YOUTH ENGAGEMENT

When youth are truly engaged in the programs and services of the organizations that are working to support them, they are far more willing and able to participate, learn and grow and find the programs more interesting and relevant. They develop resiliency, are less susceptible to negative influences, and feel empowered to move forward in a constructive way (National Learning Community on Youth Homelessness, 2009: 2).

The module is an overview of the youth focus group. Please see Youth Focus Groups Report for full details.

For this project, we needed to ensure that we engaged LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness in the design of the Toolkit. This section outlines our method for engaging young people and their insights into what they need from us to better support them when they access our services and programs.

Need for Focus Groups

Focus Groups are an important tool for service providers to hear and understand the experiences of youth who access our programs. For this Toolkit, we needed to hear from LGBTQ2S youth about what barriers they are facing when accessing services and what their experiences are with service delivery organizations. To date, focus groups have been held in Guelph (ON), Ottawa (ON), St. John’s (NL) and Toronto (ON).

We know from the research and from what the young people with whom we work, that there are issues with our spaces that make LGBTQ2S feel unsafe and unsupported (Dunne et al., 2002; Abramovich, 2013; Quintana et al., 2010; Denomme-Welch et al., 2008).

Youth Focus Group OUTreach poster
Photo Credit: Eva’s Initiatives

 

Structure

During the focus groups, we did not want youth to be in a position where they felt obligated to share their negative experiences and traumas. To prevent this we structured the focus group scenarios to be solution based. Meaning that we asked youth what our spaces would need to be like for them to feel comfortable, supported, and respected.

The goal was to have focus groups in a variety of Learning Community member cities. With this in mind we developed a Focus Group Facilitation Guide to have consistent focus group data to work with. The Facilitation Guide outlines all activities of the focus group session, including the ice breaker, scenarios and closing.

In preparing the focus group structure we identified three stages in which  youth interact with staff and organizations:

  1. Intake: the process of first entering the shelter: completing information forms and organizational orientation.
  2. Case Management: the collaborative process that assesses, plans, implements, coordinates, monitors, and evaluates the options and services required to meet the youth’s needs.
  3. Exit: This is commonly referred to as discharge and is when youth are leaving the shelter/program. Exit is the process of transitioning youth to the next phase. This can include support moving to independent housing, referral to another program and setting follow up supports post-exit.

Scenarios

Based on existing research on the LGBTQ2S youth experiencing homelessness and our survey with youth serving organizations we developed the following themes for the youth focus group scenarios: 1) staff training, 2) space and 3) policies. We wanted to hear from youth about youth organization can improve:

  • housing;
  • drop-Ins;
  • complaints process;
  • physical space; and
  • training

for LGBTQ2S youth who access services and programs.

Scenario Results

Housing

Process

Youth have identified the need for the intake process to be inclusive in order for them to feel respected. There needs to be space on documentation for chosen names and gender identity. This is important because gender identity is very diverse with a number of labels. Chosen name/preferred pronoun should be asked at the start of the intake process.  A box to reflect this information needs to be on the form as opposed to writing the preferred name and pronoun on the side of the paper where it may be missed by some staff and may make the youth feel less than equal to others.

Youth feel that the intake process is repetitive in that it is the same each time. Organizations are encouraged to review their intake process. Is it possible to streamline the process? Is there a way to structure intakes so that youth who have already stayed at the shelter do not need to retell their stories each time they intake?

Having more individualized and fluid forms allows for more open dialog and less scripted responses to traditional forms.

Staff Interactions

Youth need staff to respect their identities. This means using the chosen name of youth and the correct pronoun. Staff should ask youth for their chosen name and preferred pronoun during the intake process. This should be part of the process for all youth as many youth may not self-disclose information this early in the process.

In addition youth need to feel secure that staff respect their confidentiality. Many LGBTQ2S youth feel unsafe in the shelter system due to homophobia and transphobia from staff and other youth. Confidentiality policies should be shared with youth (during intake and posted in public spaces) and also enforced.

Space

The participants want to walk into a space feeling safe and respected. They were very clear that use of their preferred name and pronoun be used and that this conversation during an Intake process be as natural and organic as asking any other question that is part of a traditional intake form.

Youth would like to see signs that organizations are inclusive. This includes posters, stickers or pride flags.

Staff

Youth would like to see improved staff hiring practices by improving the expected training of staff to start in the organization.  Youth want staff who are committed to working with youth as they are and to be treated and respected as an individual.

Training

Training is a recurring theme throughout the focus group session. Youth felt the majority of staff were not intentionally disrespecting them, but that they simply did not have the knowledge/experience/training to understand them or how to interact with them. Further, youth do not feel that they should be educating staff, rather organizations need to prioritize LGBTQ2S training for staff.

