Youth homelesness in Utah complicated by LGBT issues

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Joseph carried his belongings in a suitcase and a garbage bag. He had hitchhiked 80 miles to Ogden to the OUTreach Resource Center after he said his parents told him to leave, to straighten up and not to return until he had changed. Joseph had just told his parents he was transgender.

On Joseph’s list of concerns is that state law considered him a runaway.

According to Rachel Peterson, a doctoral student at Utah State University who studies youth homelessness, the state could have as many as 5,000 youths who are homeless at some point during the year.

These youths, often indistinguishable from their housed peers, live a life of fear and uncertainty. They sleep in tents and cardboard boxes, on park benches and in canyons. Many are homeless because of their sexual or gender identity. Joseph asked The Universe not to use his full name.

Peterson’s research has found 40 percent are LGBT youth. Many come from LDS homes, often forced to leave out of shame or anger.

A precise breakdown is hard to achieve. Homeless individuals are transient and, in the case of homeless LGBT youth, sharing their story often leads to abuse. Many never access services because they are afraid.

“I think it’s bigger in scope than we know right now,” Peterson said. “People don’t realize that they are probably seeing youth that are homeless or very tentatively housed every day.”

According to reports from the McKinney Vento Act, which requires schools to provide support to homeless youths, Utah County has 482 youths accessing its services. But the problem is likely bigger, with many moving to Salt Lake, where they can find more support and can easily disappear.

The causes and effects

According to Marian Edmonds, executive director of OUTreach, a drop-in center that provides resources and support to LGBT youths, there isn’t much that can be done for homeless youths. In Joseph’s case all they could do was give him food and wish him luck. Joseph did find a place to sleep that first night, but he paid a price and was assaulted.

“Right now we can work with a youth for eight hours,” Edmonds said. “Then we have to call the police. So the youth here are fugitives. If a parent kicks out their youth, the youth is the one who has committed the crime, even if the parents kicked them out. That’s the culture we’re dealing with here. It’s really bad.”

Berta Marquez, who attended BYU until 2006 and who is involved with OUTreach and Mormons Building Bridges, has interviewed many youth in this situation. Many she speaks with have been forced to engage in survival sex, trading their bodies for a night on a couch or for food. Some completely disappear, living in camps and constantly running from police.

Marquez believes Utah’s culture may contribute to the problem, especially among LDS families.

“Parents feel like it’s an either/or proposition,” Marquez said. “They have to choose between their faith and their child. I don’t think parents realize what will happen if their kids are kicked out.”

The effects are immediate and far-reaching. According to the Family Acceptance Project, youths who are rejected by their parents are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs or be at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

Slow progress toward a solution

While no overnight shelters for youths exist because of Utah’s laws, some are taking small steps toward creating a safety net for homeless youths.

Daytime drop-in centers like OUTreach are spreading through the state. The programs provide supplies, homework help, counseling and sex education.

Other organizations are working to provide housing for LGBT homeless youths. Safe and Sound is creating a network of host homes. Over time, the group hopes to educate families so they can be reunited with their children.

Safe and Sound volunteer and BYU alumna Nica Allgood got a taste for the program’s need at the Provo Pride Festival held in September 2013.

“I had two different young men come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I wish you had been in existence a year ago,’ or, ‘I wish you’d been in existence two years ago when I got kicked out,” Allgood said. “The need is definitely there.”

The LDS Church has also stepped in to help combat the problem, largely through its website mormonsandgays.org. Supporters hope that families will pay more attention to the messages on the site.

“As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook, of the Quorum of the Twelve, on the site. “Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”

Advocates hope this understanding will prevent further homelessness and stop hundreds of stories just like Joseph’s.

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