This page is part of resource package created to help programs better serve youth who are LGBTQI2-S and homeless. It was derived from the results of a Listening Tour of programs serving this population. Visit the Listening Tour Page for more information, or read the draft report: Learning from the Field: Programs Serving LGBTQI2-S Youth Experiencing Homelessness.
“It hurts to have to move away from where you live because they don’t accept you. That’s why we need a place just for us so that we can feel safe.” – youth focus group participant.
Families, peers, and social service providers often reject LGBTQI2-S youth, which deeply impacts their self-esteem. Compounding these factors, many LGBTQI2-S youth who become homeless struggle to access housing, services, and employment. Every Listening Tour program recognized the overwhelming experiences of rejection faced by LGBTQI2-S youth who are homeless. These programs provide strengths-based services to buffer the complex difficulties faced by LGBTQI2-S youth.
Key lessons learned related to fostering a strengths-based approach include:
Create a culture of respect.
All of the Listening Tour programs emphasized the importance of respect from providers and peers. When youth feel accepted and safe, they can begin to heal from repeated rejection and build relationships with providers. Staff can foster this feeling of acceptance and safety by respecting a young person’s goals. One staff member at Larkin Street Youth Services observed, “The thing that the youth would say is most important is that they get to take ownership of their lives. All this time they couldn’t call the shots and be who they are. This is an opportunity to be who they are.” The Ruth Ellis Center also shared in that approach. “Don’t use your views as the goal you’re trying to obtain. It’s their goals.”
At Youth on Fire, respect from staff and peers is critical to building a strengths-based culture. Youth on Fire has actively fostered an allies program, educating and creating awareness about LGBTQI2-S issues. “It’s important to have a space where people can have an open conversation about who they are. It’s also important to have zero tolerance around discriminatory and hateful speech. What I notice here is mutual respect.” The Director of the UCAN Host Home program shared, “Often the most damaging harassment comes from peers. However, it is within a diverse community where real learning and growth happens for both LGBT and straight-identified clients and staff. We need to make sure those settings are empowering for LGBT youth, so that it’s a positive experience.”
Promote consumer choice in housing and service models.
The UCAN Host Home Program and Larkin Street Youth Services embody consumer choice within their housing models. UCAN follows the Sanctuary Model, which is a trauma-informed organizational culture approach that emphasizes consumer control. They only enforce the most vital restrictions, such as requiring youth to contribute to utilities when possible and making sure each participant is enrolled in school, employed, or volunteering. Under this model, youth can make choices about when to come and go, and how to care for their own space. As one UCAN staff member shared, “It’s intense to live in the fishbowl environment of shelters and transitional housing, where adults are watching you all the time. This is at the heart of the Host Home model. The youth learn to live in a family setting, while making their own choices about where to live and how to conduct their time.” Larkin Street Youth Services offers a “structured home” model that incorporates resident decision-making. House meetings are conducted by the youth, where residential up-keep and service schedules are made. The young residents are in charge of their own living space, creating choice and ownership. (For more information on housing models, please see Design Responsive Service Interventions)
Support opportunities for safe, non-judgmental, open dialogues.
Youth on Fire found that an open dialogue between self-identified straight and LGBTQI2-S youth and staff was important to facilitate a strengths-based environment. However, other programs found that efforts to promote a dialogue can only be successful if a program ensures that space will remain non-judgmental and safe. A health educator at the Drop-In Center at Tulane recalled leading a session on masculinity during which some youth expressed hostility at the suggestion that a homosexual male could be considered a man. She became concerned for the safety of herself and her co-presenter as a result of the hostility. At least two of the youth in attendance identified as gay. Since that time, they have not discussed attitudes toward homosexuality in the youth group. This incident raises both the challenges and the importance of creating a safe environment for discussion of these issues.
Explore the meaning of LGBTQI2-S identities among youth.
Fostering a strengths-based environment must begin with understanding the experiences and expectations of LGBTQI2-S youth. Larkin Street Youth Services is keenly aware that the environment in which LGBTQI2-S youth live can feel very defeating. “Young people arrive in San Francisco every day thinking everything is going to be okay. But their challenges follow them.” Staff explain that images portrayed in the media reinforce the idea that gay individuals are smarter and have more money, especially in San Francisco. “These images are powerful, and if a young person is not meeting those expectations, they feel let down by society and themselves. Not only are they not fitting into mainstream society, now they aren’t fitting into LGBT society as they see it.” Understanding this context is important for staff at Larkin Street Youth Services. With this knowledge, they can begin to engage youth, break down stereotypes, and redefine success.
View the experiences of LGBTQI2-S youth through a trauma-informed perspective.
One provider shared, “When people come in who identify as LGBT, we see that as a strength and as an issue. They have been through so much, demonstrating their resiliency. But the trauma that results from it has to be addressed.” Understanding trauma and healing from it is a first step toward rebuilding self-esteem. Youth on Fire agreed. “Radical acceptance is really profound. You are who you are. We assume everyone who comes in here is a survivor.”
Find opportunities to reframe negative experiences in a strengths-based manner.
Focusing on strengths and reframing weaknesses help to create environments in which youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S can find safety and thrive. Many staff at the Drop-In Center at Tulane felt that their backgrounds and beliefs could be incorporated into quality, strengths-based care. “Many LGBT youth we see come from religious families, and staff who come from similar backgrounds are better able to understand the internal conflicts that these youth may be experiencing,” observed one staff member. Such a perspective of respect, openness, and acceptance may be helpful to youth who are struggling to understand their identities in the context of cultural and religious norms.
Provide safe spaces for transgender youth to develop positive self-images.
Transcend, a partner organization to Youth on Fire, serves transgender individuals using a strengths-based approach. Body image and self-esteem issues are common with this group as a result of discriminatory or offensive comments from families, providers, and peers. Transcend provides a safe space for trans-women to see their bodies in a positive light. Within the safety of being with other transgender women, Transcend leads beach trips, helping to empower members and giving them the freedom to break out of their comfort zone. It empowers these individuals in ways that could never be replicated in broader group. “I was so scared on my first beach trip. I went in jeans and t-shirt. But I was the first one in! It did a lot for my self-esteem, and was really important for me during that time,” shared one participant.
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