A Safe Place for LGBT Youths

As many as 40 percent of homeless youths identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Ruby Corado, an LGBT activist. (Photo: Casa Ruby)
Jun 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

“I know what it’s like to sleep in shelters,” says Ruby Corado, executive director of Casa Ruby, a drop-in center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Washington, D.C. Over the phone, she explains, “You went only because you were forced.”

According to a national report by the Center for American Progress, though LGBT people make up around 6 percent of the population, between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBT. Of these homeless LGBT youths, 44 percent are black and 26 percent are Hispanic, while more than 80 percent of transgender young people living on the streets are black and Hispanic.

To serve this vulnerable population, Corado has also started a transitional home for 10 people between the ages of 18 and 24 for stays of up to 18 months. The house, which is funded in part by a grant from the Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, is the first facility of its kind in Washington. It joins organizations like the Ali Forney Center in New York City and Avenues for Youth in Minneapolis as a model for how to tailor housing and services to the unique needs of homeless LGBT youths.

“I wanted to have a nice house in a great place, so when the residents look at the house they feel better,” Corado said. Every detail—the chandeliers, the satin sheets on the beds, and the close guidance provided through an array of educational and counseling programs—aims to undo some of the trauma and stress that come from living on the streets.

There is relatively little research about LGBT youths and homelessness. The data we do have suggests that for many LGBT young people, “coming out leads to being kicked out of their homes, or life becomes so untenable they chose to leave,” says Meredith Dank, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute and the author of a survey of LGBT youths engaged in sex work. The survey found that many LGBT young people struggle to access affordable housing, food, and health care because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of the youths surveyed, 70 percent said they had been arrested, and almost all of those surveyed wanted to stop trading sex.

Corado says she meets many of her clients after they’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system or aged out of foster care.

If they’re kicked out, the options for LGBT young people are to live on the streets, crash with sympathetic friends or family, or sleep in a shelter. Many shelters in Washington and elsewhere in the country are supposed to be LGBT-inclusive. But they often fail to protect vulnerable young people who are gay or transgender.

With few beds available in safe, LGBT-affirming shelters, Dank and fellow Urban Institute researchers found that many young LGBT people “prefer to go home with a stranger and engage in survival sex for a warm place to sleep.”

“Maybe in an ideal world we won’t need any LGBT-specific services and providers are well equipped to work with LGBT populations. But that’s not the case right now,” says Laura Durso, director of LGBT research at the Center for American Progress.

Because of the lack of funding and research on LGBT youths and homelessness, no one is certain how to best serve this vulnerable population. However, experts who have studied the issue have suggestions. Facilities should use identity documents that are sensitive to transgender and gender-nonconforming clients. Facilities should provide quality health care that includes transition-related services, such as counseling, hormone therapy, and surgery. Staff should be trained to handle the needs of LGBT people. Experts say there should be a clear, easy way for residents to file complaints. “Sensitivities to needs of LGBT people aren’t always about being LGBT,” Durso explains.

Earlier this year, Chris Dyer, 21, told his stepfather that he was gay. He was kicked out of the family’s home in Nebraska. Last month, Dyer moved to Washington with his partner. A friend’s offer of housing fell through, so the couple have been sleeping on the streets, walking around all night and taking turns guarding their belongings. Dyer’s friends suggested they ask Corado for help. Now, she is working to get them food, subway fare, and temporary housing while they apply to live in the youth home.

“I wish every city had a place like this,” Dyer said over the phone. “Though LGBT homelessness isn’t talked about as much as gay marriage and adoption, it’s important.”

Corado quickly set some rules. The couple can’t share a bed, and no destructive behavior is allowed. Dyer and his partner need to be home each night by 9 p.m., unless they’re at work. Corado, however, is a softie with an already massive workload. The house’s executive director, Larry Villegas, will enforce the day-to-day operations and house rules. Villegas tells any LGBT-identified young person who doesn’t have somewhere to live and wants to finish school or get a steady job, “This is the place for you.”

It can be difficult for someone who has been on the streets for a long time to accept this level of help. Some may feel as if they don’t deserve the assistance. Villegas pushes back against this reticence. “If you are serious about working on your own self, this is your time to be a little selfish,” he says.

Corado and Villegas know that LGBT homeless youths need more than a roof and a warm bed—they need a community that accepts them. At Casa Ruby, “we are a chosen family,” Corado says. “I can choose people who are good to me, and I’m good to them. While their families reject them or throw them away, I embrace them. Every time somebody new walks in the door I’m like, good, it’s one less person being hurt outside.”

“I’m so happy,” she continues. “I feel like I’m moving in myself.”