Empowering LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth

Camaron Miyamoto
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

When we think of the LGBTQ+ community, homeless and housing instability is not necessarily an issue that is top of mind. But the reality is that homelessness is an issue that impacts a large segment of our LGBTQ+ population, especially among young people.

According to The Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ+ youth helpline, 28% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives – and those who did had two to four times the odds of reporting depression, anxiety, self-harm, considering suicide and attempting suicide compared to those with stable housing.

Why might this be the case? Consider the case of a LGBTQ+ young person here in Hawai‘i who might have a traditional and religious family. That child might not want to talk about being LGBTQ+ with their family because they don’t want to make waves or “let their family down.” But then the day comes when someone outs them. Maybe it’s an auntie who spreads some gossip to the parents. Maybe it’s an ex-boyfriend who tries to shame him. Maybe it’s a bully at school. Too often, the result if the parents or families get embarrassed, mad, feel like it’s their fault and end up kicking the child out of the house. The result is the national rise of homelessness for LGBTQ+ youth.

LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness at higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ youth for a range of reasons. A study of more than 350 runaway and homeless providers throughout the United States identified four top causes for homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth: (1) family rejection resulting from sexual orientation or gender identity; (2) physical, emotional or sexual abuse; (3) aging of the foster care system; and (4) financial and emotional neglect. Another study that interviewed LGBTQ+ youth who experienced homelessness found that the path to homelessness was “described as a gradual escalation of the parent-child conflict over time, or a growing sense of rejection in the home  …” This finding shows there may be more opportunity to intervene before an LGBTQ+ youth becomes home- or houseless.

There are many local organizations working on behalf of important LGBTQ+ causes. We’re proud to spotlight one particular organization: Residential Youth Services & Empowerment, and the critical work RYSE does to provide safety and help homeless youth move off the streets, nearly 20% of which identify as LGBTQ+.

Launched in 2018, RYSE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that operates a youth access center and provides shelter services throughout O‘ahu, providing a continuum of support that empowers Hawai‘i’s street youth to move beyond homelessness. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, youth ages 14 to 24 can receive medical and mental health checkups; testing for HIV, Hepatitis C and COVID-19; vaccinations; education and employment counseling; GED classes; financial literacy courses; and more. Qualified RYSE staff are able to work with youth for anything they might need, such as securing stable and permanent housing, receiving counseling, financial assistance and more.

(Infographic courtesy of RYSE Hawaii website)
(Infographic courtesy of RYSE Hawaii website)

Additionally, RYSE operates two emergency shelters and three housing programs for home- and houseless youth in Kailua, Honolulu and Hale‘iwa. Here, youth are able to live communally and sleep safely under professional supervision while receiving skilled medical attention, nutritious meals, clean clothes, hot showers, laundry facilities and personal lockers, job training and employment assistance, and nurturing by a trained professional staff. RYSE also offers a mobile outreach team that can connect with youth wherever they are if they need help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

RYSE offers wraparound services. They focus on more than homelessness. They also focus on mental health, education and employment. The goal is to care for youth as a whole rather than only pay attention to a single issue. As an example, RYSE meets with youth that are incarcerated at Oahu Community Correctional Center, helps advocate on their behalf and petitions judges to release youth on supervised release with RYSE. They connect with public defenders and probation officers to offer additional legal resources for incarcerated youth. A lot of times, youth are imprisoned for crimes of poverty; substance abuse, theft, burglary, things like that. Sometimes they say that their mom or dad is jailed in the module next door to them. These youth are often stuck in a cycle that they were born into. The majority of clients have never been housed.

It’s crucial for staff at RYSE to get youth off the streets and into safe and stable environments because there are often increased risks of danger that accompany youth homelessness. Symptoms of certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, may not often appear until one’s early 20s, which may compound with existing feelings of alienation or prejudice within their communities for LGBTQ+ youth. When you’re young and on the streets, you get taken advantage of. There are more instances of drug use, sex trafficking and gang violence. It’s different from being in your late 20s and then becoming homeless. There is a great impact for the LGBTQ+ young people and for society as a whole because of this important work. Providing support to prevent LGTBQ+ from falling through the cracks has great significance.

Some LGBTQ+ young people might grow up in a low-income family that rely on their local church for financial assistance. However, that support system often depends on living in accordance with the church’s religious principles. When LGBTQ+ comes out, that community — and the safe space it provided — went away. Many young people are constantly terrified that they would be alone. RYSE is the type of organization that can assist LGBTQ+ young people without judgment to provide a better place mentally, knowing there is a community that accepts them.

Looking ahead, RYSE’s goals include examining services that are offered to the general public, such as food, housing and community engagement, as well as making sure some versions of these initiatives are available for younger people, especially LGBTQ+ youth. RYSE also plans to grow age-appropriate and truly affordable housing inventory for young people on O‘ahu, and expand the organization to serve youth located on neighbor islands.

RYSE strives to offer so many services because they’re opportunities that these youth never had growing up. Going to the doctor, receiving therapy or building a resume are all new to them. RYSE is trying to fight the stigma of homelessness or having previously been in jail. They are committed to a society where people will see these youth for who they are.

For more information about RYSE visit rysehawaii.org, call 808-498-5180, or email info@rysehawaii.org.

If you need help with housing now, you can call or text their Mobile Crisis Outreach team at 808-861-6606.

 Camaron Miyamoto is the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Queer+ Center and tenured faculty in the Division of Student Success at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. As a Yonsei, Mexican and Filipino American, Mr. Miyamoto has served on the boards of the Hawai‘i LGBT Legacy Foundation and the Japanese American Citizens League, Honolulu Chapter, where he advocated for marriage equality in Hawai‘i. Mr. Miyamoto continues to learn from his students at UH Mänoa and is fueled by the belief that by being grounded in our culture and community we will create a better future through compassion, education and a steadfast commitment to social justice. The Hawai‘i Herald is a cornerstone of that future.


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