True Colors: Working to Eliminate LGBT Youth Homelessness

Photo courtesy of the True Colors Fund

Photo courtesy of the True Colors Fund

On stage at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, LGBT advocate Cyndi Lauper sings to a crowd of nearly 3,000 people. Sharing the spotlight are musical stars and celebrities Salt-N-Pepa, 50 Cent, Rob Thomas, Natalie Maine, Hoda Kotb, Perez Hilton, and many others.

Besides a good night, it’s the largest fundraiser of the year for Lauper’s True Colors Fund, a nonprofit that is working to eliminate LGBT youth homelessness, and the success of the Home for the Holidays concert will be helping the cause right here in South Florida.

The True Colors Fund works across the country to help different communities, and this year, they’ve begun work with Covenant House International, which has two shelters in Florida, and a coalition of agencies in Miami, including the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth.

“It’s not about us flying in and being like, ‘We’re going to tell you how to do it!’” said Jama Shelton, the director of the Forty to None Project at the True Colors Fund. “It’s really about getting in there and helping to facilitate something that can organically happen at the community level.”

Shelton personally knows the struggles of being a homeless LGBT youth — when she came out to her parents in the late ‘90s in Mississippi, she was “asked to leave,” she said. From there she couch surfed with friends until she earned enough money for her own apartment, eventually going to graduate school. Working with youth in New York City, she met Carla Silva, who now serves as the executive director of the alliance in Miami.

“She had heard me talk about how there is nothing down here, how much we need to do things for quite a long time,” Silva said of Miami. “There’s a lot of apathy here, but because we’re bringing in someone from the outside, it also is providing a sense of newness and encouragement to get involved.”

A symposium on homeless youth was hosted in Miami this summer, which Shelton participated in. From there, agencies formed seven committees in an effort to eliminate youth homelessness in South Florida, and the True Colors Fund has guided them to create a continuum of care in Miami-Dade County — something that doesn’t currently exist for youngsters.

A major goal Silva would like to accomplish is the research component of their mission. A large part of the problem with youth homelessness is that no one really knows how many there are, leading to the excuse that there is no problem in the first place. Shelton said that many of the surveys statistics they’re working with — 1.6 million unaccompanied youth are homeless each year — date back to the ‘90s. While agencies have been counting homeless adults for years now, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) didn’t require youth counts until 2014.

“There’s an effort to have communities count the number of young people experiencing youth homelessness,” Shelton said. “It is one piece of the puzzle in terms of getting the data that we need.”

Obtaining these numbers is the hard part. Youth congregate differently than adults and agencies have different ways of counting youth homelessness. For example, kids under 18 living at the Miami Bridge, a youth shelter, are considered to be living in congregate care, Silva said. Also, runaways in foster care are not included and children with their parents are counted differently as well.

Nine cities across the country, including Miami, participated in the pilot youth count in 2013, and participants found these impediments. The next count is taking place in January 2015 and a new strategy is to conduct the normally one-night event over a week. Also, since many youth find access to computers, smart phones, and other Internet sources, surveys will be available online.

They will also get creative in their wording — rather than asking if someone is homeless, they’ll ask how many places they’ve been in the last month and if they know where they’ll be staying in two weeks. Many think of being homeless as sleeping on a park bench, which is not typically how youth congregate.

“What makes it difficult to get a count of young people is that a lot of young people don’t consider themselves to be homeless,” Shelton said. “It’s about the physical space, but also the connection to family and the support and stability that those things allow someone to have.”

Local business leaders participate in Covenant House Florida’s Executive Sleep Out on Nov. 20 in Fort Lauderdale. They slept outside for a night to experience what it is like for homeless youth, raising awareness to the cause.

Local business leaders participate in Covenant House Florida’s Executive Sleep Out on Nov. 20 in Fort Lauderdale. They slept outside for a night to experience what it is like for homeless youth, raising awareness to the cause.

A brand new project that True Colors has taken on with reaches in South Florida is teaming up with Covenant House International, which runs crisis shelters for runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth in 27 cities in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The goal is to help the shelters be better prepared to help LGBT youth as they have disproportionately higher numbers of homelessness (Shelton’s program at True Colors, the Forty to None Project, is based on the statistic that roughly 40 percent of young homeless people identify as LGBT).

Jim Gress, the executive director of Covenant House Florida, said that Fort Lauderdale’s shelter sees about 70 youth a day and 30 in Orlando. Most are 18 to 19 years old and are split down the middle by gender. At intake, they’re simply asked how old they are and why they came to Covenant House — for those who are LGBT, coming out to their parents plays a part in their homelessness. There is currently no LGBT-specific programming, and all youth are encouraged to participate in the different programs. Many youth are closed off when they first arrive, including about being gay.

“We assume a level of closedness when you first come here, because they come from some trauma,” Gress said. “I don’t expect that they’re going to know whether or not this is OK until they’re here for a little bit.”

Currently, the True Colors Fund and Covenant House International are in the beginning phases, but all executive directors have been given an inclusion assessment tool to look at. Gress is already seeing some good ideas, such as putting up LGBT-friendly signage to be more obvious to LGBT youth that they are welcome.

“It was one of the things that sort of jumped out at me,” he said. “This is really easy and this is something we don’t need to go through an in depth assessment and self examination.”

“I’m hoping that the assessment will help us to really look more closely at the specific kinds of needs and issues that LGBT youth need that we may not be particularly sensitive to,” Gress said. “We’re inquisitive, we’re eager to get started on this and to improve how we do the work that we do.”

The first weeklong iCount for homeless youth in Miami is taking place Jan. 22 to 28, 2015. To learn more about it or to find out how to help the cause, visit


The Facts

There are approximately 1.3 million homeless youth on any given night living in the streets, in abandoned buildings, or crashing with friends and strangers (The National Runaway Switchboard)

While 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population identify as LGBT, up to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force)

LGBT homeless youth are more likely to experience physical and sexual assault than their straight peers. They are also twice as likely to attempt suicide (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

One in three LGBT homeless youth have been the victim of a hate crime (Center for American Progress)


Story originally published in South Florida Gay News.

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