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LGBT+ homeless fear violence as coronavirus shuts US shelters

A homeless person wears a face mask during the outbreak of COVID-19, in New York City, March 17, 2020 – Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The coronavirus is causing the closure of homeless centres across the United States, putting LGBT+ people without housing at increased risk of suicide, health complications or hate crimes, according to homelessness experts.

Homeless centres said they have been forced to shut their doors in order to follow safety precautions over social distancing as enforced by international governments and health organisations.

There are about 10,000 shelters for homeless people in the United States with an estimated 250 LGBT+ centres, largely in metropolitan areas, according to The National Coalition for the Homeless, a network of homelessness advocates.

There are currently no estimates on the exact number of shelters closed in recent weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Liyanni Smith, who is in a program for at-risk LGBT+ homeless youth in Philadelphia, said the closures would have a devastating impact.

“The fact they won’t be available, on top of not having safe spaces to go to, is going to end up pushing the limits of a lot of LGBT homeless youths’ health,” Smith, 18, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“When things like this happens, it could really take our lives,” added Smith, who has been in a homeless-at-risk program for LGBT+ youth since last September.

The United States has an estimated 552,830 homeless people, according to a 2019 report by the Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

There is little data on rates of LGBT+ homelessness, but a 2017 study by the University of Chicago found young LGBT+ adults had a 120% higher risk of being homeless compared to youth who identified as heterosexual.

THROWN OUT ONTO THE STREET

Osimiri Sprowal, 22, from Philadelphia, who was homeless on-and-off for about a year and a half until last October, said the government’s advice to self isolate and not mingle, could put more LGBT+ onto the streets, as many gay and trans people survived by couch surfing with friends.

“If you’re worried about getting sick and being around people, you’re not going to want people to stay at your house,” Sprowal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

“My heart’s breaking – it’s devastating. LGBT people are going to be on the streets.”

MaDonna Land, program director of Tony’s Place, an LGBT+ homeless drop-in centre in Houston, Texas, which has temporarily closed, voiced concerns that the pandemic will exacerbate the risk of physical and sexual assaults on LGBT+ homeless.

Nearly one-fifth of 7,120 hate-crime incidents in the United States, reported in 2018, stemmed from LGBT+ bias, according to the FBI’s latest Hate Crime Statistics report.

“With a situation like this, where the police are scarce and supply is scarce, that increases their vulnerability because there’s no one checking,” said Land.

Campaigners said services for homeless LGBT+ people would also suffer as options for shelter dwindled, and this could impact access to essential medication, such as HIV treatment.

“A third of our clients have HIV,” said Kate Barnhart, the executive director of New Alternatives, a New York-based LGBT+ drop-in centre that has remained open so far.

“If they don’t get this, I don’t know what will happen.”

In neighbouring Mexico, where homophobia remains widespread despite recent advances on LGBT+ rights, advocates say they’ve seen a spike in the number of gay and trans youth forced out of home as well.

Alex Orue, executive director of LGBT+ youth suicide prevention campaign, It Gets Better Mexico, said he has received 15 cases in the last two weeks of lesbian, gay, bi or trans youth being kicked out onto the streets.

“It’s not that there are new problems emerging (in Mexico) – it’s that this pandemic has come to throw gasoline on the crises we already had,” said Orue.

“For any young person, but in particular a young LGBT+ person, the risks that come with being out on the street are multiplied.”

Some LGBT+ homeless centres in the US have started to move some services online, including case management, educational and career support, and behavioural counselling.

Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, a nonprofit that offers housing programs for LGBT+ homeless youth, said homeless LGBT youth would struggle in social isolation or loss of a community.

“Places to gather, places to see peers are important – especially for young people. We want those things to sustain or come back, whenever that can happen safely,” said Adams.

-Matthew Lavietes in New York and Oscar Lopez in Mexico City – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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