Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hope for LGBT Homeless Youth in Southeast Michigan

Up to 42% of homeless and runaway youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to the National Runaway Switchboard--a number vastly disproportionate to the general population. What does this mean for the Detroit area?

Grace McClelland, Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center, says we are in the midst of an epidemic of LGBT homelessness. "The estimated number of homeless youth not receiving shelter services in Detroit on any given day ranges from 1,600 to 2,000. Of those, 640-800 homeless LGBT youth are on the streets of Detroit every day," according to a recent report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, titled "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness."

The Ruth Ellis Center, created in 1999, provides short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Detroit and southeastern Michigan. It is one of only four agencies in the nation that specifically focus on the needs of LGBT youth and it is the largest youth drop-in center in the country, straight, gay or otherwise, says McClelland.

The Center was named in honor of Ruth Ellis, the renowned "matriarch" of Detroit's African-American gay and lesbian community, who lived to be 101 years old. An out lesbian all her adult life, Ellis was known for her hospitality and generosity to people whose race or sexual orientation put them at odds with the dominant culture. At the age of 100 she cut the ribbon on the new Center bearing her name. "We really did model the agency after the legacy of her unselfishness in giving to young people. She was a female entrepreneur and she was black and lesbian. She opened up her home in 1930 to gay and lesbian people in Detroit. This was pre-civil rights movement. She could have been killed," McClelland recounted.

The Center has four programs: the Street Outreach Program and Drop-In Center, Ruth's House Transitional Living Program, and Ruth's House Emergency Shelter Program. "Last year, we had 14,880 contacts with runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBT youth in Detroit," reports McClelland.

Over the last three and a half years, the number of contacts has risen exponentially, from less than 1000 in 2002 to the current levels. McClelland attributes this increase to several factors. In 2003-2004 the Center developed the Street Outreach Program to such an extent that now, the word is out and youth find the Center through each other. The SOP has six full time staff and about 70 volunteers. McClelland also speculates that more youth are coming out due to the encouragement of the gay rights movement and a perception that society is more open to LGBT people. In addition, youth are coming out at younger ages than before. But for the LGBT youth of Detroit, coming out often results in judgment and rejection by families and churches. "The kids are coming out or being outed, and they are immediately being ejected from their homes,"McClelland said.

Once on the street, in addition to the stress of being poor, hungry and homeless, the youth are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by predators. They are also targets of violence for being gay. The Center reaches out to these youth by offering referral to shelters and housing agencies, one hot meal daily, access to shower and laundry facilities, clothing, access to mentor relationships, education on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and independent living skills.

The Transitional Living Program, an 18-month program for youth 16-21 years of age, accommodates five residents and provides comprehensive services to build independent living skills. The five-bed Emergency Shelter is open to 12-17 year olds for stays up to 14 to 30 days. But where do the other homeless youth actually stay?

"A lot of our young people 'couch surf.' They stay with people they know until they wear out their welcome and move to another house. We have kids who live outside. We also have a significant number of youth who live in abandoned houses with no heat, no plumbing, no electricity, no water... nothing," McClelland said.

What more can be done? "The public needs to be made more aware through the media," McClelland said. After the NGLTF publication was released in January, CNN and the New York Times did contact the Center and published coverage is pending, yet mainstream local media have not publicized the Center or the report.

But they still can and it would be helpful.