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Reaching the Unreachable: Connecticut's Homeless Youths

Connecticut’s youth count found nearly 600 young people who meet both the federal and state definitions of homelessness.

Violet Thomas came out as a transgender woman three months before high school graduation in 2013. She found some respite in her guidance counselor’s office, but things went from bad to worse at home.

So Thomas left, and began moving from couch to couch among friends. But she stayed nowhere very long.

Eventually, Thomas moved into her car. It was November. She stayed warm by running the heater for 20 minutes every night, and burrowing under as many blankets as she could find. Sleep was fitful, and when she woke, she’d go in search of a shower, which she didn’t always find.

“Every day you’re homeless drains you a little bit more,” said Thomas. “Every time that you try to pull things together and fix the problems and get back on your feet, and it doesn’t work out, just makes you want to quit.”

Connecticut’s first-ever youth count this year found 585 young people who meet both the federal government’s definition of homelessness, as well as Connecticut’s broader one, which inc ludes people -- like Thomas -- who couch-surf, sleep in cars, abandoned buildings, parks or other places humans don’t normally sleep.

This is a difficult population to count. Homeless young people have been traumatized, hurt by the foster care system, or rejected by family. Staying hidden can seem safe compared to where they’ve been, but staying hidden also puts them at greater risk.

Credit frankiefotografie/iStock / Thinkstock
Homeless trans youths may trade sex for a bed because they view traditional shelter programs as inaccessible or worse.

Advocates and activists can’t help what they can’t see, and youths who are homeless are vulnerable to intravenous drug use, sex with multiple partners, criminal behavior and victimization.

Children or youths who experience homelessness for six months or longer battle the rest of their lives to catch up. They are more likely than their stably-housed peers to grow up to be homeless, or in jail.

And then there is a significant subpopulation that is even more at risk. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that as many as 40 percent of youths who are homeless are, like Thomas,LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex). Families incapable of accepting a lesbian daughter or a trans son will throw that teen or young adult out of the house, so that what used to be called “runaways” are now more accurately known as “throw-aways.”

Part of the risk comes because trans youths don’t tend to seek out services, nor do they sleep outside, or under bridges, said Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors, a non-profit that works with sexual minority youths. Instead, they find someone to take them home. They may trade sex for a bed because they view traditional shelter programs as inaccessible or worse.

“If you are a straight identified youth, there are services you can go to where you can expect that the staff and the other youth won’t be harassing you because of who you are,” said McHaelen. “For LGBT youth -- especially for trans youth -- not only are they worried about how other kids will treat them, they’re worried that the staff won’t protect them, and in fact, may be the perpetrators. Often LGBT youth won’t use the services that exist because they’re not safe.”

Treating vulnerable youths differently because of their orientation or gender identification is illegal, but, says Stacey Violante Cote, director of the Teen Legal Advocacy Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, “it’s been the policy and I don’t know under the law if it’s been challenged.”

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Stacey Violante Cote is the director of the Teen Legal Advocacy Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy.
Connecticut has fewer than 30 beds available for people under age of 18 and in crisis, which Stacey Violante Cote says means significant gaps in services.

Governor Dannel Malloy recently announced that Connecticut has housed every known veteran who is chronically homeless. Advocates say reaching that goal helps fuel their efforts to house other people who are homeless – such as families or unaccompanied youths.

Steve DiLella, director of individual and family support services at the Department of Housing, said public and private partnerships are forming to create a better system but it will take some work. The state has fewer than 30 beds available for people under age of 18 and in crisis. That means significant gaps in services around the state, said Cote, including New London and the northwest part of Connecticut, and just about all less-populated areas in a state that is mostly rural.

For many homeless youths, school is the only portal through which they might connect to services. The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act – amended in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act -- provides funding to help educate homeless students. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Stacey Violante Cote stands in front of the organization's mobile legal van, which provides free legal services and advice to youth who are homeless.

In Connecticut, students who are homeless can attend the school they were attending when they became homeless, and many schools have liaisons to track those students.

In New Haven, every school has a liaison, said Nancy Rodriguez, shelter case manager at New Reach, Inc., who has trained school personnel. Through McKinney-Vento, teachers and school personnel have been taught to watch for students who arrive to school unprepared – no lunch, wrong clothes – which may be more than a sign of a child’s forgetfulness.

Credit New Reach, Inc.
New Reach, Inc.
The Life Haven shelter in New Haven offers emergency shelter for homeless pregnant women and women with young children.

But even well-trained teachers and administrators can miss the signs.

“It’s hard because teachers will have 20 kids in a classroom so some of these things are easy to miss,” said Rodriguez. Listen to her below:

Beyond getting appropriate services, family rejection is the biggest challenge for these kids. Families who reject a child coming out put that child at risk to “everything you can name,” said McHaelen. She encourages young people who have been thrown out of their homes to think of their family members on a spectrum. Angry parents can have a change of heart.

Children and teens whose families have reacted negatively to their orientation suffer the most, but when families are ambivalent, outcomes are nowhere near as negative. That means that “families don’t need to transform themselves – maybe they don’t even have to change their values, but in changing the behaviors they can dramatically reduce the risks these kids take,” said McHaelen. Research from organizations such as the Family Acceptance Project, at San Francisco State University, supports that.

Case in point? Violet Thomas’s relationship with her family is improving. True Colors and The Connection helped her find a Middletown apartment.  She’s training for a job working for a hot line for young people in crisis. Her own experiences make her uniquely qualified for the job.

“Even though you’ve heard it a million times before, it does get better,” Thomas said. “I know that statement loses its meaning after hearing it three or four times, but time heals all wounds. I never imagined I would be in the position I am in now, and sometimes I still can’t believe it.”

If you are a young person living without a stable address in Connecticut – or you know someone who fits that description, there is help, including Speakupteens.org. If youre outside of Connecticut and need help, or know someone who does, try the National Runaway Safeline.

Susan Campbell is a long-time journalist whose work has appeared in The Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, CT Health Investigative Team, The New Haven Register, The Guardian, and other publications.

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