Striving to end LGBTQ youth homelessness
Over the past 10 years, Dr. Alex Abramovich has been working – as a researcher and a passionate advocate – to end homelessness among LGBTQ youth in Canada and internationally.
“Homelessness is a serious issue among LGBTQ youth across Canada,” says Dr. Abramovich, post-doctoral fellow in CAMH’s Institute for Mental Health Policy Research. A 2013 City of Toronto study found that young people who identify as LGBTQ make up 21 per cent of individuals in youth shelters. “We have reasons to believe that number is actually higher, because a high proportion of LGBTQ youth do not access shelters due to safety issues, and many LGBTQ youth do not feel safe coming out as LGBTQ to those conducting surveys,” says Dr. Abramovich. LGBTQ youth are also at increased risk of mental health and substance use challenges. (See below, “A new substance use support program for LGBTQ youth.”)
Dr. Abramovich's work has contributed toward monumental milestones during the past year. The Alberta government approved all six key recommendations in a strategy report he prepared for the Alberta government to prevent and end LGBTQ youth homelessness, and committed funding for specialized housing and provincial staff training. "It's the first time a provincial government has stepped up in this way," he says. And supported by a significant investment from Toronto City Council, Canada’s first transitional housing program for LGBTQ youth, the YMCA Sprott House, launched in January. Dr. Abramovich played a key role in helping to develop Sprott House.
Still, cautions Dr. Abramovich, “there’s a lot of work to be done.” Building evidence to support further change, both at home and abroad, is driving several research initiatives underway.
Evaluating Toronto's new specialized housing
This spring, Dr. Abramovich will kick off a study with the newly opened Sprott House. The 25-bed residence for youth ages 16 to 24 years provides a safe and supportive environment for up to a year. The specialized residence protects against the violence and discrimination that Dr. Abramovich has found many LGBTQ youth experience not only on the streets, but also in many shelters, which frequently lack staff training and other supports to assist LGBTQ youth.
In his study, Dr. Abramovich will conduct one-on-one interviews and surveys with two groups: residents who begin living at Sprott House and people on Sprott House's wait list. For both groups, he will examine a range of factors, including anxiety, depression, risk of suicide, family connectedness, community involvement and self-esteem. After a year, he will conduct the same assessments with each group. "Our goal is better understand the benefits of specialized housing for this population of young people," says Dr. Abramovich.
With Sprott House breaking new ground in Canada, he adds, "we need to evaluate it so other services can operate from an evidence-based model."
Sparking conversations using film
In another project, he developed a 30-minute documentary film, called Nowhere to Go: A Brokered Dialogue. This film is the outcome of an innovative research method known as brokered dialogue. Developed by two scientists at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, brokered dialogue is a "qualitative, film-based, participatory research method that focuses on an issue that has tension, and features participants who would not normally engage with each other," says Dr. Abramovich.
In this case, the participants are three LGBTQ youth with lived experience of homelessness and mental health challenges, the City of Toronto's General Manager of Shelter Operations, Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and a child and youth psychiatrist.
Dr. Abramovich conducted an initial one-on-one interview with each participant to learn "where you stand with the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness and access to mental health services for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness." He then worked with a community artist to create a film that captured each participant's key points, and shared it with participants to spark a larger conversation. Next, he recorded a second interview in which each participant responded to the different perspectives in the film, as well as specific questions. Participants approved the content they shared at every stage of the project, including in the final documentary.
"Film helps people understand complex issues in a different way," says Dr. Abramovich. "There are very clear solutions outlined at the end of the 30-minute film.”
He has submitted the film for consideration for this year's Inside Out LGBTQ film festival, and is planning to screen the film locally. He is also completing a research report as part of the project.
International and national collaborations
At the international level, Dr. Abramovich is in discussions to collaborate on research in Cuba. Last November, he led a roundtable discussion about issues facing LGBTQ youth with Mariela Castro Espin, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (Cenesex) and a longtime advocate for LGBTQ rights in Cuba. (Castro Espin is the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro.) A possible research collaboration, including the University of Havana, is at very early stages of discussion and would establish measures to better understand the experiences of LGBTQ youth in Cuba.
In Canada, "I hope at CAMH to continue working with different levels of government in order to develop a national strategy to end LGBTQ youth homelessness," says Dr. Abramovich.