Center on Halsted's Public Relations Manager Mariah Emerson

Chicago LGBTQ advocates document serious life risks for trans homeless youth

By Ariana Puzzo
Medill Reports

“The average life span for a black trans woman is 35-years-old,” said Mariah Emerson, the public relations manager for Center on Halsted. “It’s a reality and it’s a disproportionate access to health [and] it’s disproportionate access to housing.”

It is understood that disproportionate access here means a lack of access and the one of the highest risks of death is murder.

Organizations such as the Center on Halsted try to mend the gap. The center is an LGBTQ community center in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, founded as Gay Horizons in 1973. It offers LGBTQ people programming and resources, including dance performances, HIV testing, volleyball, and GED classes.

The center, like other Chicago LGBTQ organizations, also focuses on youth homelessness. Emerson said the center takes note of the high rates of transgender youth homelessness. She, as well as other sources, expressed concern about confidentiality in terms of identifying homeless youth to speak with for the story.

“[Trans women are] a hyper vulnerable section. I almost hate to say, ‘hyper vulnerable,’ right?” Emerson said. “Because it almost diminishes that group that really should be uplifted.”

LGBTQ youth across the United States experience greater than twice the rate of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ youth, a University of Chicago 2018 study reported. The study also noted that the disproportionate reported numbers of people affected by group were among nearly 4.2 million young adults (18- to 24-years-old) in the U.S. who experienced homelessness over a 12-month period.

Chicago’s homeless rates in 2017 showed that the majority of unaccompanied youth without stable housing are largely distrustful of generic service systems, including schools and homeless service providers. A survey, led by the Department of Family and Support Services, indicated that while the percentage of unaccompanied trans youth decreased from 5 percent in 2016 to 2.2 percent in 2017, black youth constituted nearly 75 percent of surveyed unaccompanied youth who were homeless.

LGBTQ Homelessness Stats
LGBTQ youth were found to experience greater than twice the rate of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ youth. (Illustration: Ariana Puzzo/Medill)

Emerson said the Center on Halsted gears services to build that trust. The fact that the center is not just an HIV/AIDS or STD clinic, or behavioral health clinic, she says allows people to enter the building with a sense of anonymity.

Rodney Orr,  co-chairman on the Board of Directors for Project Fierce Chicago, similarly said apprehension can result from organizations becoming “trauma-centered.” Project Fierce Chicago works alongside Chicago homeless shelters to provide LGBTQ youth with safe housing options.

Orr said that Project Fierce Chicago tries to understand that it can take time to heal and process what happened when a trauma occurred, especially for young people.

“[It’s important that we are] just meeting them where they’re at and not taking [apprehension] as a character flaw,” Orr said.

Chicago LGBTQ Organizations
LGBTQ organizations have existed in Chicago for decades. They have addressed homelessness, as well as HIV/AIDS and employment. (Illustration: Ariana Puzzo/Medill)

Orr and Emerson both acknowledge the limitations of geographic accessibility. Orr said Project Fierce Chicago, primarily serving the West Side, does not specifically work with any one organization because it limits who can receive services. An organization such as Howard Brown Health, where Orr is a medical assistant, only has a couple of locations. Project Fierce Chicago, Orr said, instead tries to serve locally to where the individual resides.

Project Fierce Chicago’s first transitional house is currently being constructed in North Lawndale and will ideally be finished by the end of the year, Orr said. The facility is meant to provide a space for temporary housing.

“My vision, of course, is to really branch out to other areas of Chicago, trying to be aware [of] where the young people are specifically,” Orr said.

Orr hopes Project Fierce Chicago expands in the future to serve other West Side nieghborhoods such as South Lawndale and suburbs such as Oak Park. The reason being, he said, because the heart of the city often has greater resources, but “as you’re more in the peripheral,” resources can be scarce.

Emerson similarly said many individuals from the surrounding Boystown area utilize their close proximity to the Center. Expansion to other parts of the city, she said, is included as part of their strategic plan.

“The work is never done,” Emerson said. “The more work that you start to do to create a more inclusive environment, the more you realize needs to be done.”

Emerson stressed that it is best to continue considering how an organization can better serve community members and make them feel safe. The idea that there is a level of “perfection,” Emerson said, can result in progress being missed.

“If you think about it like, we’re going to continue to do this work, we’re going to continue to improve, we’re going to continue to advocate and create these spaces,” Emerson said, “Then it’s empowering that the work is never done because you know that you have a community center that is striving and advocating for you specifically.”

Advocating for specific groups of people is not unique to these two LGBTQ organizations.

Chicago House & Social Services, through its TransLife Center, provides housing, medical, employment and legal resources to the trans community, said Associate Director of TransLife Care Gabriel Edwards. Providing housing for the community can be challenging, Edwards said.

“All the housing systems in Chicago aren’t built for the population we have here, so we’re starting with a system that’s overpopulated as it is,” Edwards said. And then “you add in any issues with understanding someone’s gender or understanding someone’s identity or sexuality.”

Edwards said housing and medical assistance are the most crucial reasons for people seeking services. Although medical resources are available for trans people who live in the city of Chicago, Edwards said, it is not always accessible. Lack of income and insurance issues, which could include lapsed insurance or Medicare complications, contribute to the reasons why people seek out Chicago House, he added.

Addressing housing concerns for young transgender or queer individuals is a two-fold solution, Edwards said. Although they do not have housing through the program, they have partnerships with “trans affirming” shelters and place people there who might not find a bed readily available on the housing list. Then, if eligible for one of Chicago’s housing programs, the team of navigators is available to help organize paperwork and ensure the individuals are prepared for any meetings.

The other side of it is providing the opportunity for community members to help each other.

“Our drop-ins have people … in their 50’s to people as young as 18-years-old,” Edwards said. “Older women who have … owned their home for a while come and then show younger kids how to budget and how to manage money.”

The services offered only go so far, Edwards said, when the housing system is not built to support trans people or people in their late-20’s who aged out of youth services.

“The reality is, someone who just turned [25] is no more competent at staying housed than they were a day before,” Edwards said. “They’re still just as in need, but now they can’t access services that they just had.”

Edwards said that many available programs also trap young people in the cycle of need. Rather than helping them no longer need the resources, he said, it keeps them reliant on them until they are no longer accessible.

Orr agreed that aging out of youth services at 25-years-old creates a gap for homeless adults in the age group between late-20’s and 30’s. Orr instead would like to see the system be tailored toward the needs of the individual rather than “an arbitrary number that is picked.”

“I think it implies that there’s sort of a step-by-step process that everyone should be going through,” Orr said. “Then they should be done by 25 and be perfectly ready for the world and that’s just not true.”

Peter Strazzabosco, the deputy commissioner of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said the city “does not manage LGBTQ housing,” but it does offer support for facilities that “cater to LGBTQ individuals.” These facilities included the construction of the John Pennycuff Memorial Apartments in Logan Square and the Town Hall Apartments in Boystown.

Photo at top: Mariah Emerson, public relations manager for Center on Halsted, talks about the center’s diverse LGBTQ programming and resources. The center, located in Boystown, features dance performances, HIV testing, volleyball, and GED classes. The organization was originally founded as Gay Horizons in 1973. (Ariana Puzzo/Medill)