Once again, staff education and safety were predominant during this portion of our discussion. The participants believe that it is not their role to “train” staff on how to best provide support to LGBTQ2S youth and that organizations need to have such training available to their staff upon hire. Further it is important that staff are aware that a person can identify as transgender and may not wish to have surgery or take hormones.  This is a personal choice and does not mean they are not transgender.

Space

It is important for youth that shelters/housing programs have inclusive living spaces and washrooms to ensure that youth who identify as trans feel comfortable, supported, and respected.  Youth also identified the need for shelters to include spiritual spaces.

Programming/Services

Youth who participated shared that for many supportive services, the culture needs to shift to include the LGBTQ2S population. There are many layers to effectively supporting LGBTQ2S youth and as youth serving organizations, it is crucial that we, as the professionals, ensure that we are making this a priority through our policies ( and hiring practices).

LGBTQ2S youth may require additional supports and services. This often means travelling from the shelter to other organizations. Youth would like organizations to offer transportation support to youth.

Policy and Procedures

Some policies interfere with the inclusiveness of organizations. For example,  legal identification is used to label youth’s gender identity and for many if not most trans and two spirit youth there is a disconnect between their gender and what is listed on their health card. Also most  intake forms are not inclusive of the diversity of gender identities that exist.

Policies set the standards of our organizations. Policies need to make it clear that organizations will not tolerate discrimination by staff, volunteers or youth on any grounds. Such policies enable staff to act on incidents of homophobia and transphobia.

Referrals

Exiting a program generally involves referrals to other programs or supports. It is important during this stage that referrals are made with the youth in mind, specifically around their sexual orientation and gender identity, as some programs will be a better fit for the youth. It is important to youth that staff care where they are going and if it will be a good fit for them. This means proper referrals to other programs that respect the youth’s sexuality and/or gender identity. For example staff should not refer a trans woman to a men’s only shelter. Youth want to be respected enough to have an input into where they were going, and as to what they would need to make that work. Youth would like to see more flexibility and ability to have input on the exiting process.

During this topic, it was pretty evident that there are major gaps within our systems regarding shelter exits, in particular with the LGBTQ2S population. The youth were very vocal about how unsafe it is for them within the shelter system so when there is no concrete plan upon exiting, they are at an even higher risk for being victims of violence and exploitation.

It is important for youth, that staff assist with the transition process and refer them to appropriate resources where staff has an understanding of working with LGBTQ2S youth. Youth feel that “exiting” needs to be a process and not a “day” where they are no longer able to avail of services. For youth, an exit process from a shelter (or otherwise) needs to be at the pace of the youth and not based solely on a programs mandate.

It is important that youth decide where they are going and not be told where they are going. It is also necessary that there is communication amongst resources/youth and that there staff continue to provide after-care support (i.e. text/phone check-in’s) for a period of time after exit.

Training

It is important that there is consistency in our communities in terms of training to ensure coherent case management across organizations and sectors. Youth being referred from emergency shelter to transitional housing should be able to expect that staff have been trained in cultural competency to properly support LGBTQ2S youth.

Drop-in

Focus Group participants want the same things as any other youth that would access drop-in spaces. They want access to basic needs (such as showers, laundry, computers). Youth also want to feel safe in the space. Youth want drop-ins to be a space where they can feel comfortable and relax. For this to happen, youth require the code of conduct to be visible and for staff to set the tone of respect.

Like all youth accessing our services, when LGBTQ2S youth go to a drop in, they want to feel safe and respected.

Much of the needs are the same as the intake stage. Youth were more vocal about the need for gender neutral washrooms. Public washrooms are very stressful for trans and gender non-confirming people. It is important that spaces be inclusive, so all youth feel comfortable. Please see the Physical Space section for more details

Youth also want medical and transportation supports. LGBTQ2S youth (especially trans youth) have distinctive health needs from heterosexual/cis youth. Medical supports need to be inclusive and queer-positive. Also LGBTQ2S youth sometimes need to travel distances to access services and programs that are LGBTQ2S supportive and require transportation support.

The big discussion that came out of this question was with regards to community/government groups and the necessity for a LGBTQ2S Liaison. The youth believe that not only should service providers have an appropriate LGBTQ2S Liaison, but also need to be open to the idea and the benefits that it would bring to both the youth and the staff.

The youth also felt from a case management perspective, there needs to be more collaborative practice and communication amongst the staff so their needs are met more seamlessly. Their experiences indicate gaps in such practice which has resulted in them feeling disempowered and not respected or important. They did state that they know communication can be challenging when there are multiple staff/service providers involved but it does impact them on many levels.

