to public transportation and/or increasing the areas of Helena that public transportation is able to cover.

 

Public education through presentations to broad groups of stakeholders:

Over the last six weeks, Pride Foundation presented at a number of conferences and universities:

  • A workshop at the Title I Conference for the Office of Public Instruction on supporting LGBTQ youth in schools and raising awareness about the disproportionate impact of housing instability on LGBTQ youth and youth of color.
  • A workshop at the Annual Conference for the Montana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers on the disproportionate impact of housing instability on LGBTQ youth and youth of color, and the importance of supporting these youth across our communities.
  • A keynote presentation during the No More Violence Week at the Great Falls College of Montana State University on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness, the school to prison pipeline, and the resulting overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system, and high rates of trafficking and suicidal ideation if it’s not appropriately addressed.

 

Lifting up the stories of youth experiencing homelessness in Montana:

Over the past six months, we have been working with a local storyteller to identify young people who have experienced homelessness and empower them to share their stories. This artist will eventually be sharing these stories via podcasts and/or documentary.

 

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To me, the most important thing to remember is that everyone—from a teacher in a small school, to a community advocate, to a social worker, to a parent—has a part in creating caring systems and communities that are more welcoming and affirming for LGBTQ youth. We can all do something.

It is critical that we come together with solutions so that LGBTQ youth and youth of color do not get left behind. We can show youth that they are not alone—that there are resources available to them and an entire community of support standing behind them.

Thank you for your commitment, your compassion, and your intention to do what is right for so many within our communities.

 

 

To get involved in one or more of these projects, or to learn more about this work in Montana, email Kim Leighton.

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