Attic youth Brianna talks with Lynette Hazelton at the Philly Inquirer about her struggles finding housing as a transgender, LGBTQ+ youth:
It’s been 18 months since she arrived in Philadelphia and Brianna Swan, 20, still isn’t sure if she has found stable housing.
Swan, who uses she/they pronouns, shrugged and slowly pondered the question. “It’s hard to say,” she finally answered.
What she knows is that as a young transgender person, finding an affordable, safe place where she is respected has been a herculean struggle.
And she isn’t alone.
A 2018 University of Chicago study reported that 40% of youth between the ages of 18 and 25 who are experiencing homelessness, at least 3.5 million people, identify as LGBTQ. The rate of LGBTQ youth homelessness is more than double that of non-LGBTQ youth. Those identifying as both LGBTQ and Black or multiracial have the highest rates of homelessness, with transgender youth facing the most severe types of discrimination and trauma.
For unaccompanied LGBTQ youth, familial conflict is a common reason for being unhoused.
“Parents and guardians throw young folks out. It happens more frequently than any of us want to admit,” said Jasper Liem, executive director of The Attic Youth Center which provides support services needed to help LGBTQ youth transition to independent living.
It’s been 30 years since The Attic opened its doors and it has grown into one of the largest community centers in the U.S. committed exclusively to serving LGBTQ youth.
According to Liem, it serves about 40 to 50 youth per day, providing mental health support, basic needs, food, companionship, and supportive housing referrals to organizations like Valley Youth House, which provides supports to youth at risk of homelessness.
“It is a large difficulty in finding permanent housing for trans youth,” said Tatyana Woodward, a trans woman who opened Ark of Safety, the city’s first shelter for LGBTQ people.
“We wanted to house folks 16 and older but in the nine months we’ve been open, we realize that the number of trans youth that are homeless is large.” Woodward said, adding that they recently accepted their youngest resident — a 13 year old, who felt unsupported at home and who was discovered wandering the streets and brought to the shelter.
Swan, who is originally from Louisiana was also raised in a family that didn’t accept them. “When I was 17 my mom found out I was trans. They could accept that I was gay but not trans.”
A University of Chicago study showed that identifying as LGBTQ was associated with significantly higher rates discrimination or stigma, both within and outside the family.
Swan decamped to Texas to live with their grandmother who, despite multiple health issues, was an affirming presence.
“I just had to get away from Louisiana,” Swan said.
Their grandmother’s death left them without a home and their family trauma left them unwilling to go back to Louisiana.
On a whim, they picked Philadelphia and boarded a Greyhound bus North. At the time they had saved $10,000 and it seemed they had enough to live on.
“I didn’t even think about housing insecurity,” they said.
Weary of the bus ride, during which they almost lost all of their belongings and money, they switched to Amtrak in Washington, D.C. and exited 30th Street Station into the reality of no place to stay.
The Office of Homeless Services (OHS) official 2022 Point-In-Time Count, an annual count of sheltered and unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness on a single night in January, tallied 23 unaccompanied youth between the ages of 18 and 24. Eighty percent were African American, and one-third were chronically unhoused.
Swan spent $1,000 on a three-day stay at a Center City luxury hotel and then began the search for affordable accommodations. An opportunity came up to become the fifth roommate in household in West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill area. One of the roommates interviewed Swan, and she lied and said she made $40 per hour. “I didn’t know about wages,” Swan said. But she got a room.
It lasted four months before they were all kicked out and she had to find another place.
Staying at a shelter presents its own dilemma. An individual may be too young to enter a traditional adult shelter, and youth fear triggering child welfare involvement. Adult shelters can be intimidating, unsafe, and lack gender-affirming supports. “They put me in shelters, like really bad shelters.” said Swan, adding that she was constantly misgendered during the experience.
On Woodward’s crowdfunding page, she has raised $13,345 of a $20,000 goal. “We used the money to start up Ark of Safety and if we reach our $20,000 goal, we will use it to start a youth focused shelter.”
“There is no prevention service to prevent homelessness. Why do I have to be in crises in order to get help?” said Ava Campbell, 20, a member of The Attic’s youth leadership group who uses they/them pronouns. Campbell said the only reason housing insecurity has not been a problem is because of a supportive family.
According to Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, in fiscal year 2021, the city gave some form of assistance to approximately 1,700 young adults through the OHS office. The city currently funds 29 separate programs specifically focused on addressing youth homelessness and has 387 dedicated youth beds.
Last October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded a $8,779,924 Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) to Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services to support a range of housing programs including rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and transitional housing. The funds will be invested in innovative housing programs to help young adults ages 18-24 end their experience of homelessness.
“This grant recognizes the unique needs of youth homelessness,” said Liz Hersh, director of OHS. “These are the kinds of investments we need to break intergenerational poverty, and make sure we don’t leave young adults behind.”
If you or an LGBTQ+ youth you know is experiencing housing insecurity, please refer to our list of resources available in Philadelphia.