By Greg Hernandez
California state lawmakers heard firsthand about the severity of the state’s homeless youth crisis during a joint informational hearing at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre earlier this week.
“This is a crisis. This is totally unacceptable,” testified Simon Costello, the Center’s director of Children, Youth and Family Services. “Every week between 15 and 20 new young people experiencing homelessness walk through our doors–at just one agency.”
Costello said at the hearing, called by the State Assembly and Senate Human Services Committees, that last year the Center provided services for more than 1,200 young people who are experiencing homelessness. Of those, 880 were first-time clients.
A transgender youth client of the Center, Alex’ix, testified that she had spent her first night in Los Angeles in an alley after a job she was promised fell through and her belongings were stolen. Being LGBT compounded her problems.
“You are basically seen as nothing, as space that could be taken up by someone else,” said Alex’ix, now 24.
By the time she reached adulthood, Alex’ix had spent several years in the foster care system. She was kicked out by her own family at 16 and was subsequently placed in 26 different places because social workers were unable to find an LGBT friendly home. Things got even more rough when she turned 18 and aged out of foster care.
“They just basically tossed me to the side,” she said, as lawmakers sat in rapt attention. “There was no one there that really tried to understand my pain.”
That changed when Alex’ix found her way to the Los Angeles LGBT Center where “I felt safe and appreciated. It was a change in life for me.”
An estimated 40% of youth experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County are LGBT. The number of visits to the Center’s youth center has increased by double digits in the past 12 months.
It is there where they can get three meals a day, hot showers, and access to a clothing closet. Other services include temporary housing or housing referrals. Laundry services, education and employment programs, HIV testing and counseling, addiction recovery services, counseling and support groups.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Costello said that in January 2017, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority did a homeless youth count and found that on any one night there were just shy of 6,000 young people in Los Angeles County staying at emergency shelters. Of that 6,000, more than 90% were between the ages of 18 and 24, 80% were people of color and 70% were from Los Angeles County.
Separately, the Hollywood Youth Partnership (HYP) did an extensive survey of homeless youth in Hollywood. They found that a staggering 40% are LGBTQ. Less than 50% of all the youth had a high school diploma or GED and 49% met criteria for clinical depression.
“What I think is the greatest risk for these young people living on the streets is the risk of normalizing their circumstances,” Costello said. “These are young people who are in the formative years. This is when they begin to lose their sense of a positive future for themselves. And this is when we begin to see the biggest challenges as service providers.”
What the Needs Are
Costello pointed out that having a place to stay is only a small part of what these youth need.
“We need to take an approach that encompasses their health, their mental health, education, and life-skills needs,” he said. “We need to meet each young person where they are, engage them in a conversation of what they want in their lives and provide them with the resources.”
The testimony got the attention of Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblywoman Blanca E. Rubio who called for the hearing.
“The situation has not gotten enough attention,” Wiener said. “We want to elevate it in the consciousness of the public and of the legislature and in my view we need more resources from the state for youth homelessness and it’s my hope that this can be a first step in building the support to have more help from the budget to get help for these young people.”
Said Rubio: “I want to have a discussion that results in some action even if it’s a small step. I’m tired of the discussions.”
A Frustrating Disconnect
The assemblywoman was visibly frustrated after hearing about various programs and funding provided by the state and the federal government, while sitting across from Alex’ix who struggled without any support before finding the Center.
“How is it that Alex’ix couldn’t access any of these programs?” Rubio asked. “I hear solutions or potential solutions with money available for all these programs but there’s an obvious disconnect if Alex’ix can’t access any of those programs.
“How can we provide access to those programs so that Alex’ix wouldn’t have struggled as she did those many years? I’m sure there are kids who are struggling right this minute. How can we connect all of this so that we can move forward in solving these issues?”
Originally published August 2017