When providing services to homeless youth who are also LGBT, it is critical that they are made to feel welcome, said John Parks, a formerly homeless young adult speaking at an open house of AIDS Action Committee’s Youth on Fire March 11.
Parks, 24, said he had become homeless a few years ago when he aged out of foster care. He crashed on the couches of his friends and also stayed in shelters before finding transitional housing. At some shelters, he said, “there’s this sense of ‘watch out for the gay guy in the shower.’” But not at Youth on Fire, which specifically reaches out to LGBT youth, he said. And that makes a huge difference.
The Cambridge-based Youth on Fire is a program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. For 10 years it has been a place where homeless and street-involved youth age 14 to 24 can hang out and get hot meals, clothing, and showers, as well as weekly medical care, mental health counseling, referrals to community resources and prevention information on HIV, STDs, Hepatitis C and other diseases associated with high-risk behavior.
About 30 people attended the open house including State Reps. Alice Wolf and Tim Toomey of Cambridge, and Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung. State Rep. Carl Sciortino of Somerville also attended and after Parks spoke, Sciortino thanked him for sharing his story and said how important it was for LGBT people to speak up.
Last year, Youth on Fire served 625 young adults, up from 350 young adults in 2009 and 250 in 2008, which represents a 250 percent increase in demand for services in just three years. Approximately one quarter of Youth on Fire’s clients in 2010 have attempted suicide; another quarter have had prior involvement with the state Department of Youth and Families as residents of foster or group homes; 42 percent have diagnosed mental health conditions; and 30 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
“Every night in the Boston metro area, hundreds of young adults have no idea where they will spend the night. Some manage to stay with family or friends; some go to shelters, some stay in cars or abandoned buildings, some try to blend in at local colleges and all-night coffee shops, and some stay outside. All experience the stress of an unknown future, and worry about being taken advantage of by older adults,” said John Gatto, Senior Vice President of Programs for AIDS Action Committee. “We know that these young people are much more vulnerable to HIV infection and increased exposure to violence, and that’s why we need additional support and services to ensure that everyone has access to housing. ”