At 13, barely a teenager, Brooklyn Gayle felt more accepted on the streets than in her home.
When she opened up to her foster parents that she was a lesbian they responded with a phone call to her caseworker. Turns out, they didn’t want a gay person living under their roof.
“My parents were afraid I was going to harass my little sister,” says Gayle, who is now 18. “It was a pretty traumatizing experience.”
With no support system and a history of family neglect and sexual abuse, Gayle returned to her starting place: the streets. She slept everywhere from libraries to elevators and was sucked into a cycle of drug abuse.
It wasn’t until Gayle found the Cocoon House, a long-term shelter for homeless youth that she felt she could be herself.
Gayle is among thousands of homeless youth and young adults who are LGBTQ – lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender or queer.
Less than one of 10 youths is LGBTQ, says the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. But that demographic quadruples if you are homeless.
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.
And yet, local shelters report high numbers of youth looking for help after being rejected by their families and friends for their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Studies show that family conflict is the primary reason any youth, straight or gay, is homeless.
But Melinda Giovengo, the Executive Director of YouthCare, a shelter that serves youth and young adults, says that tensions are often more intense for the LGBTQ community. Like Gayle, many feel forced to flee.
“Saying ‘parents are kicking them out’ is sugar coating what’s going on,” says Giovengo. “We’ve seen brutally horrific cases where someone is being victimized at home and dangerously bullied at school for their sexual identity.”
But life on the streets does not always yield better outcomes. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that LGBTQ homeless youth face seven times the likelihood of violence compared to their straight peers and they are about twice as likely to commit suicide.
Giovengo says she sees huge over representation of this population seeking homeless services, but finds that numbers are hard to pin down. She suspects that many hide their sexual orientation based on previous bad experiences.
At the same time Terry Pottmeyer, the CEO of Friends of Youth homeless shelter, suggests that the rising numbers are an indication that more young people are willing to open up about their sexuality and self-describe.
“For decades it was an invisible population,” adds Greg Miller, Lead Case Manager at New Ground Everett, a transitional shelter for young adults. “Because of the courage of youth to come out, now what was invisible is now finally able to be visible.”
Local organizations and agencies are stepping up to serve this community.
The Seattle City Council and the Metropolitan King County Council recently offered more than $100,000 grants to sustain YouthCare’s young adult shelter when it was at risk of shutting down. YouthCare emphasizes targeted outreach – going places the LGBTQ homeless community typically hangs out – and support groups that help with the coming out process.
Giovengo says, “The most important thing is creating a basic safety zone.”
Also, the organization offers the ISIS House, which specifically targets LGBTQ youth. While you do not have to be gay or transgender to stay here, you do have to be accepting of all sexual identities.
The rainbow signs and posters for gay dances on the shelter walls are simple efforts to normalize sexual identity. Gayle says it’s these small things that mean the most: “When I walked into the Cocoon House, I immediately noticed a sign that read ‘All gender and sexual identities accepted.’ It was the first time I felt I could just be gay.”
Shaun Knittel, the Co-Founder and President of Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea), a coalition of LGBTQ and allied persons, says more work can be done. Knittel, who was kicked out of the house at 16 for coming out as gay, finds that a support system is essential to preventing the problem in the first place.
“The key is to get these kids before they give up or before they make a series of bad decisions. Sometimes all they might need is to be listened to,” says Knittel.
SOSea developed a mentoring program called REAL TALK, which gives youth an opportunity to tell their story and learn from mentors who have been faced with similar challenges.
For Gayle’s story, she says it truly began once she got help at the long-term shelter. The hardships simply serve as reminders of how far she has come.
Recently, she had to move out of the Cocoon House. But it had nothing to do with being a lesbian; she was too old for the 18-year-old age limit.
She is temporarily living with a friend in Marysville, working three jobs and getting ready to move into a nearby apartment in January. Now, she is even volunteering at a local homeless shelter.
“I know it’s going to be hard, but I’m going to be successful,” says Gayle with confidence. “I just want to be remembered for something positive.”