At-risk LGBTQ youth continue to face challenges, including homelessness, but colleges and local agencies work to make services available during a season exacerbated by the pandemic.
“During this holiday season, I’m thinking about how I’m going to have a roof over my head and how I’m going to pay my rent,” Devine Bey, an 18-year-old Black and Samoan transgender woman told the Washington Blade while turning in her name change paperwork to a Baltimore office.
Both Bey and her husband were laid off during the COVID-19 crisis and she said all they have is each other since her family isn’t close and her father wants nothing to do with her as a trans woman.
An October poll commissioned by the Trevor Project, a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth, found one-third of all LGBTQ youth said they were unable to be themselves at home, and nearly one-third of transgender and nonbinary youth felt unsafe in their living situation since the start of of the pandemic.
“We know that LGBTQ youth may be particularly vulnerable because even prior to the pandemic they were at higher risk for homelessness,” said Rob Todaro, press secretary for the Trevor Project. “We know they face disproportionate unemployment and housing instability now exacerbated by the pandemic.”
D.C.-based agencies that support LGBTQ youth such as SMYAL and the Wanda Alston Foundation saw an increase in service requests as part of the pandemic’s economic fallout, as did agencies throughout the region.
“There definitely has been an increase in the demand for our services because of more young people staying at home in situations that are not affirming to their truth and identity,” Adalphie Johnson, the SMYAL programs director, said.
Wanda Alston Foundation Executive Director June Crenshaw said their mission is to improve the lives of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, and noted reduced public transportation routes due to the pandemic disproportionately impact minority youth trying to get to work.
Korean Davis, an 18-year-old Black trans woman living in transitional housing because living at home with her mother “is not an option,” struggles to maintain work at a make-up stand where “ignorant people,” including her supervisor, misgender her.
Her dream is to go to beauty school and work for herself.
“My holiday is a complete disaster,” she said. “No one has called to check on me. I feel like I don’t have anyone but the people at Baltimore Safe Haven, and they can only do so much. I feel like I am falling apart.”
Unfortunately, Davis is not alone and her experiences are felt by other LGBTQ youth.
According to the Trevor Project, one in three Black LGBTQ youth said the pandemic made their living situation more stressful than before, and agencies in D.C., Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere have worked to meet the demand with limited funds.
“About halfway through the pandemic we had the COVID relief grant where we distributed over $45,000 for young people who were either homeless or at risk of homelessness,” Johnson said, speaking of social services funding SMYAL received through the CARES Act. “With those funds we assisted with phone bills, technology needs, rent, food, or utility bills, all which were needed directly as a result of the pandemic.”
Ted Lewis, the executive director of Side by Side, a Virginia-based LGBTQ youth assistance organization, said its number of homelessness assistance calls more than doubled around April and May, particularly from African-American, transgender and nonbinary youth.
“When a young person comes in, they work with a case manager to see what stability looks like for them,” Lewis explained, saying that some homeless 18-25 year olds may need financial assistance while others may need help with identity documents or access to affirming medical care.
Lewis said housing stability is a concern for those who are couch-surfing, living in transitional housing or back with family due to college dorm closures during the winter break. Each situation can add to holiday stress.
“When residence halls close for the winter break, some LGBTQ+ students face the prospect of returning home to families who may be either unsupportive of their LGBTQ+ identity, or actually hostile and unwelcoming,” said Brad Grimes, a program specialist with the West Virginia University LGBTQ+ Center and Women’s Resource Center.
In the late ‘80s Grimes was a closeted gay student struggling with his own identity over multiple winter breaks at Georgetown University, so to some extent he understands the pressures his LGBTQ students face today and seeks to address them.
“The WVU LGBTQ+ Center worked with the Director of Residence Life early in the semester to confirm that alternate housing would be made available to LGBTQ+ students who had no safe or supportive housing options with their families, in the event of an emergency COVID-related closure of the residence halls,” he said.
Their campus resources also continue to be accessible via email over the winter break.
Luke Jensen is the director of the LGBT Equity Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, which he helped found more than 20 years ago. The center has extensive programming for LGBTQ students, much of which went online during the pandemic.
Virtual meetings included yoga and wellness sessions before the holidays and after a brief break staff will return in the spring with a Black transgender discussion panel and preparation for their Lavender leadership graduation ceremony in May.
Jensen was also a closeted gay student at Brigham Young University in the late ‘70s, where he remembered listening to a Mormon church leader talk about the “sin of homosexuality” during a monthly school meeting.
He ended up going to New York University for graduate school where he met his first partner who later died of AIDS.
While attending NYU, Jensen came out to his mother while at home for winter break, so he also understands the uncomfortable situation many of his LGBTQ students are in, especially those who are transgender “because you’re dealing with something as fundamental as identity.”
One piece of advice Jensen and others had for youth struggling with both the pandemic and holiday challenges was to find happiness where they could and treat it as the most important resource of all.
“Focus on things that bring you joy,” Todaro advised while Johnson encouraged youth to be gentle with themselves and “always find moments to celebrate who you are.”
“Even if that means looking into the mirror and telling yourself, ‘I look good,’” Johnson said. “Find a good song you like, close your door if you can, and dance the night away. And know SMYAL is always here to support you.”