Pride has never been a single battle. The bricks thrown at Stonewall created a ripple effect of change that persists, and grows, and marches on year by year. But in many ways, complacency is among our greatest enemies. With the slow march of progress we’ve seen over the last decades, we may not see the challenges that continue to lead our young people to such a drastic over-representation in street-involved populations.
WHY I STARTED WALKING
Like many of us, I grew up with a belief that those different from me lived in defined identity boxes. Some of those boxes I knew intimately, some I could identify from afar, and others existed solely as a loose collection of ideas and feelings. I had some idea of what the LGBTQ2S+ box must look like. Living in the Golden Triangle, even then, I could hear the celebratory din of Pride in action. I saw scattered rainbows, pink triangles, nods to those in the know that a safe space lay ahead. I heard the news: the legacy of the AIDS crisis, the acts of violence, the calls for equality. It informed one box. In my neighbourhood, it was hard to ignore the box of homelessness: lines outside the Salvation Army, fundraisers, protests, and once more, news of targeted acts of violence. These people occupied their own box within my consciousness, and overlap was never considered.
When I hit the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa’s Downtown Services and Drop-In, a street-front service dedicated to supporting the needs of homeless, unstably housed and impoverished young people, I was greeted by the colours of the rainbow hanging high above the doorway, signaling safe passage to all. What I found inside was a community that embraced the interconnected nature of the homeless and LGBTQ2S+ boxes. It was explained to me: “A quarter to a third of the clients at any given time identify as LGBTQ2S+.”. The young people I found there were not passive passengers to life. We organized. The Rainbow Youth Advisory Committee. Pink Triangle Youth. We filed grant applications, ran summer camps and events, engaged in outreach, and spoke to professionals in every sector to ensure this great discrepancy was acknowledged. And each August, we marched. It was clear: A great injustice had been done to our community, and we would not allow this to go unaddressed.
WHY WE’RE STILL WALKING
Our work is not done. Pride has never been a single battle. The bricks thrown at Stonewall created an outward ripple of change that persists, and grows, and marches on year by year. But in many ways, complacency is among our greatest enemies. With the slow march of progress we’ve seen over the last decades, we may not see the challenges that continue to lead our young people to such a drastic over-representation in street-involved populations.
Despite accounting for 4% of the overall population, LGBTQ2S+ citizens account for 11% of Ottawa’s overall homeless population, with this number increasing substantially in youth-specific populations. Some estimates place rates as high as 1 in 3 homeless young people identifying as LGBTQ2S+. With 20% of Canada’s total homeless population sitting between 13 and 24 years old, the scale of this representation cannot be overstated. Furthermore, it’s widely accepted that estimates on LGBTQ2S+ homelessness fall drastically short, due to invisible homelessness and the safety risks associated with disclosing one’s identity.
Family rejection remains the primary factor contributing to LGBTQ2S+ homelessness. Without the ability to turn to their families of origin, young people are forced to navigate a system that does not support their unique needs.
Metrics associated with health and overall well-being, from finding appropriate medical care to securing employment, become near-impossible feats for a person marginalized by systems built around sexual orientation, gender identity, and housing status. A lack of LGBTQ2S+ specific supports, an uncoordinated and siloed sector, services focused on potentially unsafe reunification efforts, the legacy of a heavily gendered housing and shelter system, and the fear of being outed or harassed at point of contact, prevent individuals from securing the safest possible care in a timely manner. The housing needs of the young LGBTQ2S+ are especially time sensitive when you consider that young people who become housed within two years of their first period of homelessness are far more likely to remain housed in adulthood. By improving and accelerating access to appropriate services, we could be dramatically reducing the number of young LGBTQ2S+ people experiencing homelessness.
WHY WE MUST KEEP WALKING, TOGETHER
Starts With Home endorser, the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, promotes diversity in gender identity, gender expression, and romantic and/or sexual orientation in all its forms on a national level through services in the areas of education, health, and advocacy. They recognize that in order for equal access and representation to be realized, we must work together and acknowledge the shared experiences and struggles of others. Their Vote Local, Vote Queer campaign will serve to further educate the Ottawa community on where these discrepancies to access lie (housing being a key item), and how as a coalition, we can envision a better, more equitable and accessbile system for all. Executive Director Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah compassionately states: “Housing is an issue that affects our communities but also many others. The struggles of queer and trans people who can't find housing they can afford are shared by migrant families who face mass evictions, Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour who are homeless, disabled people alienated by group home bylaws, and by all 12 000 households in Ottawa waiting for affordable housing. We must stand together.”
And so, as we prepare to march this Pride week, consider who may be marching at your side. When the music ends, and the lights dim, where will they go? We must be clear: this is a pivotal time to act. The housing crisis continues to escalate, with a significant increase in the cost of living over the past two years. The impacts of the pandemic continue to weigh heavily on the community service sector. As we fight for the preservation of human rights, key among them remains the right to safety, the right to security, and the right to a place to call home. A safer future for our community, for our young people, for all, starts with home.