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Diversity & Inclusion
June 9, 2020

‘Ending homelessness among LGBTQ youth requires structural change’

Viewpoints: LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, writes True Colors United Executive Director and CEO Gregory Lewis.

Gregory Lewis
Gregory Lewis is the executive director and CEO of True Colors United.
Gregory Lewis
Diversity & Inclusion
June 9, 2020

‘Ending homelessness among LGBTQ youth requires structural change’

Viewpoints: LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, writes True Colors United Executive Director and CEO Gregory Lewis.

Our monthly Viewpoints series invites guest authors from outside of Wells Fargo to share an important perspective related to their work. Today, we welcome Gregory Lewis, executive director and CEO of True Colors United.

Many point to the demonstrations at New York City’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969 as the spark that ignited the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning or queer equality in the United States. What often goes unspoken is the fact that many of those demonstrators were experiencing homelessness or housing instability. Our movement was born out of the actions and advocacy of LGBTQ young people living on the street or sleeping on a friend’s couch or floor who saw the Stonewall Inn as one of the only safe places they knew.

Cyndi Lauper holds a sign that says,
Cyndi Lauper is the co-founder of True Colors United.
Photo: True Colors United

True Colors United believes that LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are also the leaders we need today — and that the keys to end youth homelessness are in the hands of those who have experienced it. We celebrate and amplify the inherent strength inside every LGBTQ young person and collaborate with young people, service providers, and elected leaders to ensure that our communities are equipped with the tools to support them. We are ensuring that LGBTQ youth get the help they need by making sure that services are safe, inclusive, and welcoming, and that the rest of us — that’s everybody — do our part.

The True Colors United story begins, of all places, on a tour bus. In 2007, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour, initially a fundraiser, introduced us to incredible people doing work all across the U.S. After traveling the country with Cyndi and her manager, Lisa Barbaris, we committed ourselves to serving as a unifying innovator to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. Over the past 12 years, we’ve learned a lot about what LGBTQ youth homelessness looks like and who it affects.

Youth homelessness is one of the biggest LGBTQ human rights issues of our time, with 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identifying as LGBTQ. In America, LGBTQ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their straight and cisgender peers, for a variety of interconnected reasons, including poverty; family conflict; overrepresentation in foster care and juvenile legal systems; and structural oppression, like racism, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. We know that LGBTQ youth experience homelessness for longer periods than their non-LGBTQ peers do. In addition, we know that transgender youth are at especially high risk and face unique types of discrimination and trauma while experiencing homelessness.

Especially during the COVID-19 health crisis, our society is indebted to the brave service providers working to ensure that young people have a safe place to sleep. Every year, True Colors United trains thousands of staff from hundreds of homelessness service providers across the country. Too often, LGBTQ young people are unable to get the help they need due to fear of discrimination. Our online Learning Community is helping service providers develop new skills for serving LGBTQ young people. We’re proud to partner with Wells Fargo, who makes this work possible as lead supporter of the Learning Community. By supplying service providers with free training and resources, we’re making services safer and more welcoming for LGBTQ youth, which in turn makes it easier for them to get the care they need.

A large group of people march in a Pride parade carrying rainbow flags and a banner that says, 'You're empowerful.'
Wells Fargo employees celebrate Pride during a parade in San Francisco in June 2019.

It goes without saying that this work is more important than ever. Some political leaders are working to roll back a number of policies designed to protect the safety of LGBTQ adults and youth experiencing homelessness. Essentially, these policy changes could make it OK for homelessness services to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, and religion. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to shape a new reality throughout the U.S., LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to this type of discrimination.

That's why we’re taking every action we can — legal, legislative, and beyond — to ensure the federal government upholds its duty to protect the most vulnerable among us, especially with regard to our youth. By abdicating its responsibility to protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in accessing critical programs, the federal government commits a grave violation against the people it exists to serve.

This crisis in federal leadership only strengthens the critical need for state and local action. That’s why, this year, we’re working to put advocacy tools into the hands of the people. Our annual State Index on Youth Homelessness, recently updated for 2020, provides a snapshot of the legal, systemic, and environmental barriers youth experiencing homelessness face in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Published in partnership with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the Index offers state-specific recommendations for local leaders, advocates, and young people to advance in their states, while providing practical advice for new advocates and activists.

A graphic reads, 'Together, we're making sure that every LGBTQ young person that enters their doors is treated with dignity and able to get the help they need. And this is just the beginning of our global work.'

Young people across the country are indeed leading this movement to end homelessness among LGBTQ youth. The National Youth Forum on Homelessness, which True Colors United facilitates, is the only national youth homelessness advocacy group led entirely by young people who have experienced homelessness and are dedicated to influencing policy and programs that impact youth currently experiencing homelessness. Forum members use research, data, and the wisdom of their own personal experiences to assess the effectiveness of youth homelessness services and advocate for changes in the practices of local programs, as well as policies affecting youth at the local, state, and federal level.

Ending homelessness among LGBTQ youth requires structural change on a global level. Sadly, the research we’re doing in Europe mirrors what we know to be true in North America — that LGBTQ young people are highly likely to experience homelessness, and programs are not equipped to meet their unique needs. Over the past few years, we’ve been working hard to train communities across Europe and partnering with leading European organizations to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ youth across the continent. We’ve also expanded our work into Central America, where we’re working closely with Casa Alianza — Covenant House’s Latin American branch and part of the largest network of homelessness services in North America. Together, we’re making sure that every LGBTQ young person that enters their doors is treated with dignity and able to get the help they need. And this is just the beginning of our global work.

While Pride parades and celebrations will be mostly virtual this year due to COVID-19, Pride Month is far from canceled. If anything, 2020 Pride is a return to form — a true call to action. Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Make a donation to help grow our work.
  • Take action by contacting your congressional representative to ensure youth experiencing homelessness are not left out of the federal response to COVID-19.
  • Look up what your state is doing to end youth homelessness.
  • Join our social media channels:
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