Last year, at the beginning of winter in Edmonton, where the number of street kids is close to 225, Andrew Gagnon was visiting a friend who works with local at-risk youth. “What can I do? What do you need?” he asked her.
“Coats,” she said.
Gagnon went to his Facebook page, and posted to his friends for donations. He got enough for 10 coats and some kids were warmer because of it. “Imagine a night on the street in an Edmonton winter. I can’t even fathom it.”
He isn’t the first to donate clothing to charity. But often when people do so, he says, “They forget about the youth shelters.”
The youth in those shelters are largely forgotten too – the more so if they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In a major review to be released in March, University of Toronto doctoral candidate Alex Abramovich reports that the number one cause for youth homelessness in Canada is family conflict due to young people coming out as LGBT.
Dr. Kristopher Wells, who specializes in vulnerable youth populations at the University of Alberta, hopes that will change. “Governments have just come to acknowledge that LGBT youth exist,” he says, somewhat sarcastically. “LGBT youth at risk are an underserved population with specific and targeted needs.”
In Toronto, conversations have begun at city hall to have a working group look into the idea of a youth shelter just for LGBT street kids. Up to 2,000 homeless kids are on the streets of Toronto on any given night and figures range widely from 20 to 40 percent of them being LGBT. The numbers are vague because the kids are afraid for their safety, or they’re part of a hidden homeless population, or some just don’t come out.
Gagnon added two more agencies to his fundraising this year: Winnipeg’s Youth Resource Centre and Shelter and En Marge in Montreal, where he lives with his partner. He quickly got enough for 10 coats in each city, and “a whack of mitts, hats and scarves.” Next he plans to register as a charity and build the program across Canada.
The clothes are new, not hand-me-downs. That’s a small but important detail for kids on the street. Tracy Wark, Program Manager at Winnipeg’s Youth Resource Centre and Shelter, wrote to Gagnon, “I loved that they were bought with youth in mind who still want to be stylish – they will be very ‘in’ with the selection of coats that were donated.”
Unlike Montreal and Edmonton, where he grew up, Gagnon has no connection to Winnipeg. “Smaller cities are stretched to the limit. They need something like this more than larger cities because they have the organizations that know how to get out there and hustle,” he says.
Gagnon believes that most kids on the street are there because of sexuality, an observation shared by the experts. He, like most gay men, can relate to these kids – aware of their issues either through personal experience or from having seen others go through a troubled youth. “You’re probably kicked out of the house. You float between friends’ houses. If you can’t stay there, you sleep in train stations or wherever you can find so you don’t freeze to death.” As an individual, Gagnon is able to fill a need. But LGBT street kids need more than a coat.
Says Dr. Wells, “Youth are generally harder to get off the street than it was for them to get on. Once they’re out there, street-involved risks – violence, drug addiction, the sex trade and STDs – are amplified for LGBT youth.” They aren’t safe at home and there’s no safe place on the streets. That’s a big part of the problem, as well as the solution – there are no LGBT shelters in Canada where the kids and their families can come together for counseling. The lack of services for LGBT street kids is further exacerbated because, according to Wells, “Many faith-based shelters actively refuse LGBT kids.”
The message that he always delivers is “Love your child for who they are or you might lose your child.”
The latest data, when released early in 2014, will show there are 65,000 — 150,000 homeless youth in Canada. Many of them are lost on Canada’s streets. Thirty of those kids in three cities now have some protection against the Canadian winter.
Sadly, they have nothing to protect them from the cold reality that most won’t be going home this Christmas. They aren’t welcome.