Chris* was 14 years old when he mustered up the courage to ask his father a question that had been keeping him awake at night. Chris’ life was forever changed by his simple question—“Do you think it’s normal that I think about boys rather than girls?” The man he looked up to his whole young life hit him across the face and forced him out of his childhood home.
With nowhere to go, Chris moved in with his uncle. After being brutally raped by his uncle, a terrified Chris turned to the streets with his world turned upside down. He slept outside—hidden in a bush in a public park.
Tumbleweed’s Street Outreach Program approached Chris with a bottle of water and compassionate faces and began to provide him with the support and encouragement he needed for his long journey towards self-independence.
Founded in 1976, the Tumbleweed Runaway Program provides services to run-away, homeless, and otherwise at-risk youth and their families. Tumbleweed’s crisis counseling and youth shelter services are available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They operate in Billings—the largest city in Montana with a population of nearly 107,000 people. Youth from outside the Billings area also flee to the Tumbleweed Program, understanding it to be a safe place.
The Tumbleweed Program is currently serving a significant number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth. Last night 90 homeless LGBTQ youth slept outside because they had been “thrown away” by their families. Another 15 youth have been able to find refuge with friends (couch-surfing). Last year, Tumbleweed served over 200 LGBTQ youth who weren’t residing with their legal guardian—homeless, runaway, or thrown away.
These youth know Tumbleweed to be a welcoming and safe haven for them, when all other options have been exhausted. Many have left their homes due to unsafe and abusive conditions, while for others it was too unbearable to live at home once they had come out to their family or guardians.
A national report by The Palette Fund, True Colors Fund, and the Williams Institute found that approximately 40% of all homeless youth or youth at-risk of becoming homeless identify as LGBTQ. This report was the result of conversations with 354 service providers and a survey that reached 381 individuals. According to the survey, the top five reasons that youth who identify as LGBTQ were homeless are (in order of prevalence):
- Ran away because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity;
- Forced out by parents because of sexual orientation or gender identity;
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home;
- Aged out of the foster care system;
- Financial or emotional neglect at home.
For many LGBTQ youth, their lives are hanging in the balance once they become homeless. When Joshua* was 15 years old, his family caught him in his room, trying on a dress and admiring himself in the mirror. Without an explanation he was thrown out of his house, and shunned by his family and church community.
After surviving on the streets for a year and a half, Joshua had enough. He planned to abandon his life-long dream of being a veterinarian, laid down on the railroad tracks and prayed for an oncoming train. Thanks to Tumbleweed, Joshua is still alive and their supportive and compassionate staff members are working closely with him every day to continue down that path.
The startling national and local statistics, coupled with the powerful stories of those being served by the Tumbleweed Program made it imperative that Pride Foundation collaborate with Tumbleweed. Our organizations are partnering together to provide education to Tumbleweed’s board and staff, co-author an Op-Ed about the rising epidemic of homeless LGBTQ youth, and host an educational forum for the Billings community.
Together, we will work to raise awareness and elevate the conversation about this critical issue in Montana. Stay tuned for more information as our partnership with Tumbleweed develops over the next three to four months!
*Pseudonyms were used to protect the individuals’ identities
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s regional development organizer in Montana. Email Kim.