5 Ways Churches Can Care For Homeless LGBTQ Youth

by Rev . Dr. Cody J. Sanders

For progressive churches in the U.S., there is a “sweet spot” of meaningful engagement in LGBTQ justice that many congregations are missing. While we’re celebrating gains in marriage equality and legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and (sometimes, though not as often) transgender people, we often overlook the most pressing need affecting the well-being and livability of life for LGBTQ people in the U.S.: youth homelessness.

Thousands were involved in the recent online outpouring of support for Daniel Pierce, the gay 20-year-old from Georgia who was kicked out of his home by his Christian family after a botched religious “intervention” that ended in violence. Beyond Pierce’s situation, this month’s Rolling Stone article about the rising number of LGBTQ teens relegated to homelessness by their religious families provides rich narratives and hard statistics for anyone questioning the realities faced by LGBTQ youth rejected by their families.

Now it’s time for progressive churches—those with an established commitment to the welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ people—to re-imagine what it means to practice care and work toward justice for LGBTQ people. If this sounds like your community of faith, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1. Connect your commitments for justice.

Since the publication of my book, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow, I’ve been invited to speak to numerous faith communities seeking new ways to live out their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion and justice. When I’m with these congregations—most of which are already welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ people—the question always arises: “Beyond spreading the message of love and unconditional welcome, what else can we do to practice love and justice for LGBTQ people?”

Invariably, when I help dig a little deeper into these congregations’ narratives, we uncover a long history of justice work that typically includes the church’s commitment to addressing issues of economic justice, poverty, and homelessness. When I ask congregations if they’ve considered how their passion for economic justice and their passion for LGBTQ justice might relate, folks get curious. When I go on to explain that, in the U.S., around 4% of the general population identify as LGBT, but the percentage of homeless youth who identify as LGBT is closer to 40% (see Table 1), light bulbs go off.

For churches like these–perhaps churches like yours–there is no need to convince folks to be concerned for homeless LGBTQ youth. It’s just a matter of connecting the dots between their commitments for justice and illuminating the dire situations that exist in their city, calling out for their support.

2. Understand the lived experiences of LGBTQ youth.

If this sounds like your church, there are some very helpful resources available to help you connect the dots and understand the experiences of LGBTQ homeless youth. For social science research on the matter, consult the 2013 report, “Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth,” from the Center for American Progress, or the 2006 report from the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, “An Epidemic of Homelessness.” Or access the many resources provided by the Family Acceptance Project of the San Francisco State University or the Forty to None Project.

Beyond printed narratives and statistics, see the faces and hear the voices of homeless LGBTQ youth in short YouTube videos like, “A Day in Our Shoes,” and, “Kicked Out.”

If your church begins a mission group, a task force, an action committee or whatever configuration of faithful, passionate, engaged workers for justice your congregation pulls together, these resources are invaluable sources of information.

3. Know your community’s resources.

If you assume, like so many do, that the LGBTQ homeless youth in your area can just go to the local homeless shelter and access the support services available to everyone else, think again. While some shelters have developed competency to serve LGBTQ youth, just like in families, churches, and other social institutions, LGBTQ youth often face discrimination and violence in the very places that purport to provide “shelter” for youth in need. If you doubt this, consult the reports linked in the section above. Get to know your region and what LGBTQ youth-specific services exist near your congregation.

For example, if you are in or near New York City, you should know The Ali Forney Center. Near Los Angeles? You should know the Youth Center on Highland. But centers like these aren’t just in “big gay cities” like NYC and L.A. There are probably centers and services closer to you than you think. If you’re in the Southeast, take a look at what’s developing at Lost-n-Found in Atlanta. And even when there are no shelters that provide LGBTQ youth housing, there are places like Sacramento’s Q-Spot Drop-In Center where youth–some homeless, some not–can use a computer, receive tutoring, eat a snack, watch some television, and have a hot shower.

(Click here to check for shelters and resource centers in your state. Also take note of the states without any LGBTQ-specific youth services listed.)

You probably can’t do this alone. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, you probably shouldn’t do this alone. If we want to be truly helpful, we must listen carefully to the voices of those we wish to serve and to those who have gone before us in the work we now endeavor to do.

4. Be strategic.

After you’ve assessed your community and it’s resources, ask: “What does your community most need in order to support the wellbeing and livability of life for LGBTQ youth?”

Maybe there is an LGBTQ youth center nearby. If so, figure out how to support the work they are already doing. Programs to address LGBTQ youth homelessness don’t have the funding and institutional support that other gay rights work (like marriage equality) often receives. So there’s always a need. Most likely, they have a list of supplies your congregation or mission group could provide. (The Ali Forney Center even has an Amazon Wish List.) The best way to find out what is needed is to ask.

But please understand this: many LGBTQ people and some LGBTQ centers are understandably and justifiably wary of churches. Churches are sources of deep pain in the lives of many LGBTQ people. If your desire is to help, you’ll sometimes need to be content with helping in the background with no strings attached, knowing that even if you’re the nicest, friendliest, queer-lovingest congregation on the face of God’s green earth, some LGBTQ people still won’t want to have anything to do with you. And that’s OK.

If your church is in a city hundreds of miles away from the closest place that an LGBTQ youth can find shelter or assistance, perhaps you have the capacity for building community with partner churches and organizations, raising funds, and engaging in strategic planning for founding LGBTQ youth services in your area. Start gathering folks together for conversation about the needs and possibilities: the other open and affirming congregations in your city, the local PFLAG chapter facilitators, the counselors and social workers in your town with an expertise in LGBTQ issues, public school teachers you know who care about LGBTQ kids, the parents of LGBTQ youth in your congregation, the LGBTQ youth in your congregation.

I’ve been a part of several small-to-medium sized congregations that have seen a need in their community and strategically worked to meet it: starting a group home for developmentally delayed adults, running a small and effective men’s addiction recovery residence, hosting weekly banquet-like meals for hundreds of their poor neighbors, annually supplying hundreds of school uniforms for children in their neighborhood, feeding and clothing literally thousands of their city’s poorest residents, and housing homeless men and women in their buildings during the coldest and hottest months of the year.

Congregations know how to strategically and effectively work for justice and increase the wellbeing and livability of life for those in their communities. I guarantee there are LGBTQ youth in your community waiting for you to do something. So…

5. Do something. Now. Please.

Seriously, please don’t wait.

Photo via flickr user kaitlyn tikkun

Comments (1)

Jacqueline White

Rev. Cody–
Rev. Cody–
Really appreciate your call to congregations to get involved in supporting LGBT youth who are experiencing homelessness. I think it’s also important to stress that young people need more than a place to sleep and services–they need someone who believes in them. In other words, relationships with caring and affirming adults. The GLBT Host Home program of Avenues for Homeless Youth in Minneapolis is one model that welcoming congregations might want to consider supporting. Hosts make a commitment to provide a bedroom in their home and mentoring for 6 months to 1 year.
Jacqueline White
Director, Minnesota Host Home Network

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