Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer

Autumn Davis found herself in an impossible situation a few years ago. She was new to Charlotte and new to motherhood — and after coming out as a lesbian, she nearly lost everything.

She was forced to leave the home she shared with her partner, moved in with a roommate who later got them evicted, entered a relationship with someone who would be abusive and ended up at a women’s shelter with nowhere to go.

“I was in a very dark place,” she said. “It was frustrating, it was sad. It was just a lot of emotions going on. I didn’t know any resources that could help me.”

That’s when Davis got connected with local housing organizations and heard about On Ramp, run by The Relatives, a local youth crisis center.

“That was kind of a light for me,” the 23-year-old said.

The Relatives recently kicked off construction for a new center to expand its On Ramp program, a drop-in facility for young adults. The center has served a fast-growing number of LGBTQ+ youth, and advocates say the need is greater than ever.

People of color who identify as LGBTQ+ are at the highest risk, and advocates say LGBTQ+ youth are often overlooked in Charlotte’s houseless community. (Advocates have increasingly adopted the term “houseless” instead of “homeless,” which carries a stigma. For many people living in unstable housing situations, “home” is more than a house and can refer to the community and connections created by those who live without housing.)

For young LGBTQ+ people, a number of factors contribute to being without shelter — some are abandoned by their family after coming out, some face mental health challenges and stigmas, and may have trouble finding employment. Charlotte’s skyrocketing cost of living and housing, too, contributes to displacement.

LGBTQ+ YOUTH AT RISK

In conversations about Charlotte housing, advocates say one population is left out: LGBTQ+ youth, especially those of color.

And when unhoused, Trish Hobson says, they’re the most vulnerable.

Hobson is the director of The Relatives. The shelter, which has been around for nearly 50 years, offers wraparound services, like counseling.

“Youth that identify as LGBTQ need a lot more support in housing situations,” Hobson said. “They have had even more trauma than the rest of our population. They’ve often been victimized and ridiculed, or parents have turned them away. It’s a housing population that requires a lot more attention and care.”

Davis, who was 17 when she arrived in Charlotte, grew up in foster care. When she came out, there were few people she could turn to. Time Out Youth and The Relatives classify “youth” population as those aged 16-24.

Hobson said people don’t always understand why LGBTQ+ youth wouldn’t get housed like any other person.

“Because of the trauma they’ve been through and lack of support, it makes housing very difficult,” she said. For a person who has an accepting family and “all the support in the world,” living independently at 18 is still difficult. Without that support, it’s even harder, Hobson said.

The Relatives only recently started asking youth to self-identify as LGBTQ+, so they don’t have exact numbers yet, but Hobson says anecdotal evidence shows that the need for housing has increased for LGBTQ+ youth in recent years.

“As young people have gotten more comfortable identifying as LGBTQ early in their life, it’s caused more issues,” she said. “I’m super proud of how far our community has come, letting people come out at an early age, but at the same time we’re encouraging that, young people are facing much more adversity.”

University of Chicago study showed LGBTQ+ youth were more than twice as likely to experience houselessness than the general population. There’s an increasing need but a limited number of organizations serve them locally.

Houseless LGBTQ+ youth are also often harder to spot because so many of them still have some resources that they rely on, experts say. When they’re displaced, they couch surf and stay with friends, and they’re less likely to reach out to shelters.

“It’s a hidden problem,” Hobson said. “It’s really important for people to understand that this is a real issue that our community needs to solve.”

HERE TO STAY

It took leaving an abusive girlfriend for Davis to finally reach out to a women’s shelter, and it was still a difficult decision.

“I was really embarrassed and prideful,” she said. “I had taken care of myself all my life. I was just so embarrassed that I didn’t know this stuff, how to maneuver the real world.”

That’s when she met Shaq Clarke.

Clarke is Time Out Youth’s housing specialist. She helped Davis find her first place after the shelter and sees every day the struggles that LGBTQ+ youth of color face when it comes to housing.

Before Davis found a home in her new condo in north Charlotte — where she can unwind and spend time with her kids — she went to stay with her brothers in Norfolk, Virginia, and began saving money to afford housing in Charlotte.

She doesn’t plan on returning home to Virginia anytime soon.

“I’m not going to let this city chase me out again,” she said.

Even now, with a well-paying job in insurance, Davis said when housing managers know a tenant is getting help, there’s a stigma attached, and they treat you differently.

“You see a lot of white non-LGBT folks or white LGBT folks getting housing before Black folks, and that’s just how things work,” Clarke said. “There’s a stigma that Black and brown folks don’t know how to pay rent on time.”

But the driving force behind LGBTQ+ youth houselessness, according to Clarke, is mental health and family support.

“The number one reason I see is a lot of young people saying that I was forced to leave because I wasn’t accepted by my parents because of my identity — and it has to do with religion and culture,” Clarke said. “I also know that Black folks and brown folks are not accustomed to fully talking about mental health. So, although we might have some supportive parents as far as LGBT folks, they’re not understanding of their relationship to mental health.”

And being houseless is a traumatic event, Clarke said.

“A young person that is experiencing homelessness has to worry about where they’re going to sleep at night, how they’re going to get to and from work, figuring out what the bus schedule is like, and what they’re going to eat at night,” Clarke said. “They’re not worrying about their well being.”

This story was originally published September 27, 2021 11:03 AM.

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