Demographics within Maine’s estimated 15,000 homeless youth show a higher percentage of them identify as LGBTQ+ compared to high school students.

According to the 2017 Maine Homeless Youth Risk Behavior Study conducted by nonprofit New Beginnings, more than 40% of homeless youth identified as non-heterosexual and 3.6% as transgender.

That compares to high school students, 15% of whom identify as non-heterosexual and 1.5% who identify as transgender. The high school responses exclude many of the surveyed homeless youth who are not attending school regularly or are pursuing the High School Equivalency Test.

This difference between homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ+ compared to youth attending high school was no surprise for New Beginnings Community Services Director Kris Pitts.

“I think a lot of that has to do really with disagreements at home, families that aren’t supportive or young people who think that they for whatever reason may be unsafe if they were to be either out and open or if somebody were to find out about their identity even if they were not living openly,” Pitts said during a Zoom interview. “So I think those are two of the big reasons for either young people to be asked to leave their home or for young people to choose to leave the home, and that’s a pretty universal experience.”

Pitts said these percentages could easily be much higher as data collection in regards to sexuality and gender identity poses many complexities. Young people may choose to withhold certain parts of their identity based on their comfort level with a service provider. There is also the additional factor that gender and sexuality identities are fluid and may change for a person throughout the data collection process. For organizations collecting data, funding sources may also dictate how and what type of information is prioritized.

“The type of data we collect — and I think this is true all around the country — is really influenced one, by the values of the program but two, by what a particular funding source wants you to report back on,” Pitts said. “And so over the years that changed pretty drastically to New Beginnings as a matter of making sure that our services are as competent as possible and that we’re understanding our population and educating our staff so that we can serve our population in the best way we can.”

Pitts has learned from youth sharing their experiences that rural areas often do not offer competent services for those who identify as LGBTQ+.

“Anecdotally, I will tell you that young people in more rural areas have shared with me that they often have difficulties accessing homelessness services that do exist in their areas because a lot of times they are connected to institutions with a religious backing, and whether it’s a religion that is accepting of Q+ identities or one that is not…there’s a historical disconnect between faith communities and Q+ communities,” Pitts said.

Examples of discrimination experienced at rural homeless shelters reported to Pitts include misgendering, bunk assignments based on sex assigned at birth or a flat-out refusal to offer services.

New Beginnings serves youth and young adults who are at-risk of homelessness in Androscoggin, Franklin and Kennebec counties. To prevent discrimination from taking place with service providers, the organization participates in the Prevention & Training Program, providing LGBTQ+ focused trainings for professionals. These trainings help when case managers are securing housing for youth or when outreach staff are approaching congregating groups of young people.

The nonprofit conducts what it refers to as street outreach in which staff approach groups of youth hanging out in common areas. Staff may visit specific areas if they receive a tip regarding a person at risk of homelessness, but staff cannot directly approach a person. During street outreach, staff typically carry with them basic hygiene supplies, food and safer sex items for distribution. If people are interested in additional resources, they can visit a drop-in center.

“So ideally, bringing them into our space where people can access hot meals, showers; we help people out with laundry, basic hygiene supplies, weather-appropriate clothing,” Pitts said about outreach services. “And so we can really help them create a sense of community, they can get peer support. We have computers, TV, pool table. People can just hang out, at a diminished capacity still, just so we can maintain physical distancing and then from there they can be connected with case management.”

Case management then helps secure housing vouchers for apartments in the area, provides transitional living skills and connects people with resources to continue their education or pursue workforce training.

In the Franklin County area, people may access New Beginnings resources at 124 Main St. in Farmington and by calling (207) 778-6193.

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