No Home: LGBT groups tackle homelessness and poverty in Charlotte
Updated: January 28, 2017 at 6:45 pm
ENGAGE: Write a letter to the editor | Comment on this story
Chelsea White’s voice cracks. Her passion is palpable. “It can be disheartening as a service provider,” she says. She rattles off examples of housing and income hardships faced by her clients at the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN), an AIDS service organization in Charlotte. There, White sees HIV-positive community members struggling to make ends meet for even the simplest of needs — a home to keep them warm and dry, a safe place to rest their heads at night.
One client, White shares, once found themselves sleeping in a Charlotte laundromat.
“This girl worked hard,” White shares, but it just wasn’t enough to help her find permanent housing of her own. “She would keep her clothes and medicine in a dryer when she left to go to work, so she’d have somewhere to store it. She would come home late at night and all her clothes would be scattered everywhere and her medicine would be opened.”
This particular client was transgender — one of the communities hardest hit by joblessness and, thus, most at risk for income loss and homelessness. Transgender people face an unemployment rate double that of the general population and experience extreme poverty — with annual incomes less than $10,000 — at nearly four times the general rate, according to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
The lack of housing or significant income can wreak havoc on a person’s health and wellbeing, especially if they are HIV-positive or facing some other medical condition. Gay and bisexual men, transgender women and other men who have sex with men remain at among the most elevated risks for HIV infection. When they face sudden or chronic homelessness, basic medical necessities and regimens can take a back seat to more immediate needs for shelter.
Luckily, White’s client did eventually find housing.
“Once you see them get housed, you see a lot of these problems go away,” White says.
But the client still struggles. She didn’t get into an affordable housing program and is paying higher market rates for rent. Still, it’s certainly better than nothing.
LGBT community hit hard
These financial and housing hardships are shared across the LGBT spectrum, though sometimes to varying degrees, according to a November 2014 study, “Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty of Being LGBT in America,” by the Movement Advancement Project. Same-gender families with children are at higher risks of poverty than their married straight counterparts. Black same-gender couples experience poverty at more than double the rate of black opposite-sex couples.
LGBT youth are among the hardest hit, too. Some national studies suggest that as many as 40 percent of the nation’s homeless young people identify as LGBT — with most youth running away from or being kicked out of their homes by parents who have rejected their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Homelessness and poverty are paramount issues for the LGBT community, made even more challenging by a lack of resources and an historic dearth of care, interest or simple awareness by government and social services agencies.
Actionable data is often hard to come by. National and local governments often don’t assess needs specific to an LGBT population. LGBT clients don’t always disclose their identities to service providers.
And even a basic, working definition of what it means “to be homeless” often undercounts (and discounts the needs and experiences of) LGBT people without stable, safe and affordable housing.
Counting the need
Varying classifications and definitions for homelessness — used by a range of government departments, private agencies or program funders — make it hard for local service providers to guarantee assistance for their clients.
“To qualify for some programs, you have to demonstrate chronic homelessness,” says Jaysen Foreman, RAIN’s Empowering Positive Youth peer navigator and senior Affordable Care Act advisor. If a person is living almost anywhere with four walls and a door, they won’t always count.
“We’ve seen people renting a storage room in storage facilities,” he says. “That’s not meant for human existence. But that would not be considered homeless.”
“It makes absolutely no sense to me,” Foreman adds.
The counting of need is exacerbated among youth, who often find themselves couch-surfing or doubling or tripling up in one or two bedroom apartments. They aren’t always considered homeless, either — even if their housing is temporary, often offered on a night-by-night basis.
“At any moment, whoever’s couch or bed they’re sleeping on can put them on the streets. It happens more often than not,” says Foreman.
Sudden loss of housing poses a particular problem for HIV-positive LGBT people. Some HIV/AIDS medications require refrigeration, says Shannon Warren, program director at Carolinas CARE Partnership, another Charlotte AIDS service organization. When someone’s kicked out or simply locked out of their temporary housing, the medicine in the refrigerator or any stored in bags now out of their reach might not be taken with them.
“Being [permanently or safely] housed sees a phenomenal increase in health,” Warren says. “A person’s viral load goes down. They’re more able to stay on their medications.”