Complaint Response Process

It is important that code of conducts and policies are visible for youth and staff. Staff need to have the authority to take action when policies are violated. This requires receiving training and having the support of other staff to be able to enforce the rules. Management also need to support staff decisions. Youth want zero tolerance policies to mean zero tolerance. This is another place where youth want to ensure confidentiality and discretion. The complaints process should be clearly posted in the space. The process should outline the resolution steps for youth and staff issues.

The youth were pretty adamant that this is a very black and white area and that there can be no tolerance for any/all incidents of homophobia or transphobia. They shared that having consistent responses to such incidents is necessary as again, it creates a climate that permeates amongst staff/resident and sets the standard, which then in turn will decrease the behaviour.

Physical Space

Having LGBTQ2S inclusive spaces requires more than having posters with rainbows. Physical space can be an indicator of inclusive spaces, but training and policies are needed for organizations to be inclusive. Space was also ranked as a primary and a secondary needs.

Public/shared washrooms can be very stressful for trans and gender non-conforming individuals as they are often harassed in gendered washrooms. When possible washrooms should be single use non-gendered. This ideal situation is not possible in all spaces. A compromise some organizations have adopted is to have a third washroom available that is non-gendered and is usually the accessibility washroom. The problem here is that by using the third washroom, a youth could be outed for being trans.

Youth want to have groups and activities posted in the space. It is important that there is a variety of groups and activities be shared with youth. For youth who are not out in the shelter or drop-in, it is easy to scan a board with a variety of activities without drawing attention that they are looking for LGBTQ2S resources.

At first it may seem odd that confidentiality with staff is under physical space. But there needs to be confidential/private spaces for youth to talk with staff.

Youth also want to see trans inclusive living spaces. This includes how space is designed and the policies implemented and enforced.

Youth identified physical space as perhaps the most significant area where emphasis needs to be placed when addressing the needs of/supporting LGBTQ2S youth. Feeling safe and accepted in a space needs to include much more than a “place” and perhaps where organizational policies need to begin (and grow!).

As their responses indicate, the group had a great deal to say and again, the overarching trend tended to focus on training/education, safety and respect. The young people expressed that while promoting inclusivity is important, it is more significant that the energy and culture within the space is inclusive. This is or can be created through ensuring staff are properly informed and educated and most importantly, that staff are open-minded and open to learning. Again, I see this as a policy implementation piece within organizations as it will set the tone that is required to create an environment that is conducive to meeting the needs of LGBTQ2S youth.

With regards to “personal space”, this was surrounding being able to have private conversations that protected their confidentiality. When a space is open without a surety that what they’re discussing is not overheard, it can create fear and not feel like a safe place to be/to share.

The other area that there was a lot of discussion around was washrooms. LGBTQ2S youth need to have options when it comes to washrooms, as their needs vary. While the group all agreed that not having gender specific bathrooms was really important, they also shared that having stalled/communal washrooms was a huge safety risk for them as it can be very unsafe. Also, we need to consider transgender youth and their needs and ensuring they have a safe space (i.e. for binding, etc..). Basically, we need to think about things differently and be more aware of the benefits/consequences of bathroom space, options and safety.

Training

As mentioned earlier, youth should not be expected to train staff. Rather this is the obligation of organizations. The first part is hiring of staff who have an aptitude for working with youth (as stated earlier).

Our organizational survey of Learning Community members validates other research that  there is little LGBTQ2S training available for staff. Often training in our sector is not ongoing. Staff are expected to participate in a list of training sessions when they start at an organization, but there are no refreshing and/or updating sessions. “For example, one staff member reported that he had been working in the shelter system for 10 years and had only taken one anti-oppression workshop during his first year of work and had never had any follow-up training” (Abramovich, 2013:393).

It’s really important to youth that we need to be educated by the LGBTQ2S community as they are the experts and can provide the knowledge needed to effectively inform best practice.

Conclusion

These focus groups were vital to the process of developing the LGBTQ2S Toolkit. A look in to the minds of LGBTQ2S youth and what their needs are can never be more accurate than when talking to LGBTQ2S youth themselves. The feedback they gave has shown striking information, not the least of which is that even with the additional obstacles LGBTQ2S youth face in the shelter system, they are still looking for the basics, like a bed, like respect. After those needs the LGBTQ2S specific ones came out, and youth just want to be heard and accepted for who they are, they want their names used, they want their identities respected, and they want a safe place to figure themselves out. Too often we forget that these youth are just that, youth, and we forget that these people are exploring themselves too, and we need to facilitate that personal growth.

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