STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

For LGBTQ youth, homelessness is a big problem

Kyle Norris
Youth at the Ruth Ellis Center voguing

Dan Savage and Terry Miller created the It Gets Better Project to keep LGBTQ youth from committing suicide, and lives have probably been saved. But, not all of the rejection LGBTQ youth face comes from classmates; sometimes the rejection comes from family members and this can mean these kids are out on the street.

One of the most serious issues facing LGBTQ youth is homelessness. A recent survey by The Palette Fund, the True Colors Fund, and the Williams Institute found that 40 percent of homeless youth are also gay.

For many LGBTQ youth, homelessness is a means of preserving their emotional and physical well-being. Nearly half of the homeless LGTBQ youth who took the survey said they ran away from home because of their family's rejection. Thirty percent reported some type of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as the primary reason for their homelessness. 

Michigan Radio's Kyle Norris recently visited The Ruth Ellis Center, a center for at-risk and homeless LGBTQ youth in Highland Park, to learn more about the local face of this issue. While there, Norris learned these kids have to take a lot of risks to make money. Nearly 40 percent of the youth entering the Center say they have contracted HIV. More than half say they have engaged in sex work.

But Norris also learned the youth at the Center have found a way to channel the frustration, despair, and loneliness that can come from being homeless or at-risk into something positive. It's called voguing. Created by poor and working class blacks and Latinos in New York City during the sixties and seventies, the youth at the Center say the dance provides an avenue for self-expression.

Voguing is about more than just self-expression, it also provides youth with a group of people they can rely on unconditionally - a family of sorts.

According to the youth Norris spoke to, many youth at the Center form houses to compete in voguing contests or 'balls'. A house usually consists of a mother, father, and children. In some cases, houses will adopt the mother or father's last name as the team moniker, too. When members of these houses become especially close, they turn into a family. They look out for each other. They live together. They give each other advice and support that goes beyond gay life.

Voguing isn't a permanent solution in reducing the number of LGBTQ homeless youth, but for many it makes the situation easier. Through voguing and community outreach centers, older community members have found ways to offer their support and guidance to LGBTQ youth.

But 40 percent of homeless youth are also gay, meaning the situation isn't just a 'gay problem'. It's a larger one that requires the attention of not just the gay community, but larger society as well.

The It Gets Better Project has garnered national attention. It even won the Governor's Award at the 2012 Creative Arts Emmys for "strategically, creatively and powerfully utilizing the media to educate and inspire". But will that education and inspiration lead to a collective effort to combat homelessness within the LGBTQ community? Only time will tell.

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