Public acceptance of people whose sexual identity lies somewhere on the LGBT spectrum — lesbian or gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual or questioning — appeared to be thawing in 2014, as 35 states had laws on the books supporting equal marriage rights for same-sex couples by year's end. But for many young adults ages 18 to 24 just discovering that they identify as LGBT, the chill remains only too literal.
While many have supportive parents and guardians to help them through a universally difficult stage of development, a significant number face strife with their families and find themselves homeless. In Middle Tennessee, 35 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT — on par with the national average — and they have a hard road ahead.
For many years, homeless LGBT youth in Nashville had an open, affirming resource in the Oasis Center's Transitional Living program. It offered opportunities for those ages 18 to 21 to make major strides toward self-sufficiency: temporary housing, help with completing school or applying for jobs. Despite repeated attempts, however, the program was unable to secure federal funding after 2011, and it finally closed this summer. Among other lost opportunities, it left homeless LGBT youth without a safe place to stay warm this winter.
In the fall, a team of concerned individuals took up the cause. A fundraising campaign led by the Nashville chapter of LGBT advocacy group The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raised more than $10,000 to supply cots, blankets, cleaning supplies, food and more to found Launch Pad, a cold-weather shelter for people 18-24. Launch Pad is open and affirming to LGBT-spectrum guests, who account for about 20 percent of its population so far.
Led by executive director Pam Sheffer, the program's team of 80 volunteers expected it to fill gradually as word spread. On Launch Pad's first night, Dec. 2 at Vanderbilt's St. Augustine's Chapel, people began to line up an hour-and-a-half before doors opened at 9 p.m., and all 12 beds were filled. Through December, the shelter has been open two nights per week, at or near capacity.
As of press time, Launch Pad hasn't had to turn anyone away. Two additional sites are expected to open soon to help the program achieve its goal of offering shelter five nights a week through March. But as the program's name indicates, this is when the hardest work begins.
"Launch Pad was never designed to be the answer to the homeless youth problem," says communications director Ryan Dixon. "The ultimate goal would be to see these young people recognized as a specific demographic that are in the most need, and get them federal assistance and Section 8 housing that right now is given to other populations that are considered to be in higher need."
Sheffer, who works closely with youth in several capacities through the Oasis Center and other organizations, says family rejection is the main cause of homelessness among LGBT youth. She cites studies published by Dr. Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project, which find that LGBT youth with a high degree of family rejection face increased risks of depression and other mental illnesses, as well as substance abuse and high-risk sexual behaviors. Compared with peers who experience less intense rejection, they are three times as likely to contract HIV or other STDs.
"When a young person is rejected by their family, they lose hope," Sheffer tells the Scene. "When some people lose hope, they act reckless and make poor decisions, which compounds the peril they are experiencing."
Homeless LGBT youth have special needs beyond the scope of well-meaning organizations that do an outstanding job of serving other populations, Sheffer says. They may find it uncomfortable to express their gender identity in a shelter with a religious affiliation, whether or not it's prohibited, and transgender people are especially vulnerable in a traditional shelter.
"Transgender people are not widely accepted nor understood, and unfortunately, when people don't understand something, it breeds fear, which produces hate — the end result, more times than not, is violence," Sheffer explains. "If you are a biological male and identify as a woman and have been living as a woman — dressing and presenting as a woman, using pronouns that align with a woman, using a name that aligns with your female identity — and then you are forced to sleep in a room full of men, you are placed in a very vulnerable and extremely dangerous position, with a high probability of being physically or sexually assaulted."
A program spearheaded by the Nashville Homelessness Commission, How's Nashville, issued a report on Dec. 1 showing progress, helping 842 people find homes in its first 18 months of operation. How's Nashville focuses on a major impediment to escaping life on the streets: chronic homelessness. Having a stable home makes a significant difference in outcomes for those who've been without a home for over a year, or have been homeless four times in the last three years.
But few youth identify in this category, whether or not they fit the definition. They may not want help, whether they've had a bad experience in foster care or simply feel the urge to be independent shared by most young adults. As a consequence, they run the risk of slipping through the cracks.
"When comparing young adults to veterans who are suffering from PTSD or other disabilities [and older people] suffering with chronic health conditions, it is easy to dismiss young adults as a priority concern for permanent housing," Sheffer explains. "According to the National Network for Youth, the average age of young people becoming homeless is 14.7, so by the time they reach 24, we are talking about a span of almost 10 years without permanent housing.
"What we need to keep in mind is that today's homeless youth are tomorrow's chronic homeless adults. If we ignore homeless youth today, then the cycle of homelessness will never end."
For more information on Launch Pad, see musiccitysisters.org.