The best available research suggests that between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. When youth come out (or their sexuality is discovered against their will), some families reject them, pushing them onto the streets, where they are often even more vulnerable to prejudice and abuse than other homeless youth. They will also encounter a legal system which can be more focused on punishing and imprisoning the homeless than on helping them to get off the streets. And as rising social and peer acceptance has emboldened teens to come out at a younger age, more youth are over-estimating their parents’ readiness to deal with revelations about their sexuality, with tragic—even life-threatening—consequences.
This is a problem which Christian parents and pastors need to understand and take much more seriously, since it is, in part, an unintended consequence of Christian activism for traditional marriage. Moreover, since Christian ministries often provide food, clothing, and shelter to the homeless, how they approach homeless LGBT persons will have a big effect on whether their ministry draws people toward Christ, or pushes them away.
In order to provide better perspective on these pressing issues, we recently spoke with Kelley Cutler, a Catholic social worker and advocate on homelessness who has worked in San Francisco for over a decade. She shared some of her insights about homelessness, how it affects LGBT youth, and how Christians can respond.
SF: Over the last couple of years, I’ve really appreciated the chance to hear some of your insights on ministry to the homeless, including homeless LGBT youth. Could you first talk a little bit about how you got involved in this ministry?
Kelley: Thanks for taking the time to ask! I started working as an outreach worker with homeless youth in San Francisco back in 2002. The target population was homeless youth ages 12 to 24 and I realized rather quickly that a large percentage of the youth I was coming into contact with on the street were LGBT. Although it wasn’t my initial intention, after a few years working in outreach I was transferred to a position working primarily with homeless LGBT youth as a case manager for a transitional housing program in the Castro. The transition was quite smooth because such a large percentage of the youth I encountered on the streets were LGBT and I had already developed a connection with them.
I worked directly with this population until 2008 and that experience motivated me to go into the community organizing side of this work as an advocate on homelessness. I would like to clarify that I am an advocate on homelessness and my focus is on all homeless, poor and marginalized people. It just so happens that LGBT people are a large subgroup among this population, not just in San Francisco, but across the U.S.
SF: Could you talk a bit about the challenges that homeless people face in this country today?
Kelley: A core issue advocates on homelessness are battling is the criminalization of homelessness and poverty in the U.S.. This has become so prevalent that the U.N. called us out on our human rights violations. There are laws that criminalize standing, sitting, resting, and sleeping in public places, as well as begging, panhandling and food sharing. These laws also limit faith communities ability to do charitable work such as feeding the hungry.
It helps to understand the history of this major social issue because it hasn’t always been like it is today. I’ll give you a quick overview. The infrastructure of cities were developed to provide for the poor. In a city you have public transportation, compact housing options (such as apartment buildings) and social services centrally located. When people began to earn more money, it was a desirable thing to move out of the cities to a suburb. With the innovation in transportation, they could commute to the cities for work.
There has been a shift in our culture… it is now common for wealthier people to move to cities, both because it is trendy among some groups, and also because many recognize that it is more ecologically-conscious to live near where they work. This is causing a massive amount of displacement and gentrification of poor communities. I often hear things like, “If they can’t afford to live here, then they just need to move.” The major issue is that there is no infrastructure outside of cities to support poor people. They don’t have the resources to relocate and they are being displaced away from their community, churches and social support.
Another major factor is that since 1976, the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department’s total budget has dropped by more than $45 billion per year (pdf), with the biggest drop occurring between 1980 to 1983. Paralleling the dismantling of public housing and the rise of modern homelessness, the United States has gradually replaced the social safety net with a penal state that criminalizes and incarcerates the poor and people of color. In the past 40 years, according to a Department of Justice report (pdf), incarceration has increased 500%, from 380,000 to over 2.2 million people. The population under criminal justice supervision reaches 6.9 million.
I realize this is a lot to wrap your mind around, but basically it comes down to the fact that this trend is not sustainable. There are major human rights violation taking place. Even if you take the human impact out of the equation… what we are currently doing is costing a lot more! It’s actually “fiscally conservative” to invest in social services and public housing, not jails and prisons.
