“A problem no one should ignore": HUD Secretary Julian Castro unloads to Salon on gay rights, homelessness & America

Widely touted future Democratic star sounds off on an American housing travesty -- and how he's trying to fix it

By Edward Wyckoff Williams
Published February 18, 2015 6:30PM (UTC)
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Julian Castro (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

A house does not necessarily make a home. But for far too many American children and teens that identify as gay, lesbian or transgender, there is no house to call home at all.

It’s a strange and inconvenient truth that as gay Americans experience a sea change of socio-political acceptance, the rates of LGBT youth homelessness in the United States is increasing. A report by the Center for American Progress describes it simply: “Twenty years ago, most people started coming out in their 20s, well after most had left home and started working. If someone’s family rejected them for being gay or transgender, it may have been emotionally painful, but the person could still likely take care of himself or herself.”


Alex Morris, writing for Rolling Stone, further explains, “The average coming-out age has dropped…to around 16 today, which means that more and more kids are coming out while they're still economically reliant on their families.” So when tensions escalate or result in verbal and physical abuse, both at school and at home, many LGBT youth are more likely to be evicted or run away.

A silent epidemic is afoot. Gay and lesbian youth comprise an astounding 40 percent of America’s estimated 2.8 million homeless youth population, yet they make up less than 7 percent of the general youth population in the United States. Family rejection and physical abuse are the most frequently reported reasons that LGBT youth experience homelessness, and for transgendered youth – and those struggling with gender identity – the situation is even worse.

One in five transgender Americans experience homelessness because of discrimination and family rejection. And even the institutions designed to help them also discriminate, as 29 percent of homeless transgender people report being turned away from shelters.


As a result, LGBT youth homelessness has become a disease with myriad symptoms.

Research finds that homeless youth who identify as gay are more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience clinical depression. The Centers for Disease Control found LGBT youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide. And those whose families rejected them were 8.4 times more likely. Once homeless, 58.7 percent of LGBT homeless youth reported being victims of sexual assault. They are more likely to be recruited by human traffickers and forced into drugs and prostitution.

It gets worse. Finding shelter for homeless youth is neither simple nor easy; and a lack of public resources is the major obstacle. A report from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2006 found that in New York City—which at the time had a homeless youth population of nearly 4,000 —there were less than 450 transitional living beds available. And with an average age of 14, these young people are ill equipped to face the harsh realities of what it means to be homeless. In California a quarter of those surveyed reported that they had spent the previous night in a place that was unfit for human habitation – with many forced to stay on the street, a squat, alley, or transportation station. Approximately half had spent the night in such locations in the previous month.


But if, as the African proverb says, it takes a village to raise a child, then President Obama’s administration is joining the effort and taking up the mantle.

This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a new partnership initiative with the True Colors Fund –an organization founded by award-winning artist Cyndi Lauper, with a mission to create safe spaces and housing solutions for the hundreds of thousands of LGBT homeless youth.


“No young person deserves to be homeless,” Cyndi Lauper said in a statement announcing the partnership with HUD. “Let alone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. If we truly want to end youth homelessness, which is a fixable issue, then we have to invest in prevention and support communities as they work to implement these life-changing efforts.”

HUD and the True Colors Fund have been working together since 2013 to conceive the LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative, a first-of-its-kind effort to identify successful strategies to ensure that these young people are never left without a home. The program is first being implemented in the major metropolitan areas of Houston and Cincinnati.

Past studies have shown that the major barrier to improving services was a lack of funding on the state, local and federal level. As a result HUD is developing financial partners by building a coalition of philanthropic organizations to fund the implementation. Much like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative”, HUD’s LGBT youth homelessness program will rely heavily on non-government organizations, corporate, philanthropic and charitable investments.


It’s a harsh reality, but one worth noting, that when Congress fails to do its job, a coalition of the willing must fill in the gap.

HUD Secretary Julian Castro spoke exclusively to Salon to discuss the importance of protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Castro, who is widely seen as a future leader of the Democratic Party, has long been an advocate for LGBT rights – even when he served as mayor of San Antonio in his conservative home state of Texas. The secretary highlights President Obama’s record on gay and lesbian equality as well as his own personal commitment – using the resources and authority of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to tackle the silent epidemic of LGBT youth homelessness. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Please discuss the new initiative with True Colors Fund. How did this come about? Why are these issues important to you and to President Obama’s administration? 


