Local organizations take on LGBTQ homelessness in these uncertain times

Floridians are no strangers to the issue of homelessness. If they are not experiencing it themselves, they have probably seen someone who is experiencing it out on the street on a daily basis.

Florida ranks third in the nation for the highest population of homeless people, a 2018 report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness says. That same report states that approximately 5.6% of the 552,830 people experiencing homelessness on any given night that year lived in Florida.

The issue has also greatly impacted the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ youth, who are more vulnerable due to them running away from or being driven out of homes that are not accepting of their identities.

Larry Biddle, who has recently retired, worked with nonprofits at PlanningWorks, LLC in Tampa Bay for more than 20 years and worked with Family Resources in St. Petersburg to complete research on homeless youth in Pinellas County.

“I think all problems with homelessness are awful, but I think they’re more acutely awful for LGBTQ kids because it’s an added opportunity for them to feel further alienated than they would otherwise,” Biddle says.

Biddle says that one of the biggest issues for homeless LGBTQ youth in Pinellas County was a lack of funding for shelters and other services that they need.

“Without the services, these kids end up sleeping at beaches and are very much targets for human traffickers,” he says. “So this is a very big problem because these young people are immensely vulnerable to someone who comes along and says ‘I know you don’t have any food and don’t have any money, but I can help you,’ ‘Come with me,’ and all that stuff. They get into that net. It’s a huge problem that’s barely being addressed at all by anybody.”

Communities in Florida have begun to take steps to try to decrease LGBTQ homelessness and to limit the struggles that they experience within homeless shelters.

The OneOrlando Alliance, which is a coalition of LGBTQ-serving organizations in the Orlando area formed days after the Pulse tragedy, is starting an initiative to do exactly that.

“When the Alliance was first formed, we really set out to look at reshaping the future of Central Florida and making it a more safe and inclusive place for all LGBTQ people,” says Jennifer Foster, the organization’s executive director. “So we said collectively, ‘What are the top issues that we could really focus on, what are the root causes, to really try to make some significant change?’”

Every year since 2017, the OneOrlando Alliance has published an Alliance Agenda listing the top 10 issues the local LGBTQ community is facing. Homelessness was a big issue on the agenda, so they decided to start with that.

“That was one of the very first initiatives that I dug into when I took this role [of executive director] because as long as the most vulnerable among us aren’t protected, it’s tough to really focus on doing things like making an economic impact and other things that we’re interested in doing,” Foster says.

“We really wanted to start with, ‘Who has it the worst in our community?’ and by making sure that people who are experiencing homelessness have access and can go to the same service providers in the community that everybody else can; that they feel safe and included.”

The Alliance created a task force of representatives from six member organizations that are focused on tackling the issue of homelessness. Each organization has an area of expertise to contribute to the initiative.

The first organization, Zebra Coalition, is dedicated to helping LGBTQ people ages 13-24 struggling with bullying, homelessness, abuse and isolation from their families. They provide housing, mental health services, community events and more.

Next is Bliss Cares, an organization that provides immediate care for anyone who is worried they have a sexually transmitted disease.

The Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association provides volunteer attorneys to take cases for people who cannot afford one.

Also part of the task force is the LGBT+ Center Orlando, a center for the Orlando LGBTQ community whose mission is to empower those it serves through “information, education, advocacy and support.”

Family Equality is dedicated to the advancement of equality for LGBTQ families, focusing on both family support and family building.
Rounding out the task force is Florida’s largest civil rights organization, Equality Florida.

In addition to these six, there are also a few members of the LGBTQ community who have experienced homelessness themselves who have joined the task force.

“What happened in the past was that just one organization would be trying to do this work on their own,” Foster says. “They wouldn’t be able to have as big of an impact as they would by having the alliance lead it, by being able to go in collectively as a group. There’s power in numbers so we can kind of go in [together.]

“The Alliance has a certain amount of respect in the community because they know that we bring in experts to really look at issues,” she continues. “So it’s a much more effective approach than anything we’ve done as a community before.”