UC Berkeley Law School analyzed 58 California cities where municipal codes disproportionately affect the homeless. They identified over 500 restrictions in California municipalities. San Francisco and Los Angeles are tied for having the most anti-homeless laws with 23. We recently released a report called “Punishing the Poorest- How the Criminalization of Homelessness Perpetuates Poverty in San Francisco” (pdf). This report explored the actual impact these anti-homeless laws are having on poor people. The findings were stunning even to those of us who have been doing this work for years!
I actually have some good news to share though. Last week the Federal Government argued that anti-homeless laws violate the Eighth Amendment. The head of the Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta stated, “Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights.” This is a big deal! It seems obvious, but this has not been a part of the dominant narrative.
SF: I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk a little bit about homelessness and LGBT youth. For readers who may not be familiar with the reality of homelessness for many young people who identify as LGBT, can you summarize the current landscape?
Kelley: The harsh reality of homelessness is brutal for anyone no matter their sexual identity, but LGBT youth are found to be at much higher risk. LGBT youth are at a high risk for mental health issues, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, victimization, and issues with the criminal justice system. When a youth loses the support of their family and community, they go into survival mode. What I think is important for religious people to understand is that these youth are often rejected due to their sexual identity, not necessarily a sexual “act”, but when they find themselves on the street they are being thrown to the wolves. Many are then forced into ‘survival sex’ as a means to meet basic needs for provide housing and food. They aren’t acting out sexually, they are youth who become victims of severe sexual abuse and trauma.
SF: We’ve talked a lot about just how many homeless youth are LGBT. Could you tell us a bit about those numbers?
Kelley: I took part in some of the first research efforts to identify the disproportionate number of LGBT youth in the overall homeless youth population. Those working with homeless youth already knew they were disproportionately represented, but without documenting the information we didn’t have the data to back it up.
In-depth research (pdf) has found between 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT. Being that I’m a research geek, I would like to present some other points to paint a broader picture. I live in San Francisco, the “gay mecca”. We have the #1 highest LGBT population in the U.S. LGBT people represent 6.2% of the overall San Francisco population. A recent homeless count done by the City found that 29% of the overall homeless population identify as LGBT. This shows that the disproportionate representation of LGBT people experiencing homelessness isn’t limited just to youth.
SF: Why do you think the numbers are so disproportionate?
Kelley: There are many factors that put LGBT youth at risk for homelessness and other challenges. There has been a cultural shift where individuals are becoming more likely to be open with others about their sexual orientation and at a younger age when they don’t have the means to provide for themselves if they lose family support. As a result, LGBT people are often ostracized and treated as outcasts in their families, communities, and by religious institutions. Many LGBT youth become homeless because their families reject them.
The Center For American Progress found in their research that 58 percent of gay and transgender youth have been victims of sexual assault, compared to 33 percent of heterosexual homeless youth. They found that 62 percent of LGBT youth experience discrimination from their families. LGBT youth reported that 86 percent experienced being verbally harassed at school and 22 percent reported being physically assaulted due to their sexual orientation. (“Gay and Transgender Youth Homelessness by the Numbers,” 2010)
Many of the LGBT youth that have been rejected by their communities end up engaging in survival sex and illegal drug use. During my time working with homeless LGBT youth I have observed that they tend to be treated as outcasts within the LGBT community as well. It seems to me that the LGBT community is fighting so hard to be accepted by society at large and often don’t want to acknowledge that homelessness has a deep impact on the youth in their community.
LGBT youth can experience discrimination from service providers as well, particularly faith-based organizations. Some even go as far as to attempt reparative therapy or conversion therapy with them. This therapy can be extremely traumatizing to an LGBT individual and this treatment is rejected from the broader therapeutic community, and barred by law in some jurisdictions.
SF: You mentioned that many LGBT youth are coming out at a younger age, and getting kicked out of the house. If any of our readers are thinking about coming out to their parents, what advice would you give them?
