Doctors looked Alex in the eyes and explained that depression and anxiety were just passing phases. Teachers dismissed Alex as an overly emotional teen. Even a desperate suicide note to Alex’s high school English teacher was chalked up as insincere dramatics.
“I felt like I was crying for help my whole life,” said Alex, who still remembers the shame, frustration, and loneliness of sitting outside the principal’s office day after day for what teachers called inappropriate behavior. “But I felt like no one was willing to help me. I felt like no one was listening.”
That changed last fall when Alex walked on stage and spoke to attendees of the first-ever Summit on Youth Homelessness in Montana, an audience that included Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Homeless since dropping out of high school as a junior, Alex was overwhelmed by the response. “Finally, someone was listening. Finally, I was being heard.”
“People were actually asking me for policy and program recommendations to implement. We, the other LGBTQ youth and me, were the experts.”
The conference—sponsored by Pride Foundation, the Poverello Center, and Pride Foundation grantee, Empower Montana—brought together educators, non-profit leaders, politicians, and LGBTQ youth and young adults experiencing homelessness to address a tragic and too often overlooked problem: the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth and youth of color among the state’s homeless population. Officials estimate that more than 3,000 children in Montana are currently homeless, and national data tells us that approximately 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ.
Alex told Summit attendees about the lack of resources available to unstably housed LGBTQ youth in the state and the lack of knowledge among youth about what resources are available—particularly LGBTQ-friendly resources.
Alex shared the heartbreak LGBTQ teens feel when they survey the landscape and see no friendly faces or welcoming places. This is even the case in urban areas like Missoula, where Alex lived when becoming homeless.
The Summit prompted the creation of a task force that is working to remove legal barriers that undermine efforts to help at-risk youth. For example, under current state law, parental consent is required to provide programming and services to youth. For many young people, this law is not a problem. But for LGBTQ youth like Alex whose housing instability is rooted in strained parental relationships, this law can mean the difference between sleeping in a safe space, and sleeping on the street.
The Summit also helped create a stronger network of organizations to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, with Empower Montana and Pride Foundation acting as hubs.
“People wanted to help, but they didn’t know how,” said Alex, now 22 and in stable housing which offers the opportunity to engage in a favorite hobby—cooking.
“Now, finally, I am seeing the start of something really great.”
Kim Leighton is the Regional Philanthropy Officer in Montana.
Interested in reading more stories about the LGBTQ community in the Northwest? Read more from the 2016-2017 Gratitude Report.