New Report Finds Sex Equals Survival for Many Homeless LGBTQ Youth
In New York City, some 4,000 young people are homeless on a given night. Of those, upwards of 40 percent identify as LGBTQ. And for many of those youth, surviving means prostitution.
The Urban Institute released a new report which looked at LBGTQ youth who engage in what is called "survival sex." Of the 283 youth who were interviewed, over 50 percent were homeless and had stories of being kicked out of their homes or abused by their parents.
"My mom kicked me out . . . she didn’t want me being gay, she wanted grandchildren, she didn’t like my lifestyle, she didn’t pretty much accept it. She still loved me but she just didn’t want me being there," said one 19 year old respondent.
Meredith Dank was the lead researcher for the report. She said the kids didn't necessarily want to get involved in the commercial sex trade, but they saw it as their best and only option.
"Since there is no social safety net for so many of them because the resources are very limited for the services that are out there for youth. They are then forced, through constrained choices to engage in survival sex to have their basic needs met, which include food, shelter, clothing," Dank said.
The report found that while homeless LGBTQ youth felt they had little choice, 82 percent still saw some positives in their decision like being able to buy food and getting shelter.
"It’s not as bad as sleeping under the bridge, it’s not as bad as going without food, it’s not as bad as walking around slanging [selling cocaine or other narcotics]. It’s not as bad as being that person without, period," said a 19 year old female respondent.
But over 90 percent saw lots of negatives too, with responders saying they felt frustrated, dirty and endangered. According to the report, most of the youth carried some sort of physical protection when they were trading sex.
The report said many of the youth got involved in the commercial sex trade because of peer groups they formed. Dank said they did this to help each other and share their own survival experience.
According to the report, many of the interviewees didn't have access to gender affirming healthcare while others didn't feel safe in shelters. This sentiment is echoed by Carl Siciliano. He's the executive director of the Ali Forney Center, a shelter specifically for LGBTQ youth. He said he's come across cases like that time and again where young people will choose the streets or survival sex over shelter beds when they're available.
"It's desperation that's driving kids into these situations. And it would be a really wonderful thing if the city could take a hard look at how homeless youth are treated in the city and especially how LGBT youth are treated in the city because what's being made available to them is just grossly inadequate and it's too often so unsafe that these kids are choosing to be on the streets rather in the shelters. And that's a disgrace," Siciliano said.
He added that the longer these kids are out on the streets and without safe shelter, the more likely they are to engage in survival sex and become at much higher risk at contracting HIV.
Siciliano said the city should be housing youths in small, family-like shelters, rather than large "warehouse" shelters, as he called them. He said the sheer size of these shelters make them more dangerous for LGBT youth and harder for them to get a sense of community that is so important. That's why he says the city needs more LGBTQ shelters like the Ali Forney Center for those young people to feel safe.
"...the biggest [rule] they have is you can't snitch. As a matter of fact, someone told me the first law of Covenant House [a large youth shelter in New York] is 'You snitch and you get stitched.' So kids are not going to go complaining, they're going to be afraid and they're going to leave and live out in the streets. People haven't taken a hard enough look at what it means that the city is choosing to warehouse kids and how much of a frightening environment that creates," Siciliano said of large city shelters.
A spokesman for Covenant House said in an e-mail that about 30 percent of their residents are LGBTQ and the shelter offers comprehensive services for all residents. He said safety is of the upmost importance and steps are taken to make sure the environment is a safe space. He said that the shelter is not too big and works to provide the best community for its residents. He also added that they're mindful of criticism from those unfamiliar with their programs and called those beliefs flat out wrong and damaging to young people.
The Urban Institute report made recommendations to help young people disengage from the sex trade like new programs that would offer safer housing, providing access to appropriate healthcare and creating job opportunities.
Currently, there are 350 beds in New York City dedicated to homeless youth. This includes both emergency and transitional housing. Last year, Siciliano said Mayor de Blasio made a pledge to add 100 new beds every year until there are no more waiting lists to get into shelter. He made good on the promise then, but this year, there is no mention of more beds in the mayor's proposed budget. Both Dank and Siciliano were disappointed to see this saying there is still a dire need for more beds. They hope the report will inspire lawmakers like de Blasio to do more to help homeless LGBTQ youth.
Update: A spokesman for Mayor de Blasio said in an e-mail that the mayor promised to continue funding the 100 beds he added last year, which was baselined into the budget for this and future years. She said de Blasio also added additional beds this year and services that went beyond the original commitment, which were also baselined into the budget.