Cappy Lindsey catches the blue agate crystal as it falls from her necklace pendant. She bought the crystal with her then-girlfriend on a trip to Omaha because she liked the colors, the 19-year-old shares. We’re seated in a tiny conference room in a Teen Living Programs housing building in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Teen Living Programs is one of a handful of non-profit organizations in Chicago that offer housing and support services for homeless youth, including job training, mental and holistic health care, counseling and life skills development programs.
Lindsey found herself here after her family kicked her out when they learned she was a lesbian.
“I knew how they felt. Most of my family is very religious and they believe it’s wrong and I’m condemning myself,” she says, rubbing her thumb along the crystal in her hands. “To this day, they don’t accept it. They kind of look around it.”
She found support by talking to a therapist. “It’s really hard to keep up this identity when somebody is literally telling you that it’s wrong. With [my therapist], it’s okay to be this way; they understand,” she says.
Time with her therapist, she says, was invaluable. “I would come from the sessions much better because I let all the things that were bothering me out.”
Dealing with issues surrounding coming out as a LGBTQ youth, experiencing homelessness or having mental health issues are challenging on their own, so just imagine the challenge when these three areas overlap. The problem is often compounded by a lack of mental health services for LGBTQ youth.
During their teens and early 20s, many young people are trying to figure out who they are, which can lead to anxiety and depression, says Héctor Torres, PsyD, chief program officer at Center on Halsted, a LGBTQ community center that among many other services provides youth programming, youth behavioral health services and a youth housing initiative.
Being expelled from your home only increases those feelings of anxiety, making it hard to concentrate on anything else, be it schoolwork or a job, he says.
About 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 and 1 in 30 between the ages of 13 and 17 reported some form of homelessness (including couch surfing) over the course of a year, according to the “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America” study by Chapin Hall, a research and policy center at the University of Chicago specializing in children’s issues.
Subpopulations are even more vulnerable. “LGBT youth had a 120 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness,” than non-LGBTQ youth, the study says.
The impact of trauma
There’s a missed opportunity to support a healthy transition to adulthood for LGBTQ youth who are experiencing the stress of housing instability. Providing mental health services to LGBTQ youth shouldn’t be an afterthought or challenging to find, advocates say.
Trauma can add up in many ways, and that trauma can then affect people’s relationships, stability and housing.
It can be overwhelming when everybody has a reaction to who you are and the way you identify, Torres says, adding, “Being kicked out of [your] house can be traumatic. Being picked on or bullied in school increases that trauma. LGBTQ individuals are more prone to sexual violence, harassment and violence at home, too. There are so many factors that can lead to traumatic experience.”
If unaddressed, those traumatic experiences can lead to aggressive behavior, says Jeri Lynch Linas, CEO of Teen Living Programs. When Linas began to notice such behavior in Teen Living’s drop-in programs for homeless youth, she put greater emphasis on cultural competency training for staff, taking the time to really understand the needs of the individuals coming into its programs.
Mental health services can help these teens; however, providers need to counter several hurdles first.
“Most of the adults in their life have abandoned them,” Linas explains. These young people are often reluctant to share with their counselors due to trust issues. Before they even discuss mental health services, Teen Living tries to get them to build a relationship.
The human and community costs
There are both qualitative and quantitative costs associated with turning our backs on LGBTQ youth who need better access to mental health services and affordable housing, Torres says.
Qualitatively, helping this population helps our society, he says.
“When we have individuals who we oppress, who we reject, who we stigmatize, set aside, who don’t have the same benefits that others have, we are splitting our community, we are harming the harmony of our community. It hurts us and it hurts them,” Torres says. “It dehumanizes me if I don’t do anything, and it dehumanizes them because they don’t have the opportunities they deserve.”
Quantitatively, if teens and young adults are not supported, then they may not become part of the workforce of this country. Individuals who could be in the military service, in industry, in schools and in jobs would not get to contribute to the economy, Torres says.
“Homeless individuals are at risk for violence, HIV and STDs,” he adds. “If you prevent that [homelessness], you prevent those costs. Investing in them is an investment in the future.”
The human and monetary cost of providing mental health services and affordable housing is preferable to the cost of incarcerating someone, Linas says.
“If that young person walks out of the drop-in center and/or a low-threshold shelter bed and they are not connected to services, I will guarantee you that they will end up having a run-in with police, get arrested and spend a night or more in the [Cook] County [Jail]. And we know that Cook County Jail is now the biggest mental health care provider in the city of Chicago,” she says.
At Cook County Jail, an estimated one in three inmates has some form of mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails nationally each year.
Preventing youth homelessness
“We have a collective obligation to ensure all young people have a chance to succeed, starting from a young age,” says Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall.
“Intervening and building stability during adolescence and young adulthood for those at highest risk will have lifelong effects,” he says. “As a country, we can look for the missed opportunities in schools, communities and public services to prevent youth homelessness.”
The authors of the Chapin Hall study are hoping it will help leaders develop strategies that address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among specific subpopulations, including those who are pregnant and/or parenting, LGBTQ, African American, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native youth and young people without high school diplomas.
“Our survey looked to give the nation — for the first time — a fuller view of youth homelessness by finding young people who don’t always get counted through systems and community-based efforts,” says Matthew Morton, PhD, a research fellow at Chapin Hall who oversaw the study.
The study’s goal was to provide evidence-based findings so policy can be passed to prevent homelessness. “We know that if we stop youth homelessness early, this prevents deeper homelessness and reduces public costs in the future. With new evidence in hand, Congress can support action,” he says.
Until then, Lindsey wraps the crystal in her hand carefully, after it had fallen from her broken necklace. To her, the blue agate crystal serves as a metaphor. Shortly after she bought it with her girlfriend, she looked up its meaning. “It’s supposed to bring clarity and peace,” she says.
Lindsey feels like everything in her life is falling apart, so why not her necklace, too? Still, talking about being young, LGBTQ and homeless is helping her. She remains optimistic that with the help of her therapist and Teen Living Programs, she can finally find permanent housing, gain support and turn her life around.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.