Free Tool Assesses LGBTQ Inclusiveness in Homeless Youth-Serving Agencies

Rainbow colors

Knowing that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are overrepresented among homeless youth, many homeless youth-serving agencies aim to incorporate LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming practices in a nonjudgmental manner to ensure that all youth engaging in their programs feel safe and welcome there. But until recently, there was no reliable way to assess just how effective agencies have been at achieving this goal from young people’s and staff’s perspectives, and what else an agency might need to do to improve.

The True Colors Fund’s True Inclusion Assessment Tool helps fill this information gap. It consists of 20-question surveys for youth, direct service staff, and administrative staff, plus feedback from the True Colors Fund, which compares the surveys, analyzes whether there are discrepancies among them, and offers training and technical assistance at no cost to homeless youth-serving agencies. True Colors Fund staff developed the tool two years ago based on other assessments used in the child welfare system and on feedback from a panel of young people at Covenant House New York. The True Colors Fund partnered with Covenant House International to implement the tool at 16 Covenant House agencies throughout the United States and Canada, including Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee Covenant House Florida in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“Even though we are educating staff, and think they are on same page, they may not be. It’s important for me to see where staff really are, and how we can make [the services and environment] more supportive and welcoming for youth,” said Renee Trincanello, associate executive director for clinical services at Covenant House Florida.

A Tool That Benefits Everyone

The tool came out of the True Colors Fund’s desire to ensure that homeless youth agencies are actually safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, as well as from the philosophy that such safe spaces would benefit everyone.

“If you meet the needs of the most vulnerable population you meet everyone’s needs,” said Coco Wheeler, program associate at the True Colors Fund. “If young people see that staff care about [these needs] it creates a better environment that’s more supportive for everyone.”

Trincanello added that ensuring safe spaces for LGBTQ youth addresses just one of many needs found in the homeless youth population. “Somebody who has mental health needs could also have substance use issues, and [identify as] LGBTQ. What’s important is that when you break down what [a young person’s] needs are, staff are trained to address them,” she said. The tool’s identification of discrepancies among surveys reveals what gaps may exist in staff training.

A Process With Nuanced Recommendations

The True Colors Fund aims to work with agencies to communicate recommendations that are tailored to their unique situations. “When [the True Colors Fund] provides recommendations, at every level and in all categories we provide the reasons behind them. For example, if we suggest staff trainings, we are specific about what can be done [in those trainings] to help people act in more affirming ways,” Wheeler explained.

Trincanello echoed the importance of providing nuanced rather than “cookie-cutter” recommendations, in order to strike a balance between the need for consistent practices in the organization and flexibility within the policies and procedures to address the complex needs of individuals.

At Covenant House Florida, anyone could room with each other regardless of sexual or gender orientation. “Some [youth] like that because they don’t want to be treated differently, but others say they would feel more comfortable in a room with all transgender youth, for example” Trincanello said. “Policies are important but procedures need to be flexible enough to individualize.”

Be ‘Open-Minded and Solutions-Focused’

Trincanello said that, at first, nobody wanted to complete the surveys. Staff were concerned that what they reported might differ from what the agency was striving to do. Youth wanted to make sure that their answers would not be shared with their peers. But in the end, all of them filled out the survey, including 42 youth. Her suggestion for gaining that buy-in: have a meeting with all youth and staff to facilitate peer support.

“If youth see staff’s reactions and staff see youth’s reactions, it may increase their feelings of affirmation,” she explained. For example, if a questioning young person who has not come out sees staff or youth nodding their heads in agreement with the need to create affirming and inclusive practices, they’ll know they have an ally. And if a staff member hears a peer they know and respect voicing agreement when asked to participate in the survey, it might encourage that person to complete the survey.

Trincanello also reassured staff that feedback is just data. “You can’t take it personally or get mad at it. Be open-minded and solutions-focused, and develop systems to improve.”

“Sometimes as program directors we think we are doing everything perfectly but sometimes we are not. If youth are saying something isn’t going as well as you thought, listen to it, let the seed plant, and go from there. Just because we are adults doesn’t mean we have all the answers,” Trincanello said.

While the tool was first used at Covenant House sites, it’s not limited to them. Wheeler encourages all homeless youth agencies to participate. Read Wheeler’s blog post about the tool, and access the first phase of the tool here.

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