Moving Walls: Invisible: Homeless LGBT Youthmore

February 28, 2014    

According to the U.S. government, the number of homeless and runaway youth ranges from 575,000 to 1.6 million. Out of that number, it is conservatively estimated that between 20 and 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), widely considered to be the fastest-growing demographic in the homeless youth population.

Many homeless LGBT youth are people of color and come from low-income families. Many come from homes marred by instability, conflict, abuse, neglect, or parental drug use. Many are forced to leave their homes: often family members assault them and kick them out when they reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity. Having experienced this violent rejection at home, in church, at school, or, in some cases, in foster care, these abandoned youth turn to the streets. Too often, sex work, survival crime, drug abuse, and untreated mental illness become a part of everyday life. Animosity toward LGBT youth’s sexual orientation or gender expression at mainstream shelters and programs effectively bars them from receiving the meager services available to homeless youth, services that might move them toward more stable lives. By being homeless in a society that discriminates against LGBT people, these young people are rejected twice: first by their families and communities, and again by the service providers and shelters that are supposed to help and protect them.

In 2005, disturbed by the silence surrounding this issue and seeking to put a face to this crisis, I began photographing the residents of Sylvia’s Place, New York City’s only emergency shelter for homeless LGBT youth. Its 30 beds comprise over half of the beds (the others are in mixed shelters) specifically designated for the upwards of 8,000 homeless young LGBT people in the city. Using the shelter as a home base, I spent countless hours—both inside and outside the shelter walls—as a witness to intimate moments often hidden from public view: crying at the grave of a mother who left too soon; kissing a new boyfriend; sharing moments of tenderness with members of one’s chosen family.

As this project continues, it is my hope that this work will not only bring awareness to the crisis of LGBT youth homelessness, but also draw attention to the support networks and sense of community that shelters such as Sylvia’s Place can create.

—Samantha Box, November  2011

Source: Open Society Foundation