Rodney Tucker is executive director of Charlotte’s Time Out Youth Center (TOY), a private agency serving LGBT youth ages 11-20, with some housing and assistance programs serving young people up to age 23.
Tucker’s youth clients aren’t always counted among the government’s homelessness definition, either. Like others, he sees young people calling a couch a bed and a living room their home.
Tucker and others want to change the standard definition for homelessness. They also want local agencies and governments to begin to count LGBT people in their assessments and surveys.
“One of the biggest barriers to creating the right kind of solution, and scaling that solution to solve the problem, is that we don’t know how many youths we’re talking about,” says Jama Shelton, director of Forty to None, a national project of the True Colors Fund aiming to end LGBT youth homelessness.
Some national statistics are based on older surveys and local surveys don’t always count youth. They certainly don’t count LGBT identification.
That’s the case in Charlotte, where city and county officials admit their annual count of the homeless population doesn’t include questions on sexual orientation, reliant on federal guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It’s called the “Point in Time Count,” held annually one night a year. It’s a model used nationally and provides government a snapshot of homelessness and a benchmark for measuring the need year over year.
The survey questions, all of which are optional and self-reported, do ask individuals if they are transgender. Mary Gaertner, of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing, says those specific questions will be expanded further in 2015, asking transgender individuals if they are male-to-female or female-to-male.
But the annual count is limited. In 2014, it found only one homeless person who self-identified as transgender, despite other data and local agencies’ experiences that suggest that number should be higher. The Point in Time Count also doesn’t currently include youth.
Youth face unique needs
Tucker’s agency sees a need that far outstrips what the current data suggests.
In 2014, TOY had 60 inquiries for housing, a 50 percent increase over the year prior. Similarly, access to TOY’s emergency financial assistance also rose 50 percent in 2014, used to help supplement youth’s incomes, buy groceries or assist with down payments for rent or power bills.
Tucker estimates that as many as three-fourths of TOY’s drop-in center clients are low-income. Some face challenges with housing, but many also find themselves with a lack of reliable transportation, support for school needs and sometimes food or clothing.
Youths’ needs are often varied and complicated by a variety of other social factors, like racial or socioeconomic discrimination. Youth from more prosperous schools or neighborhoods served by TOY’s gay-straight alliance network aren’t necessarily the same youth needing emergency assistance.
“The youth who tend to come in the center are the ones with the highest levels of need,” Tucker says. “The majority of clients right at the moment are African-American males.”
James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, sees similar needs formed among racial and wealth gaps in his part of the state. In Raleigh, the divide is geographic.
“It’s interesting to note this is a state-based problem,” Miller says. “When we do see people, they are almost exclusively not from Raleigh or Durham. They’re as far out as Tyrell County, coming essentially from the Outer Banks. We do see a high percentage of poverty, especially coming from outside the Raleigh beltline. It’s a pretty clear delineation between the haves and the have-nots.”
Miller’s agency lacks many of the resources of others. The Raleigh center provides youth programming, but doesn’t offer a host home program. Instead, it works directly with Haven House, with a variety of programs offering housing for homeless or runaway youth as young as 10 years old.
TOY is working with the Forty to None project to better address the issues in Charlotte. He says local officials have been receptive to the idea of adding sexual orientation questions to the annual Point in Time Count and creating a youth-targeted counting event, in advance of HUD guidelines that youth be included in the annual counts by 2016.
Early models have already been tested. In 2013, the True Colors Fund provided funding for an Urban Institute study of youth homelessness counting techniques in nine communities across the country. Winston-Salem was one of them and LGBT-inclusive measures were tested. Counters left their definition of homelessness intentionally vague, so as to capture couch-surfing young people. They also held a youth-targeted event, with games and food. Volunteers and counters wore visibly LGBT-friendly stickers provided by the True Colors Fund and visited places where LGBT youth were known to congregate.
“It wasn’t meant to actually get a count, but it was meant to figure out how best to count young people,” Shelton says. “One thing we know is that adult homelessness is often different than youth homelessness.”
