Guest Blogger

A Dangerous Service Model for Homeless LGBTQ Youth

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 29, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: foster child, LGBT homeless, LGBT youth, Sassafras Lowrey

Editors' Note: Sassafras Lowrey is an internationally award-winning queer author, artist, educator who edited the Kicked Out anthology of current and former homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras tours to colleges, conferences, and organizations across the country. More about Sassafras is available at pomofreakshow.com and kickedoutanthology.com.

Homelessness.jpgLast week, I sat on the national conference call to mark the one-year release of 'Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan To Prevent and End Homelessness.' The report itself was somewhat groundbreaking, as the government actually recognized LGBTQ youth as a specific vulnerable population of homeless youth, and outlined the need to provide them with culturally competent services. That said, it didn't go nearly as far as I would have hoped in terms of concretely making plans to provide services to the estimated 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States who identify as LGBTQ. The rhetoric of last week's call concerned me. It mirrored the trend I'm seeing from direct services providers across the country who are focused on offering culturally competent services for queer youth but advocate for an emphasis on family reunification and suggest that it is what's best for most youth.

When I was a 17-year-old homeless queer teenager, I had my court-appointed victims advocate tell me that I should lift the restraining order against my mother, move back into her home, and try to be "normal." Nearly a decade later, I can still pull from a file the folded stained pages that came through the fax machine of my high school from the court trying to pressure me into seeing my mother, and telling me that my successful development was dependent upon my family being reunited. The fact that she had plead guilty to felony assault - not even a year before - did not matter, nor did the years of manipulation and calculated abuse I had documented for them. They wanted me to risk my mental and physical safety because, clearly, that was less important than the stereotypical happy family they maintained somehow could still be achieved.

I never once asked to be reunited with my mother. I got the nerve up to leave a time that I had enough physical bruises I thought the cops would have to pay attention. I saw leaving as my one chance at survival. I was lucky. I was just old enough that my conservative semi-rural county determined I was too old to go into the foster care system and instead was left on my own. They said they "didn't know what to do with me" and that I should "not get into trouble until I turned 18." I couch surfed with adults I knew until they found out I was a lesbian and threw me out six months later. Then I found LGBTQ community, and I found other homeless queer kids. I began building family and felt loved and safe for the first time in my life. I carried a copy of the restraining order in my back pocket everywhere I went, acutely aware that my mother maintained sole custody of me, and prepared to have to fight for my freedom at any moment.

Now, I facilitate writing groups for homeless queer kids in shelters and youth centers across the country and it breaks my heart to hear how they live with those same fears that ruled my life. Over and over again the youth I meet tell me how they are literally choosing to sleep on the streets because the shelters in their city demand family notification, and promote family reunification. Some youth stay out of services for years until they turn eighteen and they know their biological families won't be contacted. I understand that most agencies only want what's best for the youth they serve, but part of that means actually listening to youth and not continuing to put resources into program models that are pushing the very youth you want to serve away.

Imagine a private or government agency suggesting that the best, or even required, course of action for a domestic partner violence survivor is to rebuild a relationship with her/hir/his abuser in order to receive services. Imagine telling them that relationships are very important and that without this person in your life you're destined to be less successful, less whole. This is exactly what homeless, queer youth are told on a daily basis at youth-serving-agency after youth-serving-agency across the country that strongly encourage or require youth to attempt to rebuild a relationship with their biological family. Imagine being forced to fight against agencies you need basic services from, to not bring toxic and dangerous people back into your life. As a community, we need to demand that service providers recognize that family reunification models are actually keeping youth on the streets out of fear.

As queer folks, it is our job to take back the idea of the family. Family is a weapon that has been used against so many of us, and in many cases it's also been taken violently from us. It is imperative that we not take it up as a weapon ourselves. Family has become a battleground. It has become politicized, privileged, and all too often, it's the most marginalized who get trapped in the crossfire. The idea of the family being something that needs to be defended is a rhetoric that has and continues to be used in homophobic and transphobic ways by politicians and religious leaders preaching and legislating around a narrow definition of what they consider to be or not be family. But it isn't just right wing fanatics who are sent on defining "family" in narrow ways. We also need to take the idea of family back from our own community and insist that agencies that serve homeless LGBTQ youth not continue to perpetuate narrow definitions of what a family looks like.

Families are built everywhere from the backs of youth centers, to bookstores, coffee shops, and conferences. They are formed at protests and in classrooms. Building family is scary and risky business. It is by its very nature unsafe. Creating family means lowering armor, showing our scars and trusting a stranger not to split you apart again. For me, the way to survive was through telling my story and building a family that did want me - not through trying to be "normal" enough to fit into the family that didn't. Instead of pushing for homeless LGBTQ youth to reconnect with their families of origin, we need to encourage the construction of new families, using a model of building instead of reunification

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How many of these agencies are pushing family notification and reunion as part of a comprehensive model to foster awareness and counseling to all members of the family? Blindly pushing a youth back to a home environment without any work in resolving the conflict is one thing, but a model that requires family notification and reunion for the explicit purpose of improving the home situation is another.

At the shelters I have worked at, that is the goal. And if a situation is at the level in which a child is endangered physically or emotionally, that is one in which CPS steps in.

