For homeless gay teens in Little Rock, few places to turn

Arkansas ranks third worst in the nation for homeless children, and few shelters will take in LGBT teens

Homeless youth and others gather at a Chicago street corner on May 24, 2011. Many homeless youth meet in the area for Night Ministry services since the closing of a shelter in April.
David Pierini/Chicago Tribune/MCT

An estimated 2.8 million young people in the United States find themselves on the streets, and the streets of Little Rock are no exception.

The state has 14,000 homeless children, according to the Campaign to End Child Homelessness, and the state ranks third worst in the nation for homeless children.

While there are homeless shelters, very few places offer a space for youth who are gay. That didn’t sit well with Penelope Poppers.

"I saw the need directly, and I decided that nobody was doing things for LGBT folks locally," Poppers said. "I realized that a large number of the facilities in the area are run by conservative groups and churches who are just not supportive of and are opposed to gay people."

So she decided to do something about it.

Next year, she plans to open a small homeless shelter for the city’s hidden and underserved lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth population called Lucie’s Place, named after a friend of hers who died a few years ago.

It won’t be a big operation right away — the plan is to provide enough space for up to eight people in need at a time. But for a community that offers no safe space for homeless LGBT youth, it is the start of something big.

"Because what we’re doing is so unheard of in the area, there is kind of an excitement around it that I feel like maybe wouldn’t exist in other cities," Poppers said. "There’s such a need for it, and it’s something that has never even been thought of in the area."

She said there is a large population of LGBT youth in Little Rock in need of a safe space, but because there is so little data on the population in the area, she can’t specify a number or percentage.

Nationwide, experts estimate that between 20 and 40 percent of the youth homeless population identifies as LGBT, though estimates vary widely among organizations that try to track such data, and some teens may not want to self-identify as being gay out of fear of discrimination or being denied service at a homeless shelter.

A 2012 study published by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, cites the two primary reasons LGBT teens end up on the streets: family rejection after coming out or being thrown out because of their sexuality.

"The study provided evidence that LGBT youth comprise a disproportionate portion of homeless youth," said Gary Gates, one of the researchers behind the study. 

"Family rejection based on a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity appears to be one of the most important factors for understanding what can lead LGBT youth to become homeless."

The Williams Institute focuses its work on sexual orientation, gender identity law and public policy.

Gates also points out that keeping track of the LGBT youth population is difficult because they tend to be more "transient," and that by publicly identifying themselves as LGBT, they "experience substantial stigma that could further increase reluctance to speak about their sexual orientation or gender identity" with homeless service providers.

That’s part of the reason Popper is planning to open Lucie’s Place next year.

Because Little Rock is a Southern city in the Bible Belt, it is much more difficult for LGBT people to find services when they need them most, Poppers told Al Jazeera.

Robin Maril, legislative council for the gay rights advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign, understands the challenge that LGBT people in the South and less urban areas of the country are facing.

"If you are a homeless LGBT youth in New York City, even though there is always a shortage of beds, there is at least somewhere to go, and workers are more likely to have had cultural competence training," she said.

"As opposed to maybe the middle of the country or smaller areas that just don’t have the resources and don’t have the expertise."

In addition to not having the necessary resources or cultural awareness of LGBT issues in areas outside of cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, Maril said, the few areas that may actually provide services for LGBT people are also unequipped to handle younger people.

"I think that homeless youth in general are invisible, and a lot of our homeless programs are designed for adults and designed for families," she said.

"They’re not designed for 14-year-olds. So LGBT youth are an invisible population within an invisible population. And once youth are homeless, they’re at a much higher risk of being sexually abused, getting involved in sexual trafficking and substance abuse, and LGBT youth are at that much higher of a risk."

Elaina Wood works with Safe Horizon, an organization providing services to homeless people and victims of domestic and sexual violence in New York. She said she’s seen LGBT homeless teens as young as 13 turn to working in the commercial sex trade just to survive.

"That’s obviously a huge risk," Wood said, noting that it puts them at a much higher exposure to sexually transmitted infections or diseases.

Because New York is one of only a handful of cities offering the complex array of social services LGBT youth need, Wood said people come from all over the country to get help.

"We do have what we refer to as the 'traveling community,' and they are very resourceful, like all youth are," she said. But even when they get to the big city, there is often not enough space for them.

Wood said organizations like hers and the Ali Forney Center often run out of beds for people to sleep in. The shelters are often at capacity, and more people come in each day.

Poppers wants to put a dent in that problem, and hopes that when Lucie’s Place opens next year it will give local teens the space they need, although she knows there will still be shortages.

"We’re never going to be able to house all the LGBT young adults in Arkansas, so we’re going to have to work really hard to make other shelters more accepting of LGBT people and our issues," she said.

Even now, Poppers has to turn people away every day.

"For me personally, since I’m the one who gets all those calls, that’s the toughest thing, to tell someone we don’t have anything for them right now," she said.

Currently, Poppers’ organization has enough funding to place a down payment on a large home in Little Rock, partly because of the lagging housing market in town, and it has a year-and-a-half reserve of operating funds. But Lucie’s Place hasn’t opened yet because Poppers wants to be sure that once the doors are open they stay that way.

"This program can’t fail. We would essentially have to kick homeless people back out again, and we can’t say to these people that we ran out of money so you have to go back out on the streets," she said.

"It just can’t fail. It’s not an option."

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