Kelley: Oh, that’s a challenging, but important question to explore. I wish I could just tell a LGBT youth to go talk to their priest or parents about it, but the reality is that those aren’t always safe options for them. I’m saying this as someone who has worked with hundreds of homeless LGBT youth who had reached out to their priests and/or parents. In no way am I saying not to reach out to their parents or priest, they just need to think the situation through. Is going to their parents about this putting them at risk of being kicked out of their home? This is where I would caution them because I know the harsh reality these youth could be faced with. It can literally kill them.
I have seen many youth who confided their sexual identity to their parents as they were just coming to terms with it themselves. Let me be clear that I am speaking about their sexual identity, not sexual behavior. Revealing their sexual identity resulted in them being kicked out of their home. I’ve seen many LGBT youth fresh on the street, who were virgins. I have seen many of these youth quickly fall into survival sex as a means to get housing, food, and money. I have seen many of these youth become addicted to drugs as a way to cope with the horror they are experiencing. I have seen many of these youth infected with HIV. I have seen many of these youth die. So I take this very seriously.
I’m not suggesting a LGBT youth should not go to their parents or priest. In fact, there are many priests I know who I would encourage an LGBT person to reach out to. What I am saying is that they need to put a lot of consideration into identifying if the person is safe for them to reach out to because the consequences can be dire. My hope is that the Church will explore more ways they can be a safe place for these youth.
SF: That’s very sobering. I would hope that parents and pastors would get the message that this is a serious problem in our families and churches. In spite of this dark side that you’ve had to deal with, however, I’d like to explore how your Christian faith has developed as a result of your work with the homeless. How does it currently inform your work?
Kelley: As I mentioned, I worked directly with LGBT homeless youth from 2002 to 2008. I didn’t actually become Catholic until 2009.
To be honest, I wasn’t looking to become Catholic, but I had always longed for a spiritual connection. This longing compelled me to follow my passion to become an advocate on homelessness because even before I became Catholic, I could see Jesus in the poor and marginalized.
It’s a long crazy story, but basically I was drawn to the Church by the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Believe me, I fought it every step of the way, but these Catholics are now stuck with me.
As you can imagine, the work I do can be extremely intense and draining. Holding onto hope can be a huge challenge when the harsh reality of suffering and death is part of your daily experience. This is why I attend Mass on a daily basis. That is where I find my hope and strength to be able to do this work. It’s directly connected. I also go to Adoration with my favorite cloistered nuns up in Haight/Ashbury. They are my prayer warriors praying for me and the work I do.
SF: What is the Church currently doing to tackle the problem of homelessness, and, in particular, that of LGBT youth?
Kelley: I can’t really speak for other locations because my experience is somewhat limited to San Francisco. Catholic Charities is the largest service provider to homeless, poor and marginalized families in my community. They also stepped up to the challenge when the AIDS epidemic had a crippling impact on this community. They should be commended for the work they did and continue to do.
First I would like to point out something about the Church responding to homelessness as a whole. I realize there is a tendency to want to separate the subjects of homelessness and LGBT in different ways, but they are directly connected. To support LGBT people we need to address issues around homelessness. The USCCB produced a document on the social teachings of the Church entitled “Two Feet of Love in Action“:
Catholic disciples on mission are called to put Two Feet of Love in Action! This foundational tool describes two distinct, but complementary, ways we can put the Gospel in action in response to God’s love: social justice (addressing systemic, root causes of problems that affect many people) and charitable works (short-term, emergency assistance for individuals).
Catholics are amazing when it comes to the ‘charitable works’ foot. Currently our social justice foot is weak when it comes to homelessness. I have yet to find a Catholic social justice group here in San Francisco working specifically on homelessness, but there are groups working on things like immigration and other aspects of poverty. We are currently working on organizing around homelessness though. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how receptive my Bishops have been to this.
As for responding to LGBT youth homelessness in particular, I would suggest exploring the work others are currently doing to address the needs of this population. I was giving a presentation about homelessness to a Catholic high school class a few weeks ago and one of the students asked me the reasons why youth become homeless. I explained there are a number of reasons a youth can become homeless, but that a large percentage of these youth are LGBT. She then asked if working with this population conflicted with my Catholic faith. I found that question to be curious. I had not considered this question before she asked me. It made we wonder what people assume working with this population entails.
