Congress needs to act so Maine’s LGBT homeless youth can get help

Not many issues are bipartisan these days, but thankfully, ending youth homelessness is one of them.

In July, Sen. Susan Collins, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, introduced critical legislation that reauthorizes the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, or RHYA, which provides critical support to organizations such as Preble Street that in turn help some of the most vulnerable young people in our society – youth who, because of no fault of their own, are homeless.

This important legislation recognizes the needs of all youth, including gay and transgender children, experiencing homelessness. While each homeless youth faces unique challenges, LGBT youth can face a particularly tough road. Gay and transgender youth comprise only 5-7 percent of the total youth population, but they comprise up to 40 percent of homeless youth in America. At Preble Street, this is more than just a statistic, as we see homeless LGBT youth every day. Thankfully, because of programs such as RHYA, many, such as Will, can find a path out of homelessness.

When Will was 12, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Thomaston. In the midst of immense life change, Will started to become aware that he was different. While most boys his age were chasing girls, he realized he was more interested in boys.

Certain that the adults in his life wouldn’t understand, Will kept it secret all through middle and high school until, at 17, he found the courage to come out to his grandparents. Sadly for Will, his earlier instincts proved to be correct. His news was not met with loving acceptance and encouragement, and he no longer felt welcome in his grandparents’ home.

When he started college, Will had trouble keeping up with coursework and had to take a break from school. With no home to go back to, he ended up sleeping in one of the 24 beds available for homeless youth at the Preble Street Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter in Portland and spending his days across the street at the Preble Street Teen Center. At Preble Street, he not only felt accepted and had his immediate needs met, but he also was able to work with caring, skilled staff in a program designed to address psychological and physical health issues, provide employment and educational supports, find safe housing options, provide leadership development and foster positive connections with peers.

When Preble Street created First Place, a transitional living program to help young people escape homelessness, earlier this year, Will was chosen as one of the first six participants.

Today, he has his own apartment, has re-enrolled in college and works with a case manager to help hone the life skills he needs to thrive on his own.

Will’s story isn’t unusual. Every night in the United States, as many as 46,000 young people have no place to call home, and as many as 40 percent of those identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There are tens of thousands of teens who have no one to trust.

Despite his resilience and determination to build a brighter future, Will couldn’t do it alone. He needed understanding and support to help him find his way. Programs such as the Preble Street Teen Center and Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter can’t do it alone, either.

Will and the programs that made a difference to him need the support that RHYA programs provide.

Service providers all over the nation need concerned legislators invested in the future of homeless youth. We need their support to ensure that we can continue to help children such as Will find a place to call home. But, for the first time since 1988, RHYA has not been reauthorized.

We are grateful for Collins’ leadership in advocating for homeless youth both in our state and around the country, and for this important legislation that allows Preble Street to do what we do best, helping anybody, regardless of their circumstance, get back on their feet.

We call on Congress to pass this commonsense legislation.

Mark Swann is executive director of Preble Street, a homeless aid organization based in Portland.