According to Foster, 35% of Central Florida’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, so the OneOrlando Alliance is especially committed to making sure LGBTQ youth homelessness is being addressed.

True Colors United found in its research that while about 7% of young people in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, 40% of youth experiencing homelessness in the U.S. are LGBTQ.

“We’re looking at it holistically because homelessness is really a symptom to a problem. It’s not the problem itself,” Foster shares. “It’s a symptom of a lack of inclusion in society, in the workplace and in people’s families, when it comes to youth usually. If we can treat the root cause, which is inclusion, then we hope to see homelessness decrease here in Central Florida in a couple years.”

The OneOrlando Alliance’s initiative is centered around getting more funding both for shelters and for preventing homelessness as well as holding cultural competency training sessions for the employees of homeless shelters.

Low funding and a lack of services are a big issue both locally and nationally. Biddle says those were some of the biggest issues he found while doing his research in Pinellas County, as there is “virtually no funding” from the city or state to create programs to help homeless LGBTQ youth.

According to Biddle, in Pinellas County alone there are approximately 800 to 1,000 young people who are homeless at any point in time. There are likely even more, he notes, as those figures came from just the homeless youth who were willing to fill out the questionnaires they were given.

“The problem is that the funding is so sparse that there are only a few beds in comparison to the need for these kids,” Biddle says.

In the Central Florida area, the OneOrlando Alliance has had a bit more luck with funding. Though they are still looking for more grants, they did receive a grant from the City of Orlando to help fund their cultural competency training.

The cultural competency training consists of a series of lessons from representatives of OneOrlando Alliance member organizations on topics such as policies and procedures, state and federal regulations and LGBTQ terminology.

These lessons are followed by a question and answer session. Foster says that the questions varied from very base-level questions on LGBTQ terms to deeper questions, showing that the shelter employees’ backgrounds and knowledge of the LGBTQ community were very different from person to person.

In May 2019, the OneOrlando Alliance provided training for about 100 homeless shelter employees. Unfortunately, some of the federal protections for transgender people that had been taught in the training were rolled back as soon as the next day, but Foster says the training was still valuable and effective.

“That was a pretty big blow to our community in general,” she says. “But the nice thing was we were able to have all those people in there. We were able to have those conversations and really talk with them about why it’s important to treat everyone equally, why it’s important to have inclusive shelter environments and how to keep everybody safe.”

This cultural competency training is being done all over the country not only to educate homeless shelter employees on the LGBTQ community, but to increase acceptance and inclusion in these facilities.

Through his work in Pinellas County, Biddle found that it can be harder to identify younger LGBTQ people in homeless shelters, which can be a positive as it makes them less of a target.

“It is very difficult and sometimes impossible unless it’s something that is volunteered by someone to know whether they’re LGBTQ or not,” Biddle says. “As you know, today, that is less of a tag that [young people] use, so it makes it even more difficult. But that’s OK.”

Transgender and other gender-diverse people are frequently not as fortunate. The National Center for Transgender Equality found that one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

Transgender people are also much more likely to be turned away from homeless shelters or housed with the incorrect gender. Foster says the OneOrlando Alliance is also focusing its efforts on the inclusion of the gender-diverse people experiencing homelessness, as many facilities are not set up with them in mind.

“It’s easier for a cisgender, perhaps gay man or lesbian to go to a facility and fly under the radar than it is for a transgender individual. That’s not something that we want to be happening,” Foster says. “We want everybody to be able to identify as their true, authentic self when they go to spaces.”

Besides cultural competency training, the OneOrlando Alliance is also focused on working with other organizations to help them achieve their goals. For their LGBTQ homelessness initiative, the Alliance’s task force has been meeting and working with organizations like the Salvation Army.

The task force members sit down with Salvation Army leadership to discuss any problems they might be having and offer guidance.

“This issue is not going to be fixed overnight,” Foster says. “It didn’t happen overnight, so it’s not going to be solved overnight. But the more we can strengthen the relationships with these organizations that are providing services in our community, the better it is for our LGBTQ population.”

