CALGARY—Hilary Chapple came out in 1984. She became an activist in the early 1990s and has been advocating for LGBTQ rights in Alberta ever since.
When Chapple became homeless in 2012, she said being LGBTQ made it even more difficult. Even at a shelter, a place where many find community beyond just a warm bed, Chapple experienced discrimination.
She wanted to advocate for better training and help shelters and agencies be more inclusive, but found there wasn’t much research on the LGBTQ homeless experience. So she took matters into her own hands.
Though not an academic herself, Chapple developed a survey for LGBTQ people in Calgary with previous or current experience of homelessness. She got 23 respondents with diverse backgrounds — from ages 18 to 82, transgender, non-binary, lesbian, gay and everything in between.
Despite the respondents’ differences, overwhelmingly Chapple got the same answer: they had all experienced discrimination, they all had mental health issues, and most said they didn’t feel inclusive services, such as LGBTQ-specific counselling, were available at places they accessed help. Fourteen said they didn’t feel their shelter promoted inclusivity or diversity.
Chapple is setting out to change that by designing an information and training session for shelters and other agencies to help them implement more inclusive policies and practices. It’s not always malice, she said, but a matter of ignorance, and she hopes agencies that take the training will be able to improve their services.
“I know this is the right thing to do,” said Chapple, who hopes to take the training program beyond Alberta.
‘Forced to leave home’: Why LGBTQ people are overrepresented among the homeless
Independent scientist and researcher Alex Abramovich has been researching LGBTQ youth and homelessness for the past decade, after noticing the same gap in academia that Chapple did.
LGBTQ people are overrepresented in the homeless population, Abramovich said, but often have more trouble accessing services and are “under represented in housing programs and in shelters.”
He added that identity-based family conflict could be a major factor for why that is.
“They’re forced to leave home or they’re kicked out of the house, and oftentimes, they’re forced to leave because of the discrimination or violence that’s happening.”
Finding stable housing is hard, especially when you’re experiencing mental health issues, said Chapple, and discrimination makes it harder.
“Dignity and respect is not tied to a set of keys,” she said.
Though more than half of the respondents said they had been treated respectfully at a shelter with regards to their sexual or gender identity, several others recounted experiences with homophobic staff, said Chapple. One respondent said they were told being gay was a sin.
One major problem Chapple sees is a lack of inclusivity training for shelter staff, as well as issues with the intake process for clients.
Her own training program begins with an overview of the common mental health challenges faced by LGBTQ people. For example, she highlights the fact that almost all of her respondents said they struggled with mental health, such as PTSD or depression. The majority of them first experienced homelessness before the age of 20.
In the training, Chapple recommends that shelters also review their intake processes for binary enforcement, such as only offering male and female options.
‘They actually want to do better’
Chapple cites Abramovich’s research to back up her findings, highlighting that LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of mental health concerns.
In 2015, Abramovich worked with the government of Alberta to develop a strategy to tackle LGBTQ youth homelessness.
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“A lot of these services, they actually want to do better,” said Abramovich. “They want to provide the support, but they just don’t know how, they don’t have the training, or they don’t have the tools and the resources to do so.”
There have been some positive changes, he added. For example, this year the federal government started including gender and sexuality information on its annual Point-in-Time survey, which attempts to chronicle how many people are homeless on a given night in Canada.
And his work in Alberta resulted in a report with a number of recommendations, all of which were accepted by the government, Abramovich said. Included in the recommendations was training for shelter staff created by local agencies, and a guideline for inclusivity for shelters to adhere to.
However, Abramovich notes that the next step would be to make inclusivity standards and training programs mandatory for all shelter staff, otherwise those who need it most might never receive it.
Chapple said she wants to see training based on lived experience, which is part of why she created a program of her own that she hopes will help end the homophobia LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness say they are often faced with.
“It’s got to stop. This is 2019. Knock it off.”
Many of Chapple’s survey respondents said they didn’t have enough LGBTQ-specific services, which is why she wants to establish more, such as a weekly support group. Her training program explicitly recommends shelters form groups of their own, and ensures that LGBTQ adults are consulted in the creation of updated policies or training.
Abramovich said this is a key component that’s missing from how many cities address homelessness.
In Toronto, the YMCA has a small transitional housing program for LGBTQ youth, he said. And in Alberta, the Boys and Girls Club has Aura, which matches LGBTQ youth with host families.
It’s services like these that make LGBTQ people more comfortable reaching out for help, and can often make a big difference early on, he said.
“We have these different strategies that focus on homelessness and poverty and housing. So within those strategies, we have to prioritize populations … that are disproportionately represented,” he said. “This is a very serious safety issue.”
Chapple also wants to conduct a similar survey in Edmonton and compare the results. Eventually, she said she’d like to take this training beyond Alberta.
She said she knows she can make a difference with her work.
“I’ve done it already. Why would I not keep going?” she said. “I believe in me.”