By Johnny Veglia
LGBTQIA+ youth face multiple challenges when finding who they are, including embracing who they are and the consequences that take place. The LGBTQIA+ community encompasses individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, questioning or queer, intersex, asexual, and for any other identities which fall upon the spectrum of gender and sexuality. The world continues to adapt and grow to allow for these identities to feel seen and heard, but some traditions and cultural ideologies are not willing to accept.
According to True Colors United, a nonprofit organization that highlights the issue of the unhoused youth of the LGBTQIA+ community and their struggles, while roughly 7% of youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ+ they comprise 40% of unhoused youth. They also report that LGBTQIA+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness.
Why LGBTQ+ experience higher rates of homelssness often comes down to acceptance at home. “What I’ve heard, both from peers but also from different organizations and places that I’ve lived around the United States,” explains Rev. Janelle Neubauer (she/her), the Chaplain at Muhlenberg’s Egner Memorial Chapel, “is that often when a young child is growing up and they begin to understand their identity, when they feel confident enough to share that with their family, there’s a chance that the family may have either a cultural or religious understanding that would warrant them to understand that as somehow inappropriate, potentially wrong. It gets into, for some folks, a matter of ethics around specifically sexual ethics, or the “traditional family unit”.”
For these families, their children do not represent the ideals of the family and are dishonoring the family. “My deepest hope is that families who do feel at odds with their child’s identity, would be willing to ask questions, would be willing to be curious, would be willing to hear from the community around them, so that not only are they learning, but they’re not putting pressure on the child to explain at all,” Neubauer continued. There are resources for communication and education available in the Allentown community thanks to the work of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center and Valley Youth House.
For youth caught in this dynamic, they may not feel safe or be welcome at their family home. But in leaving home, they may struggle to find access to safe shelter, or food. To help youth navigate this process, Bradbury-Sullivan and Valley Youth House created a partnership called Project SILK. The main goal of Project SILK is to strengthen the support system for LGBTQ+ youth so that they feel they have the proper resources to navigate their lives and to hopefully prevent them from facing the difficulties of being unhoused.
“What’s so special about Project Silk is that it is a brave space where youth can be fully themselves, can identify the challenges they are up against, and be heard and be helped,” says Bill McGlinn (he/him), interim executive director of Project Silk. “The Project Silk team takes a holistic approach to supporting youth in building the resilience and self-advocacy skills they need to assure their safety and success. Through open discussion, case management, and resource navigation, the program addresses the physical health, mental health, and social-emotional needs of participants. Youth learn how to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships, so that they can best manage the relationships they have with their families, friends, and partners.”
This joint program allows for a safe environment that is youth-led with a focus on the LGBTQ+ youth ages 14-21. While the group still faces high rates of homelessness, Project Silk allows for this group to persevere and to have the resources and elements they need to keep them safe.
“But the reality is still that many of our youth do encounter food and housing insecurity and barriers to care. The healthy coping skills, practices in self-care, and self-advocacy strategies that the Project Silk team works with youth to build prepares them to overcome such challenges without losing hope,” McGlinn continued.
This program also created another important resource for the community with the LGBT Emergency Services Pantry at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.
“When Project Silk programming was first put in to place we knew it was vital that we provide the emergency services pantry. As LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately affected by homelessness and housing insecurity. This pantry allows youth who might not be able to afford need basic toiletries the ability to have these items,” says Kim Ketterer, youth programs manager at Project Silk.
This important resource allows for LGBTQ+ youth in the Lehigh Valley to get the items they need and it has been a rewarding aspect for Ketterer. The pantry supplies toothbrushes and other hygiene products and the pantry is open during the same hours as Project Silk, 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Friday.
These resources are extremely important, but so is general support for LGBTQ+ youth and making sure they feel recognized and supported.
“I would just like the public to know that being supportive of LGBTQ+ youth saves lives and sets these amazing individuals up to be successful adults,” says Ketterer. “One supportive adult can be the world to a queer youth.”
This is especially important with the lack of accessible resources due to the demand and lack of focus on the LGBTQ+ community within these homeless shelters.
“Unfortunately, there is a lack of safe shelter housing for any LGBTQ+ folks but especially LGBTQ+ youth,” says Ketterer. “Many shelters and mental health resources aren’t properly trained on how to support LGBTQ+ folks and specifically are not trained to support trans identifying individuals. When it comes to mental health resources we are seeing that even mental health providers that are knowledgeable about LGBTQ+ issues and individuals have extensive waitlists that keep folks from the vital therapy they need.”
Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center continues to offer important support and information about these groups for anyone who is interested and needs them. They highlight the LGBTQ+ communities accomplishments and their struggles. “Our community-building programs build pride in LGBTQ+ identity and culture and address loneliness and isolation,” says McGlinn. “Our health programs educate community members about the importance of preventative care and harm reduction in overcoming LGBTQ+ health disparities, and referrals to LGBTQ-affirming providers and public health resources reduce the barriers to care that people face in securing the physical and mental health services they need to thrive.”
Project Silk and the LGBT Emergency Services Pantry, in addition to other resources and allies, will help to give them the support they need. This will hopefully open the door for more support with shelters and housing these individuals.
“For youth, having communities surround them, welcome them in, show them that there are ways of having a family of choosing and chosen family to be loved and supported by and to be fully loved for who they are is so important,” says Neubauer. “The biggest blessing for them is to understand that, okay, my family of origin couldn’t see me for who I am, but there are people in the world who love me and admire me and want to be there for me.”