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Homeless LGBTQ youth ignored by Ottawa’s shelter system, say experts

By Graham Lanktree

Homeless youth from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) community face dangers in city shelters and are a larger issue than Ottawa charities think, said rights activists and experts Monday.

“We hear regular reports of people being physically and sexually assaulted,” said Jeremy Dias, founder of gay-rights non-profit Jer’s Vision.

“Their workers aren’t aware of LGBTQ issues,” he added of shelter staff. “Many youth just choose to avoid the system. It’s not difficult to make the shelter system safer for the LGBTQ community.”

Roughly 25 to 40 per cent of kids on the street identify as LGBTQ, but in a new study at the University of Toronto, PhD candidate Alex Abramovich, says the numbers are underreported. “We have reason to believe that number is much higher,” he said, citing the fall release of his study Young, Queer and Trans, Homeless, and Besieged.

Many youth don’t report incidents in the system, and shelters don’t keep numbers on how many LGBTQ community members they serve, he said, adding that family conflict is the number one reason many of these youth end up on the street.

“We don’t keep stats on that. If we were dealing with a large number, we might have some special programming,” said Shirley Roy, media and community relations manager with the Ottawa Mission, of LGBTQ community members in the system. Roy said the mission mainly cares for those 18 and older. “We do see cases of people identifying as a woman, but under shelter regulations we would send them to a women’s shelter.”

Trans youth are amongst the most discriminated against group in the shelter system, said Abramovich, adding that “if you’re not collecting data on a certain group of people, then they don’t exist.”

He advocates change. “First and foremost we need transitional housing,” exclusively for the community, said Abramovich. And along with Dias, he said that staff need mandatory training in working with people from the community.

“We have approached a number of shelters,” said Dias, adding that he offered Jer’s Vision workshops to the city’s shelters. “We were disappointed  because no one has made this a priority.”

Correction: This story originally stated Alex Abramovich is a student at York University.