MassEquality Testimony Before Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities on Homeless Youth Bill

July 16, 2013
 
Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities
Room 146
Statehouse
Boston, MA  02133
 
Dear Chairman Barrett and Chairwoman Khan
 
My name is Carly Burton and I am the Deputy Director of MassEquality, the statewide grassroots advocacy organization working to ensure that everyone in Massachusetts is free from discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you in support of House bill 135 An Act Providing Housing and Support Services for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth, which is a priority of Mass Equality’s this legislative session.  On behalf of the 200,000 members of MassEquality and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community throughout the Commonwealth, we respectfully ask you to report this bill out favorably. 
 
MassEquality is an active member of the Special Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth, and I serve as the chair of its LGBTQ working group.  The Special Commission, formed last year by legislative mandate, recently released its first report with recommendations about how to tackle some of the unique challenges faced by unaccompanied homeless youth.  House bill 135 would provide a statutory underpinning for the work that the Commission has accomplished, including defining what is meant by the term “unaccompanied homeless youth” as well as focusing on some of the most vulnerable groups in this population, including those under age 18 and those who are LGBT.  
 
As many of you know, up to 40% of unaccompanied homeless youth identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.  For many of them, when they come out to their parents or guardians, they are kicked out of their homes.   Others may be homeless due to socioeconomic or environmental reasons like hurricane Sandy.  Some are able to find shelter on the couches of friends. Some find themselves in shelters or foster homes that can sometimes be worse than where they came from.   Others are forced to be on the street.  
 
These LGBTQ youth face many of the same challenges that any homeless young person encounters, including risk of victimization, mental health issues, substance abuse, vulnerability to victimization, lack of access to safe shelter beds, lack of access to transportation, and lack of educational and employment programs.  For this population, though, these risks are exacerbated by anti-LGBT discrimination, fear of being forced “back into the closet”, and a lack of culturally competent programs, services and staff that can effectively work with this population.  In some cases, shelter staff may deny services to a young person if they feel that person is in danger because of the other clients.  Or perhaps a young person denies his/her true identity leading to mental anguish.  In other cases, the young person turns to substances to self-medicate or survival sex; trading sex for food and shelter.  For transgender young people specifically, the challenges can be even greater.  Fear of discrimination based on gender identity, especially in shelters is considerable.  Likewise, not having identity documents that match one’s gender identity or appearance and a lack of access to medical treatment are other reasons that life can be particularly challenging for homeless young people who are transgender.   
 
Massachusetts made history with the creation of the nation’s first statewide commission on unaccompanied youth homelessness and showed an understanding of the challenges facing these young people. The Commonwealth now has the opportunity to take the logical next step and continue its support of this vulnerable population and its leadership on this issue among states in the nation.  This legislation would allow EOHHS to provide a variety of wraparound services to this population to help them become housed and to reach their potential in completing educational programs or gaining employment.  I spoke with one provider who said that there are even small things that these young people need including access to T passes, identification and showers.  Those things would eliminate some of the challenges that they face in getting to educational and employment programs that would help them get back on their feet.  This would also help to ensure that young people from outside of Greater Boston are able to get services as well, hopefully in the communities in which they live.  
 
We respectfully request that you favorably report out H. 135 An Act Providing Housing and Support Services for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth.   Massachusetts has already shown a commitment to the unaccompanied homeless youth in our state as well as to the LGBT youth in our state.  Reporting this bill out favorably would continue that commitment and show our young people that the state is engaged in supporting their health, well-being, and safety.  
 
Thank you for your consideration.
 
Sincerely,
 
Carly Burton
Deputy Director, MassEquality