Foster also says that strengthening these relationships can help the community on an individual level, so if someone who is homeless and LGBTQ reaches out to the Alliance, they know how to connect them to an organization that might be able to help them.

Because the Salvation Army has its roots in religion, it has had controversies in the past regarding their treatment of LGBTQ individuals, such as a spokesman calling same-sex relationships “sinful” in 2012 or claims of several facilities turning away or mistreating transgender people.

In recent years, the organization has added an “LGBT Support” section to their website, vowing to serve everyone with no discrimination.

Foster says that though she can’t speak for the rest of the country, the Salvation Army in Central Florida has been nothing but helpful in their collective fight against homelessness.

“I think that we have to meet people where they’re at,” Foster says.

“The Salvation Army in Central Florida is showing every intention and has been over the past year that we’ve been working with them to be fully inclusive,” she continues. “We are delighted to work with them, to partner with them and to help them grow and help them become a safer and inclusive environment for all people. That’s what they’re committed to and that’s what they want.”
Despite all these efforts, the current COVID-19 outbreak has not only slowed the OneOrlando Alliance’s LGBTQ homelessness battle but has created uncertainty for homeless people around the world.

With multiple beds in every room and many large communal areas, the vast majority of homeless shelters are neither designed nor equipped for a pandemic.

“I would imagine that the last thing [homeless youth are] going to be thinking about is what they have to do to be careful to not get this virus when they’re so desperate for something to eat and a place to sleep,” Biddle says. “The choices are so limited that it makes it, I think, very possible to be more vulnerable.”

The National LGBT Cancer Network published a letter that was signed by more than 100 national organizations stating that the LGBTQ community could be more vulnerable to the virus as well.
They cited a higher population of smokers and people with HIV as well as healthcare discrimination and barriers as reasons why.

Foster says the virus could make even more trouble for homeless LGBTQ youth in Central Florida because there are only eight beds in the region specifically for LGBTQ youth and many people that will be looking for shelter.

“Our biggest focus right now is making sure that people are safe and that they have the services that they need,” she says. “When it comes to homelessness, the shelters are already overrun and there’s a lack of space, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ+ youth.

“Our focus is going to be trying to help people first stay housed if they are housed, and keep them safe,” she continues. “Then, if they do need to go to a shelter, working with those shelters to make sure that there’s a space for them and that they’re fully included when they are in those spaces.”

Despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19, Foster is hopeful that the OneOrlando Alliance’s initiative will make clear and positive change.

“Our shelters today are in a much better place than they were one year ago in terms of being inclusive and being safe spaces for people in the LGBTQ+ community to go,” Foster says. “So I think the problem’s getting worse, but fortunately our shelters are more competent and able to be inclusive of our community.”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that on any given night, there are more than 31,000 homeless people in Florida, with more than 8,000 of them in the Central Florida and Tampa Bay areas alone.

Of all these people, only 56% are currently sheltered.

With the current health and political climate, both Foster and Biddle agree that homelessness in Florida is getting worse. They also agree that the OneOrlando Alliance’s initiative is a step in the right direction.

“A lot of the kids that are homeless are not local. They come from other parts of the state where they were stigmatized and not cared for,” Biddle says. “So I think it’s a wonderful thing and maybe [the OneOrlando Alliance] can come up with a model that can be used by the rest of the state.

“I think that organizations that could potentially serve them are not collaborating at all,” he continues. “We discovered that here in Pinellas. So I think a collaboration of a number of organizations working together would be a wonderful idea.”

“I’m sure that in the next five years, the impact of the work that we’re doing now, we’re going to see it translate in big ways,” Foster says. “Right now we’re seeing it in small ways and it’s good that we’re seeing it, but I believe we’re going to see that affect the numbers within the next few years.”

For more information about the OneOrlando Alliance’s member organizations and to donate to their efforts, visit OneOrlandoAlliance.org.

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