Opinion by Laura A. Hughes
As the Executive Director of the Detroit-based Ruth Ellis Center, one of a tiny handful of organizations in the country dedicated to working with runaway and homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, I work every day with youth who live the reality of urban poverty. “Crystal,” a resident in our transitional living program, has one such story. While she was out to her family as a lesbian, she was sleeping in a closet in a home she shared with 25 other family members. Most of Crystal’s family is addicted to drugs and used them in front of her siblings — and while they were normally somewhat tolerant of her relationship with her girlfriend, they regularly picked fights with her regarding her sexuality when high. Her family’s poverty, combined with her sexuality, forced her to leave home.
In the run-up to the Republican and Democratic conventions, the official party platform’s stance on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues was one of the hottest topics, whether in media coverage, in debates among party elites and delegates, or with politically-involved members of the LGBT community. The Democratic platform made history by backing same-sex marriage for the first time. By contrast, the Republican platform, predictably, strongly opposes same-sex marriage, but has drawn tepid praise from some quarters for a sentence affirming that the party “embrace[s] the principle that all Americans have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”
But for all the scrutiny, marriage has been the beginning and end of most discussions of either party’s stance on LGBT issues. What has been overlooked is one reality, illustrated by Crystal’s story: that throughout the country, and particularly in my own city of Detroit, poverty is very much an LGBT issue itself. The high numbers of LGBT homeless youth are one of the harshest consequences.
In 2009, the Williams Institute issued a report, “Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community,” that definitively proved that the stereotype of the upper-class, white gay couple is just that — a stereotype. Even when controlling for other factors correlated with poverty across the board — race, employment status, level of education — gay and lesbian couples were found to be more likely to be in poverty than straight couples with the same attributes. Though data is still lacking on transgender poverty, the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found, to cite just one statistic, that transgender people of color are four times as likely to be unemployed.
And in Detroit, the intersection of race (the city’s population is 83 percent black), industrial decline and the current recession has already led to extreme poverty, even before factoring in sexual orientation. The median household income in the city is only $28,357, a mere 54 percent of the national median in 2009. As of 2010, the city’s child poverty rate was a staggering 47.7 percent, nearly two and a half times the national rate. Unemployment, meanwhile, is at 18.3 percent as of this June, also twice what it was nationally in the same month. And finally, homelessness in Detroit is by far the worst of any major U.S. city, at 216 per 10,000 residents. Many of these homeless are youth; with the city starved for funding, by some estimates, including one by the Senior Citizens and Homeless Coordination, as many as 2,000 homeless youth in the city go without services each day. And up to 800 of these youth may be LGBT.
These figures are appalling, but they cannot be understood or addressed as a mere series of bullet points. All these factors — race, recession, unemployment, sexuality and more (including drug use and incarceration rates) are deeply intertwined. The result is a vicious cycle of perpetual poverty for far too many youth in this city. And a great many of these youth are LGBT. For out of everything mentioned above, LGBT youth in Detroit are possibly at the intersection of more risk factors for poverty than any other group: race, child poverty, residing in a city mired in debt and able to afford little in the way of social services, and sexuality. On top of the aforementioned links between poverty and sexuality, homophobia remains far too prevalent within the African American community, with often brutal consequences for LGBT youth like Crystal who grow up in already impoverished homes.
Thus, many LGBT youth in the city are either forced onto the streets by family members unable to accept their sexuality, or run away to flee abuse. And once on the streets, they are at far greater risk of depression, suicide, substance abuse, violence and more. Many must turn to sex work in order to survive.
At the Ruth Ellis Center, we are doing everything we can to get these youth off the streets, operating a shelter, a drop-in center and a street outreach program. But there are far more homeless LGBT youth in the city than we can serve at any one time. And particularly in the winter, when temperatures regularly reach single digits here, youth must stay anywhere they can find shelter — in abandoned houses filled with animal feces, and on the stairwells of apartment buildings, to name some examples. As a starting point, we’ve launched an “End the Chill” crowd-funding campaign, allowing anyone to donate toward an additional warming place for these youth.
We at the Ruth Ellis Center are on the front lines of the intersections of poverty, race and homophobia. In Detroit, and around the country, thousands of these youth, the victims of social and economic circumstance, must sleep on the streets every night. We cannot have a national conversation about poverty without including youth homelessness, and we cannot have a conversation about LGBT issues without addressing poverty and the terrible impact it has on many of our youth. The time has come to start a new conversation. And that will be an enormous step forward toward a future where no youth is forced to sleep on the street because of who he or she is.