In addition to working toward better youth-targeted data, TOY says it’s also embarking on a six-month needs assessment. Past board members, staffers and funders of the agency have long dreamed of opening an LGBT-inclusive youth shelter or other housing program.
“We’ll take the data from the needs assessment and look at program models and see if the need matches or if there is a need there,” Tucker says.
Right now, youth in need of housing are taken in by volunteer host homes. TOY counts 11 host homes now, but not all youth are eligible for the program — those with prior criminal records or those who were once housed in mental health facilities aren’t placed. The limitations aren’t necessarily self-imposed. One of TOY’s past insurance providers recently dropped the entire organization, citing the host home program, despite its limited scope, as “too much liability.”
An expanded housing program would solve some of those issues and could assist more at-risk youth falling through a current gap in services.
Struggle affects many
City and county officials, along with a coalition of private agencies, businesses and other funders, recently announced an ambitious project they hope will end chronic homelessness in two years.
Local government counts as many as 4,000 homeless people in the area, of which 10 percent are the most vulnerable. That smaller number, though, eats at nearly 50 percent of the resources devoted to homelessness.
The coalition wants to raise $11 million to take them off the street. Their answer is a mix of permanent housing and accompanying supportive services, to help treat some of the factors contributing to longterm homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction among them.
The new project has received praise for its vision, but it won’t be one that adequately serves the temporarily homeless or those struggling financially in other ways. The numbers of those sometimes adversely affected are larger than one might imagine, with the threat of homelessness or financial struggle never far away for a great many families or households in Charlotte.
A federal study released late last year found that just $400 in an unexpected expense could throw the average family into financial hardship, forcing them to borrow money, sell something to cover the cost or simply opt not to pay at all.
Daniel Valdez, advocacy program manager for Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry, calls it asset poverty, and he points to a 2012 study that found 36 percent of Charlotte households, and more than 50 percent for those under the age of 35, lack solid financial security.
“People might have plenty of income, but they can lose that income and don’t always have enough savings to weather a job loss,” Valdez says. “Clients a lot of times have very little safety net when an emergency happens.”
Those emergencies take on various forms. People without sick days, vacation time or who don’t have the ability to work remotely lose income when they are sick. An unexpected auto repair for someone who depends on their own transportation to get to work or care for family. An unexpected trip to the emergency room or the added burden of new prescription medicines.
Each of these emergencies could eat into money already set aside for power bills or rent.
“The average amount of assistance given to families isn’t very high,” Valdez says. “Most families have some money for rent or utilities. They just need some extra to help them get through one month.”
The struggle cuts across the board, affecting LGBT community members as much as non-LGBT community members, Valdez says. In that way, it’s important for the entire community to come together for change.
“One of the things I’ve always talked about when I’m asked to do a talk is that as a community and as non-profits, we can’t work in silos,” Valdez says. “The LGBT community has an interest in making sure that Charlotte as a whole is a community that provides economic mobility and opportunity for people, and community organizations that don’t traditionally serve LGBT community members should understand that there are people in the LGBT community affected by the same issues [they work on]; they need to ask how we engage in getting trained to be sensitive to the needs and being culturally aware of the nuances and unique aspects of the community — like a transgender person or kids being kicked out.”
RAIN’s Foreman believes in collaboration, too. He just wishes there were more of it and he wants government and others to put their money where their mouth is.
“I think it’s saving face in the public’s eyes,” Foreman says of recent project announcements from local government. “The county has been leading us on since the Democratic National Convention about ending homelessness and I have yet to see it. We have a huge epidemic of need in this county and yet we are more worried about the Charlotte Hornets or the Carolina Panthers than its own citizens to some extent.”
Foreman says our community has the resources, but needs a more committed will.
“We have the nation’s second-largest banking capital, a lot of influence and the ability to make good measurable change,” Foreman adds, “but because of politics or whatever, we always refuse to do what’s right for the people who need it.” : :
You can support independent, local LGBT media!
Give a one-time gift or sign up for ongoing voluntary online subscription to support qnotes' nearly three-decade long community service and keep our publication's dynamic, hard-hitting and insightful news and entertainment coverage alive. Click here to support us today.
About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.