On Friday, May 13th, 2016, Dr. Alex Abramovich joined four other speakers in taking the stage at the Children’s Aid Foundation’s five14 Talks to inspire change. With over 10 years of experience researching the phenomenon of LGBTQ youth homelessness, Abramovich has become one of Canada’s leading researchers and advocates in raising awareness for LGBTQ homelessness and how we can provide better community supports for this vulnerable demographic. He recently spearheaded the establishment of the YMCA’S Sprott House, Canada’s first transitional housing for LGBTQ youth, and is currently working as a researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Following his five14 Talks presentation, we took a few minutes with Dr. Abramovich to discuss his research, findings, and recommendations for supporting LGBTQ youth within the care system.
What are some of the leading causes of LGBTQ youth homelessness?
The number one cause of youth homelessness is family conflict, regardless of gender of sexual identity. Identity-based family conflict is really the leading cause for queer and trans youth becoming homeless. The rates are so high that we really see an over-representation of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness; they’re often either kicked-out or they’re in a situation where it’s just not safe for them to stay at home. Often times, there has already been family conflict at home even before they came out, either a history of family violence or conflict.
Why is this population particularly vulnerable once they do become homeless?
Because we still live in a society where homophobia and transphobia are prevalent and normalized. Once LGBTQ youth become homeless, they often face high rates of discrimination and violence. I found that a lot of the young people I talked to weren’t safe in shelters; and it’s not that they just didn’t feel safe — they truly were not safe. A lot of the rules and policies actually perpetuated homophobic and transphobic behaviours and violence – which made it very clear to the young people, from the moment they walked into the shelters, that they weren’t welcome.
What are some things that foster parents can do to better support LGBTQ youth?
Number one is to understand that you’re not going to know how people identify right off the bat, just by looking at them. That’s a good place to start. For foster parents, it’s good to keep in mind that you can’t base somebody’s identity on the sex that’s been designated to them at birth. Even if the discussion might feel uncomfortable, I think the more we practice, the more comfortable it will become. It’s really important to ask youth: “Is there another name you’d like me to call you by? Which pronoun do you prefer?” Just start with a check-in to ensure that young people know they have a safe person they can speak to. Creating an environment where a young person is able to ask questions and speak freely about their identity is incredibly important; it’s so horrible to have to live in fear and feel like you’re not able to tell the people who care about you how you truly identify.
What changes have you seen within community resources provided for homeless youth, specifically for LGBTQ youth?
I think that things are definitely, slowly, starting to change. I’ve been involved in this work a decade now, and it’s taken a very, very long time to get the most basic policies in place, including staff training within shelters. Something as simple as LGBTQ cultural competency training has not been mandatory until very recently. I worked in partnership with The 519 to develop the curriculum for LGBTQ cultural competency training for shelter workers, and it is now mandatory for all staff working in youth shelters in Toronto to receive this training. It’s been a very challenging path to get to this point. It hasn’t been an easy journey; as a researcher, I feel like I’ve had to fight really hard to get key decision makers and the general public to understand the importance of this issue and my research. However, we are finally at a point where people are beginning to understand how crucial this issue is across Canada and organizations are also stepping up and opening important services to support LGBTQ youth.
What have you been surprised to learn throughout your research?
When I first started doing this work, I was surprised to see how little support was available to LGBTQ youth. I began by looking at where LGBTQ youth who had been kicked-out could go for support — and there really weren’t a lot of places. The lack of understanding and support often blows my mind; I might be doing an interview and I’ll assume that people know about these issues, but they really don’t.
Homophobia and transphobia also occurs within the LGBTQ community, and that’s been hard to wrap my head around. That’s a tough finding. What’s so wonderful about Sprott House is that while it is a LGBTQ safe house, they’ve added an “A” to “LGBTQA”, to indicate allies. This means that when a young person goes through the interview process before moving into the home, they are asked how they’re an ally to the rest of the community — for example, “how do you support trans people?” It’s made very clear from the beginning that just because you identify as LGBTQ, it’s still important to create a safe space for everybody.
Why are forums like five14 Talks important for creating positive change for homeless LGBTQ youth?
Young people are our future. We need to make sure that young people in our society, regardless of how they identify, are safe. And that safety should start in the home; making sure that every young person has a safe place to sleep and is able to safely access a washroom. Unfortunately, we’re not living in a society where that’s actually a reality, so we have to discuss these issues. A lot of people don’t understand that queer and trans youth have to sleep in a park in Toronto for eight months because they can’t find a safe bed, so I think we need to keep talking about these problems and raise awareness to these issues in forums like five14 Talks, until we solve them.
We must find solutions to these problems because everyone deserves a safe place to sleep.