Youth Homelessness Hearing- Phantazia Washington's Testimony
On Thursday, April 28, 2016 a public hearing was held in City Council to discuss youth homelessness in Philadelphia. The following is a part of the testimony delivered by Phantazia Washington, Trainer for The Bryson Institute of The Attic Youth Center.
Youth homelessness is an incredibly multi-layered issue. I wish I could simply name one cause, or one solution, but in actuality it’s a web of overlapping and intertwined barriers, and much like an actual web the harder you struggle to escape, the deeper you fall into it.
In Philly, 93,000 young people ages 16-24 are not enrolled in school, nearly 46,000 are not enrolled nor working, and the unemployment rate for youth not enrolled in school is 30%. The web begins: you need education to find a job, and a job to afford housing. But how can anyone focus on school when they don’t know where they’re going to sleep tonight?
I’d like to share with you a few quotes from a 2013 focus group with LGBTQ homeless youth, put together by youth facilitators, including myself, at The Attic Youth Center.
“My dad was an alcoholic who would beat his girlfriend. When I defended her, he threated to kill me so I ran away.”
“My mom found out I was gay through her co-worker. When I got home, all my things were in bags and I wasn’t allowed to live there anymore.”
“After my father was murdered my mom was in and out of rehab, so my sister and I stayed on the streets when we were 13 and 14.”
Though the reasons may vary – for some, it’s a lack of family acceptance, for others its alcoholism or drug addicted care givers, for others abuse or neglect – many LGBTQ youth choose the streets over the child welfare system.
Once on the streets, homeless LGBTQ youth become nearly impossible to find. Some make the conscious choice to become invisible, often in an effort to avoid the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Avoiding systems at all costs is often a vital part of sustaining oneself. This is frequently an effective survival strategy: up to 56% of LGBTQ youth in foster care spend time on the streets because they feel safer there than in group or foster homes.
But how could anyone feel safer on the streets – of Philly no less? The reality is that we as a city have not adequately provided the necessary supports to ensure LGBTQ youth find safe placements within the child welfare system. How can we find LGBTQ affirming foster parents when we don’t ask young people entering care their sexual orientation and gender identity? We know that 54% of homeless youth in Philadelphia are LGBTQ but we’ll never understand exactly how good young people are at hiding on the streets until we collect the data to find how many of these LGBTQ young people make it to DHS custody. Unfortunately, what we do know is that many of those youth will instead enter the juvenile justice system, since homeless LGBTQ youth are 200 percent more likely than heterosexual youth to be arrested for status offenses such as running away, truancy, and curfew violations.
For youth who manage to avoid the juvenile justice system and/or child welfare systems, homeless shelters are another option – but what happens when an LGBTQ young person is placed in the shelter system? Let’s return to the focus group quotes:
“At the youth housing program, I was told that if I told my roommates I was gay they would hurt me or try to sleep with me. I was kicked out a month later after someone planted a knife in my locker.”
“I heard the staff guessing who was gay in the program and got scared.”
“As a trans woman, staying at the shelter was as scary as it gets.”
When we hear these experiences, and we consider that more than half of homeless young people in this city identify as LGBTQ, I hope it becomes incredibly clear that we must address this issue in full recognition of the institutionalized heterosexism, homophobia, cissexism, and transphobia within our child welfare and shelter systems. Let us require that youth serving systems be LGBTQ youth serving systems that recognize trauma – not perpetrate it. Let us create systems not built to diminish the power of youth but to uplift them to a position of command over their lives.
In my work as an LGBTQ Educator with The Bryson Institute of The Attic Youth Center providing workshops and trainings on best practices for supporting LGBTQ youth in their everyday contexts – child welfare institutions, juvenile detention centers, with foster parents, teachers, students and faith communities, I’ve learned that only through a point of intervention that addresses systemic trauma based in oppression can youth escape this web.
We need DHS to begin to collect data on LGBTQ youth to find appropriate placements. LGBTQ cultural competency needs to be mandated to any and every person who engages with a young person in the child welfare and shelter systems. Hiring practices and foster parent recruitment need to include LGBTQ cultural competence. We need shelters and affordable housing programs specifically for LGBTQ youth. We need to decriminalize status offences related to homelessness and find LGBTQ youth beds that aren’t in detention centers.
But what we really need is to begin to evaluate the systematic course of disenfranchisement we send every young person in this city down if we remove every pillar of success possible from their sight. We need to address the failing education system in this city, the staggering youth unemployment rates, and the continued lack of affordable housing. And we need these things NOW, because if we’re going to continue to call ourselves the city of brotherly love, we must remember that justice is what love looks like in public.
Phantazia Washington is an unapologetically queer, multiracial, black woman. Social justice, specifically intersectional barriers are recurring themes in her work as an artist, activist, Transition Framework and LGBTQIA educator. Through her work as a Trainer with The Bryson Institute of The Attic Youth Center, Phantazia provides educational workshops for youth and adults, throughout the region on gender, sexuality, and best practices for building genuine cultures of respect for LGBTQ youth. In addition to her work as an educator, Phantazia was a founding member of Get H.Y.P.E!, a youth-led training cohort at The Attic Youth Center, and co-facilitates The Justice League, an Attic internship for youth seeking to raise awareness of the experiences of queer and gender-expansive youth of color in the child welfare, educational, and juvenile justice systems. In addition to her work at The Attic, Phantazia is also an artist. She has worked with The Mural Arts Program to help create murals that generate awareness to the issue of youth homelessness, specifically the overrepresentation of LGBTQ young people amongst homeless youth.