One of the goals of my department is to ensure that all Americans have a level playing field. That they can live where they want to live –including LGBTQ Americans. This partnership with the True Colors Fund is another example of the kinds of engagements that will be effective in trying to make that possible.

President Obama has set a goal of effectively ending homelessness by the year 2020. What we see out there is that LGBTQ youth make up a significantly disproportionate percentage of homeless youth in the United States. And this is a problem no one should ignore. About two and a half months ago, I visited the LGBT Center in Los Angeles and had a chance to sit and visit with LGBT youth who had been homeless. We hear the stories oftentimes that they end up homeless because of disapproval or turmoil within their families. And we want to ensure – as a department – that we are responsive to real needs. The True Colors Fund initiative is part of that. Every child, regardless of sexual orientation, deserves the safety and security of a home. We will do everything in our power to make that dream a reality.

Why is the pilot program starting in Houston and Cincinnati? 

Both these major metropolitan areas represent a wide swath of Americans. They are both incredibly diverse and growing cities. Harris County, in particular, which is basically Houston, is the third largest county in the U.S. We wanted to begin with an area that was large enough and diverse enough to be representative of the wider populace. And this is only the beginning. 


Both you and your predecessor have made a commitment to addressing and participating in the Creating Change conference, which was held in Denver earlier this month. Do you see the cause of securing rights for the marginalized and the most vulnerable as central to HUD’s mandate? Has that always been the case? Or have President Obama and the administration become thought leaders and trailblazers in this space? 

I’m very proud of the work that the administration has done. The president has been the leading voice on this issue; and HUD has done incredible work over the past few years under Secretary Donovan, which my team and I are now continuing. We are very committed to ensuring that LGBTQ individuals are treated fairly in the housing marketplace, and to address the needs of folks who are homeless--especially young people.

The Equal Access rule that HUD promulgated is a good example of our commitment and we continue to strengthen that by ensuring equal access to housing and lending without regard to sexual orientation. I want HUD to be a leader among federal departments in ensuring equality for our gay and lesbian neighbors and friends.

Your department has been charged with administering the Fair Housing Act's prohibitions on housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. But to date, the FHA does not expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That would require an act of Congress. Is this something that would be impossible to pass in the Republican-led House and Senate? Or do Democrats have allies in the GOP? And though you mentioned the Equal Access Rule issued by HUD itself, does that carry any legislative and legal authority or is it ceremonial? Can the Equal Access Rule be enforced? 


Firstly, my hope is that Congress will act to change that – sooner rather than later. It’s the right thing to do. I believe that every day that goes by with a lack of protections for the LGBT community in that legislation and other significant pieces of legislation, means that the effects of discrimination are more and more glaring. My hope is that will change soon. And, of course, we are always willing to partner with both Republicans and Democrats on those types of issues, but we are also not sitting back and waiting for Congress to act.

That’s why we promulgated the Equal Access Rule. And, yes, we are certainly enforcing it. We have full legal authority to enforce it under the Fair Housing Office.

Send the word out: We expect public housing authorities and every organization we deal with through the Federal Housing Agency, we expect them to treat LGBT customers fairly and the same way they’d treat anyone else.

Have you pursued specific discrimination cases under the new rule? 


Yes. We’ve had the opportunity to investigate about 160 discrimination complaints from members of the LGBT community. One notable case that we pursued and for which we received an enforcement action was against Bank of America. They had denied a loan to a Florida lesbian couple that was trying to obtain an FHA-insured mortgage. They were denied simply because of their sexual orientation and marital status. That is not acceptable.

Folks should certainly know that HUD is serious about ensuring that gay and lesbian Americans are fairly treated. We believe there are no second-class citizens. And I will do every single thing that I can to make sure that everyone is protected.

Edward Wyckoff Williams

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root and a contributor to Al Jazeera America. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al Jazeera, MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Barack Obama Federal Government\ Gay Rights Gay Youth Homelessness Housing Interview Julian Castro Lgbt Texas