SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — There are many reasons why youth become homeless – among them drugs and a disturbed household. But for some, the reason is simply who they are.
Their sexual orientation may have landed them on the streets and while it may also get them shelter again it’s not a safe one.
“More than half the kids we serve in the center identify as anything other than hetero-normative,” said Jenny Reynolds, youth worker at Rare Breed.
Nationally, about 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. In Springfield, the average is higher – at 55 percent.
Reynolds says their sexual orientation is most likely the reason they ended up on the streets. Because they need shelter and food, homeless youth are a vulnerable target for labor and sex trafficking.
“it’s not something that our youth tend to talk about a lot,” said Samantha Sudduth, housing coordinator at Rare Breed.
But one population is even at a higher risk.
“The biggest target right now is young gay men,” said Reynolds.
It’s a situation that can be even harder to spot. For any person looking from the outside, it can look like a normal relationship.
“A typical scenario would be if a young gay man would go to Martha’s and then two or three days later he would tell me that he’s been staying at an old gentleman’s house,” said Reynolds. “And everything was going great for a while, and then the older gentleman started asking for favors in return for staying there. That’s sex trafficking.”
The situation can escalate and go as far as that person forcing the youth to perform favors for others in exchange for shelter and other goods.
“A lot of the at-risk population that we have are the ones that are engaging in that survival sex, or having to give something in order to have a place to stay, and we would consider that unsafe housing,” said Sudduth.
Reynolds says young gay men are also less likely to report.
“That’s the last thing they’re going to do, is to tell someone that they are being taken advantage of every night by another person,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds believes what they are fighting are overwhelming religious implications in the area.
“It’s sort of top heavy. There really isn’t another answer. It’s either this religion or not,” she said. “It’s difficult to fight that money and that power when that’s what existed for so long. It sort of tends to lead a blind eye to what’s happening on the underside of society.”
She referring back to the “No Repeal” campaign from 2015.
“They felt like half of the city was telling them that they didn’t deserve civil liberties,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds says the fight really starts at the core of a community’s beliefs and the first step to change this reality is to change the way the community thinks about homeless youth especially those who are LGBTQ.
“No one chooses to be homeless. No one chooses to be taken advantage of by an older gentleman. No one chooses to be sex trafficked,” said Reynolds. “We’ve got to get past the religion oppression. It cannot matter anymore what you believe religiously, you have to look at them as a human being. It’s that simple.”
According to a recent survey of the Springfield Area’s High Risk and Homeless Youth, LGBTQ homeless youth are more likely to self-harm than their straight peers. They are also more likely to become homeless on their own as opposed to with family.