The Pennsylvania housing and youth resource organization Valley Youth House provides multiple programs that mitigate youth homelessness, including for LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color. Valley Youth House began in 1973 by offering one youth shelter in the Lehigh Valley. Now, 50 years later, the organization offers a wealth of programs across 14 counties in the Lehigh Valley, Central Pa. and Southeast Pa. areas, including emergency shelter, temporary housing, mentoring, skills development, therapeutic services, substance use prevention and programs specifically for LGBTQ+ youth, such as the Pride Respite temporary housing program and the Trans Youth Fellowship.
The Trans Youth Fellowship is a group of transgender youth that meet biweekly to discuss methods of educating the public about LGBTQ+ people, developing methods of funding acquisition for Valley Youth House programs, providing input into Valley Youth House LGBTQ+ program development and standards, and devising trans cultural competency training programs for City shelter systems. Youth who participate in the Fellowship are paid for their work. Members of the Fellowship have presented their work at the Homes Within Reach Conference and plan to share their work at a future housing conference.
“It’s just a safe space,” said Jasir Harris, a young LGBTQ+ person of color who is part of the Trans Youth Fellowship. “That’s where we come and we laugh, we joke, but we also try to get the job done, whatever we can to get funding, come up with different ideas. Sometimes that entails [Valley Youth House staff] asking us for different ideas about what program standards they should have for housing programs, what might work for the youth and what might not work.”
Harris and the current Trans Youth Fellowship group helped to establish a multiphase cultural competence training to “help bridge the gap in trans competence when it comes to shelters, specifically,” said Nova Jackson, Valley Youth House Pride program coordinator.
The phases of the training program include “Am I an Accomplice,” “Elephant in the Room” and creating educational devices like an LGBTQ+ resource guide and creating interactive models. The “Am I an Accomplice” piece asks attendees to evaluate their implicit and explicit biases manifesting in the spaces they occupy. In the “Elephant in the Room” phase, facilitators will review some of the taboo topics that may arise in situations where bias appears.
“When you acknowledge your bias and your knowledge or privileges that you may hold, it also shows how you are navigating spaces within shelters or other resources that are targeted to people who identify within our community,” Jackson said.
LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness or housing insecurity at higher rates than cishet youth. According to a 2022 report by The Trevor Project, 28% of LGBTQ+ youth said they experienced homelessness or housing insecurity at one time or another. The survey also showed that 44% of Native/Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth, 27% of Latinx LGBTQ+ youth, 26% of Black LGBTQ+ youth, 16% of Asian American/Pacific Islander youth and 36% of multiracial LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity. As for white LGBTQ+ youth, 27% said they encountered homelessness or housing insecurity.
Harris shared that he and his fiancé experienced homelessness two years ago, and when he was a teenager his parents put him in foster care after he came out.
“I came out as, at the time, liking females,” Harris said. “[My mother] didn’t agree with that and her husband didn’t agree with that, and so they put me out in foster care. It was my experience that even in foster care, if you were gay or in that community, they tend to look at you different or treat you different. I had staff talk about me. Even being in a shelter–I was in the Covenant House about three or four years ago–and it was just a constant battle with being treated different than other people, other youth.”
Harris chalked up the reason for increased rates of homelessness among BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth to a lack of education about queer and trans identities. He said it’s essential for adults running shelters or any space for LGBTQ youth to think about what they can do to make youth feel comfortable or “help them feel like they are a part of something, rather than push them away and shut them out,” he said.
“That’s why most of us are homeless nowadays. I think if we have more trainings, more networking where we sit down and we explain to them, ‘if this is your feeling, that’s your opinion,’ but it’s your job to stand with [LGBTQ youth] and let them know, ‘you don’t gotta deal with this by yourself.’”
Ignorance and lack of LGBTQ cultural competence are also culprits for LGBTQ youth using drugs, Harris said. “They feel like, ‘I’m in here by myself,’ and they don’t know who to trust; it’s hard for them to open up to anybody.”
Another LGBTQ-centric program of Valley Youth House is Pride Respite, which provides transitional housing for three months for LGBTQ+ youth 18-24 years old. The program initially formed out of queer and trans youth not feeling safe in City-run shelters, a former Pride program supervisor told PGN. “The Respite house is going very well, strongly,” Jackson said.
The Host Homes program, a collaboration between Valley Youth House and the Homeward Initiative, was initially set to launch in 2020, but was put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is currently in development, wherein Valley Youth House staff are focusing their efforts on training community members, chosen family, and family members of youth by “going over points such as adultism that sometimes youth experience, or how to approach conflict, communication standards,” Jackson said. “Also bringing in that person-centered, trauma-informed approach when working with youth who have to go through the adjustment of experiencing street homelessness and then transition into another person’s house, especially if it’s not chosen family or a family member.”
When it comes to doing more to allay rates of homelessness among BIPOC LGBTQ+ youth, and just doing better by QTBIPOC youth, Harris said he thinks it’s all in the funding.
“I think if there are other people out there who are doing the same work as Valley Youth House, we need to come up with ways to get more funding,” he said. “I think we need to come up with more creative ways of thinking. I think that if we had the funding, I’m not going to say numbers will go down all the way, but I definitely know the numbers would be different tremendously.”
Even though Valley Youth House received government relief funding in the throes of the pandemic, that source of funding is not as robust as it once was, said Amanda Molinaro, associate director of development and marketing for the Southeast region of Valley Youth House. As such, the nonprofit relies more on corporate and private philanthropy to grow and thrive.
Jackson added that it’s important to “redirect that funding into addressing some barriers that QTBIPOC face specifically. We know that because of bias and prejudice, this population has less income due to discrimination within the workforce. So how can we help these youth increase that? By providing job opportunities, internship or fellowship opportunities that are paid. Just being very intentional about the resources that you do have and prioritizing centering youth voices.”
Michele Zipkin is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Gay News. She received her B.A. from Goucher College and her M.A. in journalism from Temple University.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.