LGBTQ Homelessness in Minnesota

Photos courtesy of Alex Dalbey-Thomas
Photos courtesy of Alex Dalbey-Thomas

One of the major and most pressing issues in the United States is the problem of homelessness. Homelessness and housing instability can cause deep rooted trauma and put people in extremely dangerous situations, sometimes even leading to death in the most tragic cases.

Minnesotans recognize this issue, and there are many organizations working towards ending homelessness: Emma Norton in the Twin Cities specifically, and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless are two of the many organizations that fight to provide safe, livable housing to all Minnesotans.

It might seem like homelessness is only experienced by a few people, but the problem is much more pervasive than some might assume. According to Tonya Brownlow, the Executive Director of Emma Norton, “In any given year approximately 40,000 people experience homelessness in the state of MN – which has a population of nearly 6 million people.”

Rhonda Otteson, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless (MCH), says as many as 20,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness per night, and the Minnesota Homeless Study estimates that “13,300 Minnesota youth on their own experience homelessness over the course of a year.”

Brownlow adds that, of these homeless children, “about 25% of unaccompanied youth identify as queer”.

With all of these people struggling with homelessness and housing insecurity, Minnesota does not have the infrastructure to support them all. According to Otteson, “80 [out of] 87 counties lack enough capacity to serve children, families, youth, and individuals experiencing homelessness. Shelters are often at capacity and have to turn people away; in other areas of the state, the nearest shelter may be 50-100 miles away. Sometimes, especially during the cold months, warming spaces are opened or shelters will run over capacity just to bring people inside to safety”.

Homelessness can have a lasting negative impact on people who experience it, forcing people to endure years or even a lifetime of trauma. According to Brownlow, “The average life span for a homeless person is 48 – which is 30 years younger than the average US citizen… [and] the needs of those experiencing homelessness become more and more complex over time as our community has a greater affordable housing deficit and people experience greater incidents of trauma from not having a safe and stable place to call home.”

Traumas caused by homelessness have been exacerbated by COVID-19, which was, according to Otteson, “especially difficult because of the high incidence of chronic health issues that people experiencing homelessness have, [and] put them at very grave risk during the pandemic”.

LGBTQ people specifically are affected by homelessness because of homophobia, and even though societal acceptance of queerness has increased in recent years, Brownlow states that “we just have to acknowledge that queer homelessness is a result of discrimination, bias and lack of acceptance”. LGBTQ children are especially at risk if their parents are non-supportive and face higher rates of homelessness due to being kicked out of the house. It can also be more difficult for queer people to find comfort in homeless shelters. Emma Norton’s Communications Manager, Alexa Dalbey-Thomas says, “Unfortunately, there are not enough shelters or affordable housing organizations in the Twin Cities to fully meet the needs of our community. There are especially not enough that are safe for queer people, let alone made specifically for them. Most shelters group people based on gender and so they create a huge gap in services for trans people. Queer people are more likely to experience physical violence and verbal abuse while staying in a shelter than their cishet counterparts, which makes it even harder for them to get back on their feet.”

Homelessness is not a lost cause, however, and this article is not meant to sound like it is. There are lots of ways the community can help homeless people and help end homelessness. The best way to create lasting change, according to Dalbey-Thomas is to “Advocate at the state legislature level for housing to be a priority in our state’s budget – especially with the large surplus. Donate to organizations that provide housing and critical services to people experiencing homelessness.” There are smaller, more immediate ways to support the community as well, of course. Donation is a great way to help people get on their feet, which Dalbey-Thomas adds is “the best way to support currently homeless youth is to donate to shelters that specifically support queer youth.”

But the more LGBTQ children and youth feel loved and valuable, the less likely they are to become homeless. According to both Brownlow and Dalbey-Thomas, “there are several youth-serving organizations that do really great work with queer youth. Avenues for Youth is linked here on the Outfront MN page. The Bridge for Youth and The Link are also really great with programs that are specifically tailored for queer youth”.

Opening new shelters is also incredibly important, and Emma Norton knows this. The organization broke ground on a new shelter, Restoring Waters, on January 17, 2023. “Restoring Waters will become home to more than 60 individuals and small families in this supportive housing residence,” said Mike Haberman, the Senior Account Executive for Emma Norton at NemerFieger, “and provide the foundation for every person to heal, recover, and build a more stable and harmonious future”.

There are things you can do to help. There are things we can do to help. Like Brownlow says, “If you see someone who is panhandling, and even if you don’t want to give them anything, studies have shown that at least acknowledging the person by saying hi or smiling does so much to help that person feel seen and not feel like they are invisible in our society.”

While the actual steps and process of getting there might not be so easy, the solution to homelessness and all the trauma it causes is simple, and no one says it better than Otteson, “Shelter saves lives and housing ends homelessness.”

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