At least half a million American teens — estimates range between 550,000 and 2.8 million youth — experience homelessness each year, advocates estimate. Lacking resources to find housing on their own, they’re continually at high risk of experiencing a night on the street.
An unexpected factor that unites the group? At least one in five identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, but the demographic could make up as much as 43 percent of the homeless youth population, according to a national survey of 350 agencies. Instead of waiting to move out before they drop the news about their sexual identity, these teens are coming out of the closet earlier. It’s a sign of society’s increasing acceptance, but their youthful independence often comes with consequences. If they face abuse at home or are kicked to the curb, teens are forced to seek shelter at emergency drop-in centers, in abandoned buildings or with friends. Already unsure of their identity, some are wary of receiving assistance from shelters (possibly religious) or social workers (possibly unsympathetic), leaving LGBT homeless teens in danger of physical violence, prostitution, substance abuse and suicide.
Connect 4 Life, a new pilot project launching in Washington, D.C., believes there’s one simple thing these kids need to stay safe from harm: a cell phone.
“Overwhelmingly, youth said that is their lifeline,” says Christopher Wood, executive director of the LGBT Technology Partnership. “It makes a lot of sense. We use our cell phones every day,” Wood adds. “Why would it be any different? Why wouldn’t it be even more crucial for someone that doesn’t have a home to have a phone? That’s why we started this project.”
Wood co-founded the organization, which lobbies on behalf of LGBT groups for greater access to technology, just three years ago, so they’re starting small, distributing 25 phones throughout the capital.
“Making sure they have consistent contact or the ability to connect to the internet greatly improves their outcomes,” Wood says, explaining that the mobile device helps determine whether the teens are able to return to school, find work or establish a stable place to stay. A phone is “their lifeline not just to supportive services, but just the ability to call a friend and say, ‘I need a place to sleep.’”
Connect 4 Life is leaving it to the service providers who interact with homeless teens on a daily basis to determine how the phones are distributed. One program is giving their share of the phones to the kids who seem at the greatest risk, so they have an instant connection to their case manager; another is using it as a kind of reward, offering their mobile devices to those with the greatest motivation to succeed. The phones come with free minutes, texting and data for 10 months. The only catch? LGBT Tech Partnership asks the teens to respond to regular survey questions. If they don’t, the phones aren’t taken away; if they do, they get to keep the devices and free plan for an extra two months.
Wood knows from personal experience how valuable those midnight calls can be. Senior year in high school, he found himself simultaneously outed and thrown out of his home.
Raised in a military family in northern Virginia, Wood was the commander of his high school’s JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). “When I was 17, I was a really good kid. I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t get into trouble,” he recalls. But he guarded the secret of his sexuality and a private love for his boyfriend. One night Wood invited his boyfriend over and fell asleep in his arms on the couch. He woke up early in the morning to find his father bellowing at him. His parents “didn’t understand, they were afraid,” he remembers. “Later that morning, I was being kicked out of my house.” Carrying a hastily packed bag of clothes, Wood didn’t know where to go next. His basic cell phone proved the “crucial” element to finding spare bedrooms and fold-out couches with friends until things smoothed out at home, he says.
“I could text and call people on it. My ability to use a cell phone meant finding a warm place to sleep after that morning. It meant putting myself back together to go to school,” he says. “That changed my entire life trajectory.”
In our increasingly connected world, these phones are proving essential to helping a wary and highly mobile group of at-risk teens safely navigate their way back to safety. It’s a low-cost answer that shelter staff has recognized for years — they’ve often paid for the plans out of their own pocket — and that’s a strategy that’s being adopted nationwide. Google has donated the devices to homeless individuals in the Bay Area, and Ohio’s state government recently asked Wood about bringing the pilot west — ensuring help is only a text message away.