Creating life-saving services for 2SLGBTQ+ youth
Action-oriented research leads to new inclusive housing program
Date published: 2022-08-12 11:15:00 AM
Alex Abramovich, independent scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, and assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto; and research coordinator Cayley Russell, CAMH, with the mobile research lab used for the project’s data collection.
Photo: Alex Abramovich
Up to 40% of young people experiencing homelessness in Canada identify as 2SLGBTQ+, but few studies have been conducted on their unique experiences. Due to previous discrimination they’ve faced, many 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth avoid housing and support services, making them a “hidden demographic,” out of reach of most research programs. Alex Abramovich, an independent scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), is uncovering the needs of this population—and his research has led to real change in the form of inclusive housing programs.
“When I first started this work, 2SLGBTQ+ youth were not part of the national dialogue on youth homelessness,” he says. “Since then, I’ve seen a real shift in people’s willingness to understand the issues they face.”
Not just a big city problem
Many people assume 2SLGBTQ+ youth homelessness is a “big city” problem, but Abramovich, a transgender man himself, knows otherwise. He grew up in suburban York Region and remembers there not being many services available for 2SLGBTQ+ people when he was younger. He says it’s easy for people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+ to become homeless, especially if they come from unsupportive families.
While major urban centres like Toronto have agencies dedicated to serving 2SLGBTQ+ youth, suburban and rural areas typically do not, so less is known about the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ people in those communities. That leads to their needs not being reflected in policy discussions on ending youth homelessness. Abramovich sought to change that through a research program funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant.
New ways of reaching 2SLGBTQ+ youth
Abramovich interviewed 33 youth aged 13 to 26, asking them about their coming out experiences, their pathways into homeless and their experiences accessing various services. He also interviewed nine frontline workers about their work with youth experiencing homelessness in York Region.
Infographics developed to disseminate the research findings of the project.
Photo: Alex Abramovich
Finding participants wasn’t easy. While he recruited some through community agency drop-in centres, many 2SLGBTQ+ youth don’t access those programs, because they don’t feel safe or included there. So, Abramovich took his research on the road, too.
Using the CAMH mobile lab—a trailer with a private space to conduct interviews—Abramovich connected with 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth at events throughout York Region, such as Pride. The mobile lab provided a safe, inclusive space for youth to discuss their experiences outside of an agency setting. Abramovich also built trust by sharing his own story.
“I was very real with them,” he says. “I know what it feels like to be a young queer person. So, when I shared my identity, youth began to express an interest in the study. People want to see themselves reflected in the programs and research they participate in.”
The link between trauma and mental health
Abramovich found that the 2SLGBTQ+ youth participating in his research often became homeless due to identity-based family rejection, with many ending up “couch surfing” at friends’ places. A separate study of hisshowed how devastating COVID-19 was to couch surfers: when the pandemic hit, many were asked to leave and had nowhere to go but the streets.
Abramovich’s research has also reinforced how prevalent mental health problems are among 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth. Of those he surveyed, 61% suffered from depression and 65% had experienced severe anxiety, while others reported eating disorders, substance use and suicidality. He says these findings suggest many 2SLGBTQ+ homeless youth are not receiving mental health supports they need.
When the SSHRC-funded study concluded, Abramovich produced a report with recommendations for governments and community agencies. One organization took action right away. Using Abramovich’s research as its guide, in 2021, Blue Door opened INNclusion Supportive Housing, York Region’s first housing program specifically for 2SLGBTQ+ youth.
It’s a great start, but Abramovich believes more can be done, not just in Canada, but around the world. He feels the lessons learned in York Region can spark change everywhere.
“The youth who took part in this study are forced to choose between unsafe spaces all the time,” he says. “Providing them with a safe place to live will result in many lives being saved.”