PORTLAND – April 16 was a “Day of Silence,” when students nationwide bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in their schools.

That same day, over 60 teens walked through the doors of our Teen Center for a meal, to study for a GED, to confide in a caseworker, to find a safe place; 16 will spend the night at our Lighthouse Shelter.

Lately there has been much public discussion of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s decision to de-fund Homeless Voices for Justice, a statewide grassroots group led by homeless and formerly homeless community organizers and activists with support from Preble Street.

What do these circumstances have to do with each other?

The reason CCHD stated for ending their association with Homeless Voices for Justice is that Preble Street decided to join Protect Maine Equality, a coalition resisting repeal of legalized gay marriage.

Lost in all the debate over their decision is the reason Preble Street decided to join the Maine Marriage Equality Coalition in the first place.

Here’s why. As many as 40 percent of unaccompanied homeless youth are forced into homelessness because of their sexual orientation. Shame and abuse from families drive LGBT youth into the streets and shelters.

Two weeks ago we learned of a boy in Georgia who gained permission from his school to take a male date to his prom. The news focused on the school’s decision and the support he received from all over the country. Almost incidentally, the article mentioned that because of the media attention he was kicked out of his house.

Because of his sexual orientation, this high school student was no longer welcome in his own home.

In Maine, at Preble Street, we see young men and women in this tragic and terribly sad and lonely situation all the time.

Many young people at the Teen Center have been forced to flee their homes when their parents find their journals or are confronted by their children with emotional struggles around sexual orientation.

Initially some parents try to be accepting. But as their children begin to dress differently, color their hair, and talk more openly, things change.

Sometimes parents became so enraged that they destroy their children’s belongings, abuse them verbally or punish them physically or force them to leave home.

Having lost the support of family and faced with the uncertainty and danger of “couch surfing,” young people often have nowhere to turn but a shelter.

At Preble Street Teen Center these young people find safety and acceptance, the opportunity to work with a Day One therapist who specializes in working with homeless LGBT youth, and support as they try to pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward.

Experiencing prejudice and rejection, without family or community support, young people become targets of even more abuse and violence and face a myriad of challenges to leading a healthy life. The statistics are appalling:

• Suicide is the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth.

• Fifty percent of gay and lesbian youth report their parents reject them due to their sexual orientation.

• Twenty-six percent of gay and lesbian youth are forced to leave home because of conflicts over their sexual orientation.

• Approximately 28 percent of gay and lesbian youth drop out of high school because of verbal and physical abuse.

• Gay and lesbian youth are at greater risk for school failure than heterosexual children — because often schools are neither safe, healthy nor productive places for them.

We cannot turn our backs on them.

Our mission is to help them survive, feel better about themselves, recognize their options and care about their futures.

As Mainers, we chose to be one of the first states to expand human rights protections to all regardless of sexual orientation.

With the leadership of Homeless Voices for Justice, Maine also became the first state in the nation to add protections to homeless people when they are victims of targeted attacks.

For Preble Street, connecting the dots between homeless teens and the rights of all Mainers to marry is not difficult.

Our work is about economic and social justice. Our mission is about empowering the poor and homeless.

We will not back down from providing shelter for anyone who is homeless or food for anyone who is hungry.

And we cannot back down from providing a voice for homeless people regardless of their orientation or viewpoint.

 

– Special to the Press Herald