When Michael Erickson ran for councillor of Ward 14 Parkdale/Highpark in the 2010 municipal elections, he promised to create a shelter dedicated to homeless LGBTQ youth in Toronto.
This desire came years before his election bid, but running for councillor gave him a platform to spread the word about an issue he has witnessed first-hand.
A group of Torontonians, including Erickson, say LGBTQ youth experience added discrimination on the street. On Thursday night they launched the first of a series of conversations regarding support needed for LGBTQ homeless youth. They plan to visit neighbourhoods in the north, east and west as well as LGBTQ youth currently living in shelters.
Erickson has taught social sciences and English at Harbord Collegiate Institute near Bathurst Avenue and Bloor Street for the past 10 years. He also runs the student success program to help youth who are struggling to graduate. In this role, he said he has witnessed many of his students become homeless.
“If someone is queer-trans on top of being a homeless youth then having to go through an even more intense trauma than being homeless is likely,” Erickson said. “You get to the point when you see so much pain in people’s lives, you have to do something.”
No one knows exactly how many homeless youth there are in Toronto. However, conservative estimates suggest that on any given night there are between 1,500 and 2,000 youth on the street and at least 10,000 different youth any given year. There are currently 12 youth shelters in Toronto offering a total of 522 beds. According to the Covenant House website, “70 per cent of homeless youth have experienced some form of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.” The study Safe Streets for Whom? Homeless Youth, Social Exclusion, and Criminal Victimization published in 2004 in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice reported that 32 per cent of homeless youth in Toronto identify as LGBTQ.
Like Erickson, many of the founding members got involved because of a trend they witnessed in their daily lives.
Ilona Alex Abramovich had a challenging coming out experience and has always had an interest in homelessness having grown up in Toronto. She explored the connection between LGBTQ issues and homelessness in the course of her masters at York University. Now she hopes to put forward a blue print for a service to deal with LGBTQ homeless problems through the course of her PhD at University of Toronto. She is currently gathering research although she acknowledges that it can be difficult to get youth to talk about their experience.
“A lot of youth are very afraid to come forward, especially if they’ve been kicked out of the house, and people who are their family members – people who are supposed to love them the most – have completely rejected them,” Abramovich said. “They don’t feel safe coming out.”
She said despite challenges shelter staff need to become committed to stopping homophobic behaviour among youth. She has approached the city to discuss these issues and has been told that they would prefer to hold the whole system accountable instead of creating a dedicated shelter.
While Abramovich agrees this would be ideal, she said the problem has become an emergency situation.
“It’s going on for way too long,” Abramovich said. “And here we are in December, on this freezing cold night, and it just breaks my heart to think about how many people don’t have a place to stay because they don’t feel safe.”
For the time being, the group will continue to engage communities and gather data. They have no leader per se, instead they hope to be a grassroots, democratic and anti-oppressive movement in order to ensure they come to the best solution.
“We all need to be open to listening to others,” Erickson said. “Maybe none of us holds the best idea but once we come together enough times and listen to each other, the fusion of a bunch of diverse perspectives and voices will come up with a better solution than any one person could possibly have.”