When the polar vortex hit the U.S. last month, sending temperatures down to record lows that hadn’t been seen in a generation, I was in my own vortex of thoughts and reactions. I felt a guilty pleasure at the warm weather we were enjoying here in Arizona. I groaned when President Trump, instead of expressing concern for the millions who would face below-freezing temperatures, seized the opportunity to tweet his doubts about “Global Waming (sic),” even though five seconds on Google could easily explain how extreme weather, both hot and cold, fits within the projections of climate change science.
A comprehensive look at homelessness examines laws and public policies that put many LGBTQ people on the streets.
I also resented the online trolls I’d encountered months before, when a caravan of asylum seekers was approaching our border, who argued that we should take care of our own homeless people before we let in any more immigrants. It was a cynical framing, that we could only care for one or the other — and where were their concerns for the homeless now, when people on the streets throughout the Midwest and parts of the Northeast were at risk of dying from exposure? With wind chill reaching 75 below in some places, the cold hit levels that could cause frostbite within minutes, in addition to hypothermia and difficulty breathing.
A lot of those trolls, I remembered, had mentioned homeless veterans in particular, to the exclusion of other homeless people. It added another layer of cynicism. If they cast their compassion too broadly, they might have to reconcile it with notions that blame the poor for their own poverty, as if shortcomings in work ethic or financial planning are the only culprits, and inherited wealth, the vagaries of the economy, and other factors play no role in where the chips fall for each of us.
There are other uncomfortable facts people push aside if they avoid taking a broader, more comprehensive look at homelessness. One glaring example is the collective responsibility for laws and public policies that put many LGBTQ people on the streets.
Across age groups, LGBTQ people are at an elevated risk of becoming homeless. In the case of adults, lack of adequate protections against workplace and housing discrimination can lead to precarious financial conditions. Same-sex couples, for example, are more likely to seek food assistance through SNAP than different-sex couples. Transgender people face some of the worst poverty, being four times more likely than cisgender people to have a household income less than $10,000. The inequalities LGBTQ people experience often lead to food insecurity and housing instability.
Among LGBTQ youth, who are not yet financially independent, family rejection can leave many with nowhere to go. In fact, according to a 2017 University of Chicago study, LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely to face homelessness than their cisgender or heterosexual peers. Other surveys point in the same direction. While fewer than 10 percent of youths in the general population identify as LGBTQ, a study conducted by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that as many as 40 percent of youth seeking assistance from agencies for the homeless identify as LBGTQ.
In addition to family rejection, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) cites social stigma and “difficulty finding shelters that accept and respect them” as challenges that lead to homelessness among LGBTQ people. That lack of acceptance — from family, community, and shelters — is often closely linked to the legislative, judicial, and executive actions concerning LGBTQ people. While we may not be able to personally intervene every time a transphobic parent kicks their gender-nonconforming teen out of the house, or every time a gay homeless person is turned away by a shelter, we can push society as a whole toward more tolerance through the candidates and bills we support — and thereby make these scenarios less common.
Research by the Williams Institute shows a strong link between laws that punish or protect LGBTQ people and the degree of rejection or acceptance they find in their communities. The institute looked at 133 countries to score them from least to most tolerant, based on both their public policies and opinion research. What was revealed, not surprisingly, is that laws that protect the participation of LGBTQ people in both family and civic life go hand in hand with a culture of acceptance.
The institute’s conclusions implied that tolerant attitudes lead to tolerant laws, but many experts assert that the cause-and-effect relationship can go in the other direction as well. Others argue that a complex and reciprocal relationship exists, and one is not likely to exist without the other. The battle to legalize same-sex marriage can be illustrative. State-level measures to recognize same-sex marriage, as well as the historic Supreme Court victory for marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, were precursors to more tolerant views of LGBTQ people in opinion surveys.
We may have a long road to ending homelessness, but we can do our part to support aid to the homeless — and to change laws and minds so that people don’t end up on the streets because of their gender expression or sexual orientation. For those who want to speak up and stand up for those on the streets, the National Coalition for the Homeless provides reports, fact sheets, volunteer opportunities, and information on current campaigns on its website. In Phoenix, one•n•ten runs a program called Promise of a New Day (P.O.N.D.) that serves LGBTQ youth in need of housing. In addition, one•n•ten’s youth centers provide access to toiletries, showers, and food, as well as assistance navigating state Medicaid services.
Planned Parenthood provides guidance on both supportive parenting and school sex ed curriculum that have the interests and well-being of LGBTQ youth in mind. In addition, Arizona’s political and advocacy arm, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, provides information on legislation and electoral candidates for voters who want to support reproductive justice — including LGBTQ equality.
Last month’s extreme weather should serve as a wake-up call to those of us who are lucky enough to have a roof over our head. For those on the streets, our inaction can be a life-threatening experience.