I feel like some assume secular outreach and support to LGBT people is in direct opposition to the Church. However, my experience working with LGBT homeless youth had little to do with sex. The focus was on food, clothing, housing, medical care, counseling, education, job placement, and social support. This is the focus for support when it comes to the ‘housies’ too (aka. non-homeless LGBT youth). A lot of the support entails listening… it’s as simple as that. The aspect related to a sexual act is education around HIV/SDI prevention. Too many of our youth continue to be contracting HIV/AIDS. It’s nonsense to think service providers would be encouraging sexual activity… especially since they are working hard to address the negative impact sex can have. So much of the sexual activity these kids have experienced has been as a victim of abuse. It’s just more complex than what many assume.
I don’t know how I can communicate the lived experience so people can understand. I don’t know how to convey the heartbreaking stories of the thousands of youth I’ve worked with… at least in a way that people could hear it. This challenge is extremely disheartening for me at times. It breaks my heart to see LGBT people being stigmatized or pushed away from the Church… especially because I know what an awesome gift I was given to be drawn to the Church. Maybe it will take hearing the stories for themselves.
SF: How is the Church getting it wrong on this issue?
Kelley: I took part in a Catholics roundtable discussion regarding same sex marriage. I attended this meeting specifically because the issue of the disproportionate number of LGBT people experiencing poverty and homelessness has not been part of the dialogue.
Neither gay rights activists nor Catholic defenders of marriage seem to want to “see” the disproportionate levels of homelessness and abuse impacting our LGBT brothers and sisters. It doesn’t fit either of their narratives in this heated political battle.
For the roundtable to understand my perspective I shared an analogy. I explained that I see the bishop/Church/whoever on one side… and on the other side I see a lot of wealthy white gay men (I realize this is a generalization, but roll with me). I see both ‘sides’ throwing “stuff” back and forth in these heated political battles. The thing is, I see A LOT of people in the middle ducking trying not to get hit by what is being thrown.
This political fighting perpetuates the social stigma and demonization of LGBT people in the Catholic community. There needs to be more support from within the Church for LGBT people. I’m not referring to the Church’s teachings on sex specifically, rather it’s related to the social stigma in the Church… the same social stigma that results in LGBT youth being kicked to the street. It’s irresponsible and reckless to be so outspoken against same-sex marriage while not speaking out about the “throwaway” LGBT youth and adults. It’s neglectful that LGBT support is not a higher priority in the Catholic community, particularly here in San Francisco.
SF: What can we as a Church do to better reflect Christ toward LGBT people?
Kelley: As a Church we can’t keep focusing just on a sex act because that is a very limited perspective of a very complex subject. It’s failing to see the lived reality of many LGBT people. It’s failing to see the LGBT youth suffering and dying on our streets.
I am often asked what the Church can do to support LGBT people. I respond with the question: “Have you asked them what they need to feel supported?” I think a good start would be to actually ‘listen’ to what people have to say. Different people have different needs based on their situation and experience.
As a convert, I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions. One question I’ve asked most LGBT Catholics I’ve met is… “Why do you stay in the Church?” Think about it, they could go right down the street to another faith community that has different teachings. So why do they stay? I have been given the same answer by every LGBT Catholic I’ve met. The Eucharist. I don’t get this answer from every Catholic I ask, but I do from the LGBT Catholics. I think this is something people should consider.
SF: Thanks for sharing your experiences with our readers and particularly for the valuable work you are doing! If readers are interested, do you have any final suggestions for how they could get more involved in their community?
Kelley: A good place to start would be to explore what support is currently available in their community. It’s important to actually explore if the current resources are effective. I often hear people referring LGBT people to a program they assume is a good fit, but they don’t really know if it is. What’s more important than a referral is taking the time to listen. Listen to the experience of LGBT people. I’ve noticed when it comes to this subject people have a tendency to do more talking than listening, but I think it’s important to listen. Not just listen, but truly hear what someone is saying. It’s important to gain an authentic awareness of the specific issues affecting these people, in order to understand how best to help meet their needs.