Study details struggles of precariously housed 2SLGBTQ+ youth through COVID-19

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Young 2SLGBTQ+ people struggling to deal with precarious housing at the best of times have been forced to face even more challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, often with less support.

“The overarching themes were certainly not positive and there are not a lot of bright spots, unfortunately,” said Alex Abramovich, an independent scientist who works with Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the lead author of a report on the topic.

Sixty-one youth completed surveys and 20 youth participated in one-on-one interviews for the study released on Tuesday, which showed almost all dealing with worsening mental health, increased substance use, and lack of access to health and social support services.

“They’re living with abusive or unsupported parents, and they are really worried about their parents hearing what they’re talking about in a group or having an appointment online,” Abramovich said.


Around one-fifth of the participants were staying at a shelter, transitional housing program, or group home prior to the pandemic, which has increased to more than 40 per cent since, the data shows. Around a third said they’d been living in a public space, vehicle, or vacant building since COVID-19 hit, compared to 13 per cent beforehand.

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Homelessness and the lack of a social release from tough home environments are contributing to the worsening mental health of queer and trans youth, who often rely on peer support to offset stigma, discrimination, and identity-based rejection.

“You’re isolating 24/7 with your emotional and psychological and religious abusers and that has been pretty awful, to say the least,” said one respondent, 26-year-old CeCe. “I’ve had nervous breakdowns, I’ve had panic attacks, I’ve had anxiety attacks, I’ve had very severe depressive episodes.”

More than eight out of 10 respondents engaged in self-harm, and some 36 per cent reported attempting suicide in the last year.

All reported experiencing anxiety and symptoms of depression, with around 84 per cent scoring in the “severe” range of a medical scale for anxiety and two-thirds scoring either “moderately severe” or “severe” on a similar scale for depression.

The results from the baseline surveys completed between January and May showed that almost all youth participants experienced deteriorating mental health, including higher rates of suicidality, depression, and anxiety, and increased substance use.

The ongoing study also includes follow-ups three and six months after the initial survey, and more findings will be released over time.

While a little over a quarter of those surveyed were unemployed when the pandemic hit, more than half have been without work since, which can also exacerbate challenges.

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“I’m a very busy person, I’m a workaholic. I always need to be doing something,” said 24-yer-old Ori, another respondent. “So when COVID happened and everything was shut down, I was really, really struggling. I did not know what to do with myself. That’s when, you know, the drinking, drugs, everything started happening.”

Lily, a 20-year-old respondent, said they have seen more people in the community using opioids since the pandemic, with more overdoses and deaths, too.

“It’s been really hard because, in our community, we’ve lost some people, you know, who were sober for years, and unfortunately, it was just the pandemic that kind of hit them, and they couldn’t cope,” they said.

2SLGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented on the streets, accounting for between 20 and 40 per cent of the homeless youth population in North America, and experience significantly higher rates of mental health issues compared to heterosexual and cisgender youth around the world.

Participants in the study were aged between 16 and 29, with an average age of 21 and a first experience of homelessness at around age 16. They represented diverse ethno-racial backgrounds, including Indigenous, Black, Asian, mixed-background, and white. Most identified as transgender or gender diverse and their sexual orientation as bisexual.

Almost a quarter of the youth had to postpone a medical procedure due to the pandemic, with almost two-thirds of transgender participants forced to postpone or cancel transition-related medical appointments and half having to postpone or cancel a transition-related surgery.

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A delay at the point when young trans people have expressed a desire for and are waiting to begin medically transition is a particularly fraught time, Abramovich said.

It can “actually be really quite life-threatening for a young trans person who’s waiting for that referral for surgery or for a prescription for hormones,” he said.

“For them to have nowhere to go for support and to be living in an unsupportive situation, I think that puts them at really high risk for everything we’re seeing here in terms of severe anxiety, suicide attempts, self-harm,” he added. “Some of these numbers are really quite alarming.”

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