Jay Perry summarized the tenor of a panel discussion on youth homelessness Thursday night.
“It all comes down to this: we have a voice, and it needs to be heard,” Perry said inside The Lyceum. “People who run the system make their voices heard and speak freely. We should be able to, too.”
Perry’s comment came at the height of an intimate, illuminating talk about one of the state’s most vulnerable populations: LGBTQ homeless youth.
The panel, organized by the Melville Charitable Trust, brought stakeholders in the supportive-housing system together with some of those youth themselves to mend gaps in understanding and empathy. High school teachers, shelter workers and youth-group organizers sought out the conversation, hosted by Ryan Berg, an author and homeless-youth counselor.
“These young people often have been neglected by their families and traumatized by public systems that leave them alienated,” said Aimee Hendrigan, the vice president of Melville, a New Haven-based nonprofit. “Discussion likes these are so much more relevant in this political climate, where we’re seeing protections stripped away from LGBT people.”
The Connecticut Coalition To End Homelessness estimates that 4,396 youth under 25 are “homeless or unstably housed,” according to a May report. And within that number, 23 percent self-identify as “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex or asexual.”
“We know youth can’t be the token seat at the table,” Hendrigan said. “We have to hear their voices, listen to their voices and take their input into our planning.”
At Thursday’s panel discussion, no topic was off limits.
Like Angel Cotto, who once ran away from home to escape the physical and mental abuse he was facing. Who would join every club he could at school to delay and limit that time there.
Even after being hospitalized because of that abuse, he said, he still had no other choice.
“It was a missed opportunity, there were other places I could go, but I was always brought back home,” he said. “We have all of these rights available to us, but sometimes, we either aren’t told about them, or they aren’t extended to us.”
Other panel members shared personal stories of suicide attempts, of the feelings of hopelessness that precede them when caretakers don’t understand the issues teens are facing.
“When you’ve turned to every person you think you can turn to, you stop seeking help because you think no one can listen; it’s a cry for help for so many people,” Natalie Garcia, another member of the hub said. “It could be as simple as a place where you can be yourself. A place to have that baseline of space where you can feel comfortable.”
But the suggestion the panelists stressed the most was that of inclusion and reflection.
“More places need to pull people who have lived the experience,” Perry said. “It’s like going to a church for the first time; you’re going to have to ask what’s going on before you can do anything.”
Perry said that LGBTQ youth “always go through this stuff alone.” That they’ve had great success in their own research because of the empathy they wield.
“Gay or trans kids don’t want to go to therapy, because they don’t want to have to educate their therapist about what they’re feeling,” Perry said. “No one knows exactly what I’ve gone through. But to have someone whose been in this type of situation, it helps.”