I can't imagine that anyone I had worked with would recognize signs of abuse, physical or otherwise, and not report to CPS. Likewise, I can't imagine anyone I had worked with, or the organization itself, going through counseling and still finding it acceptable to send a youth home to a family when it's clear no progress was achieved and the youth was still in danger.

But maybe not all agencies are like the one I worked with, and the others are just ridiculously irresponsible, favoring their family-at-any-cost methodology over youth safety.

Thanks for this, Sassafras. I work with my college's chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and this year we're looking to focus more on aging out foster youth and homeless LGBTQ youth, and this definitely provides a perspective I haven't seen much.

I can't understand why people involved in shelters can't understand from a harm reduction point of view that sometimes there are just some homes that kids can't return to. That sometimes, it's just that bad.

I suspect that a lot of it stems from the organization's fear of being painted as helping to pull families apart, or something.

There tends to be this odd reification and fetish for the idea of Family™ as being something infallible and incomparable.

Thanks for this, and I hope that the people who need to, pay attention.

I should rephrase that. Everyone should pay attention, but especially those who are directly involved at shelters and youth centres

Thanks for posting this, Sassafras -- I am hardly a "youth" anymore, and in my mid-50's I am learning anew how toxic a family of biological origin can be.

The sad thing is that some of these families are aware of how dysfunctional and/or inappropriately controlling they are, and sometimes you have well-intentioned relatives who can't entirely find their own way out of the psychological labyrinth they themselves are in. They think when they exercise power and control over you, they are doing you a favor.

So I entirely support your idea that, in regards to "family" sometimes you improve your chances of success if you just start over from scratch -- at least you have the option of choosing who gets into your family and who doesn't.

I see two reasons why traditional social workers want to re-establish the family of origin: (1) If it does work, it is less time, effort and resources for both the client and the social agency, and (2) they see what you see: Family-building from scratch is intrinsically unsafe, and there is the human tendency to choose "the devil you know over the devil you don't know."

Good Luck -- we have enormous work to do nurturing our homeless LGBTQ young people into successful adulthood.

Jay Kallio | June 29, 2011 3:53 PM

There is no good answer to the problem of rejected, homeless LGBTQ youth. It is always a judgement call whether the family in question is a safe or healthy environment for the child. As someone who was ejected from a family environment where both parents had diagnoses of major psychiatric illnesses for which they required medication and ongoing treatment, and where physical, sexual and emotional abuse were everyday phenomena, and their response to my sexual orientation and gender identity was rape, based on the idea that "You just haven't met the right penis yet", I also can testify that abuse by strangers on the street may be preferable to abuse by parents.

Given my bias in this issue, it may come as no surprise that I favor social services agencies to decidedly err on the side of providing all the necessary services to preserve the life and well being of the youth, independent of the pathological family environment. Human error is inevitable, so strategically choosing to err on the side of children, despite the additional costs to society to support that child, is always what I will favor.

If there is any realistic hope of reuniting a family in a safe and emotionally healthy way I have found that eventually that will happen when the timing is right, whether the child is in the home or not. It might even be more likely to occur if that child is not dependent on the abusive family, and comes from the strength of independent support and the nurturing of others. I would appreciate seeing more research into that possible outcome.

I agree with everyone. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, we all know that a child and/or youth’s safety comes first. And across the country, I know there are several direct services providers who believe that “family reunification” should be defined as a youth’s family of choice. But sadly, they’re probably not the majority. As a community, it’s not that we need to demand that service providers recognize that family reunification models are keeping youth on the street out of fear. Instead, as mentioned, we should be focusing on ensuring that we provide better supports on all sides by involving and listening to understand what youth want. In so many cases, decisions are made without the youth. Which is why it’s important for agencies to include peer-to-peer work because it promotes trust and, more important, the needed relationships.

Participating in a workgroup recently on guiding transition age young adults to long-term housing success, I’m amazed by the difference made in having programs that understand (a) the developmental consequences of trauma in the life of a young person; (b) that investing in learning about youth culture and behavior fosters huge gains in a young adult achieving success; and (c) that by comprehending and understanding their perspectives relieves everyone’s anxiety. Unfortunately, we are at a point where we have more homeless youth, regardless of sexual orientation, than dedicated staff. So in addition to focusing on better supports, as a community, perhaps we should be demanding more governmental investment in best practices.

Sassafras, thanks for starting the conversation and I look forward to reading more both here and in the future.

I agree that queer youth should not be forced to reunify with family, and I was pleased to see so many important points raised in this article.

However, we must be specific and thoughtful about how we critique family reunification models, because for communities of color they are much better than the alternative -- which has historically been to tear families apart, and put kids of color into the foster care system at disproportionate rates (compared to white kids) who are much less likely to be taken from their families.

It is a complicated issue, and making the system more sensitive to the needs of our queer kids is crucial -- but it should not come at the expense of tearing down a model which is, overall, much better for families of color.

Because for some of us the real danger for queer kids is/was our birth families. That's why queer/gender variant youth leave our "homes" in such large numbers, we are looking for hope and safety. At least that's why I left home when I was 14. The efforts I took to avoid going back to that place cost me my education, my teeth, and some days my self respect, but going back wasn't something I was going to let happen at any cost. It's over forty years later and we still haven't figured out that queer/gender variant youth leave our "homes" to find something better?