May 29, 2021

I wanted to focus more on policy and research and try to make more of a structural impact, says Jama Shelton.

Jama Shelton (Photo courtesy of Shelton)
Jama Shelton (Photo courtesy of Shelton)


Jama Shelton (Ph.D. ’13, Social Welfare) is the associate director of the Silberman Center for Sexuality and Gender at Hunter College and an assistant professor at Hunter's Silberman School of Social Work. Shelton is also the chief strategy officer for True Colors United, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth. LGBTQ+ youth are highly overrepresented in the homeless populations, and are estimated by some advocates as being 120% more likely to experience housing instability than other youth. 

Shelton recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the often-overlooked structural forces behind this phenomenon: poverty and racism.

The Graduate Center: What do you see as the most important issues facing LGBTQ+ youth right now?

Shelton: My work is around homelessness and housing instability, which you can’t really separate from poverty.

And you can’t separate poverty from racism. Structurally, racism and poverty are huge concerns. Another concern on a structural level is our reliance on the gender binary, which impacts anyone who transgresses any kind of “gender norm.” What we’re seeing right now, across the country at the state and local levels, is 100-plus anti-trans bills. There are certainly concerns like mental health issues and bullying, but it’s my belief that we have to talk about the bigger picture, like the critically important structural factors behind those problems, like racism, poverty, and reliance on the gender binary.

GC: Do you see racism and poverty as having an additionally adverse effect on LGBTQ+ youth?

Shelton: If I'm looking at just the issue of housing instability and homelessness, and the work that I’ve done and the people I’ve worked with, youth of color, especially Black youth, are over-represented in the population of youth experiencing homelessness. 

A really oversimplified story that often gets told is that LGBTQ+ young people are homeless because of identity-based family rejection. That is true for some people, but being kicked out of your house for your identity looks different if you come from a wealthy family with means and resources, than if you come from a family that doesn’t have those things. Also, that oversimplification of the precursors to homelessness for this population, unintentionally or maybe intentionally, creates a narrative that families of color are more homophobic and transphobic, and that’s not true. That’s a dangerous narrative.

If you ask the question of why youth of color, particularly Black youth, are overrepresented in the population of people experiencing homelessness, my belief is that poverty has a direct impact.

And racist housing policy and the wealth gap and larger structural factors play into poverty. In my mind, all of those things are bound together in a way that’s important to talk about, when we talk about homelessness within this population.

GC: What led you to focus on homelessness?

Shelton: I didn’t set out to do that. But when I was in my master’s program, my first internship placement was at a Brooklyn women’s shelter. I moved here from Texas and prior to that I lived my entire life in rural Mississippi, and homelessness was not a thing that I knew about.

That placement was really eye-opening for me. I knew that I wanted to work with LGBTQ+ young people. My second year, I had a placement with LGBTQ+ young people. Towards the end of my master's program, my loan money was running out. A friend of mine worked at the Ali Forney Center, an organization in the city that does wraparound services for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, and connected me with a position there. That’s what brought me into that work. I passionately believe that housing is a human right and we should all have a place to live that is livable and safe.

The other piece is that I had my own bouts with housing instability and homelessness in my early 20s. That wasn’t a conscious driver of my work. In fact, I didn’t even really think about that or realize it until I was in the middle of doing work with young people who were experiencing homelessness. I remember the actual moment that I had the kind of revelation. I was in my early 30s, and I realized that it makes sense that this is the work that I’m doing.

GC: What led you to The Graduate Center?

Shelton: I was doing direct service work and then moved into program design and administrative work and evaluation work at the shelter. While I was there, I went back to school to get my Ph.D., specifically because I just kept seeing the same young people cycle back through the program. Even though we were a LGBT-specific program, something wasn’t working. That was particularly true for the trans youth we were working with. I wanted to focus more on policy and research and try to make more of a structural impact, although, of course, the day-to-day work is exceedingly important.

When I was finishing up school, I intended to stay in the academic world. It so happened that I was offered the position at True Colors, which does advocacy, policy research, public education around LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.

I couldn’t have created a better next-step job, if I were to stay in the nonprofit sector.

Knowing that I wanted to eventually end up back in the academic world, I took that position and stayed there for three years. It was actually critically important, I think, to getting me into an academic job and being able to do the kinds of work and research I’m doing now.

I was able to gain national policy experience, community organizing experience, in a way that I couldn’t have done otherwise. I made a lot of connections with people all around the country. My work now is a direct result of the direct practice work I was doing. My hope is that it also feeds back into those communities and benefits those relationships that I made over the course of my career so far. I really believe in doing practice-based research that can shift the field of homelessness. I try to bring that in under the umbrella of the Silberman Center for Sexuality and Gender, and that way we can have a little bit of institutional support. 

GC: What are your top policy recommendations, either on a local or a national level, that would really help LGBTQ+ youth, particularly if they’re homeless?

Shelton: There are two primary federal funding mechanisms for homelessness programs. One is the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. We did a lot of work at True Colors around the act’s reauthorization years ago, analyzing that policy through a lens of cisheterosexism [the system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses LGBTQ+ and nonbinary people]. We looked at things that you might not think would actually impact LGBTQ+ youth, but they do. A lot of the programs and services funded through that mechanism are designed to reunify families, which I’m not saying should not happen. But for some people, that’s not an option. And there’s the idea of family. There can be folks who can intervene in a person’s life who aren’t their legal or blood relatives. We crafted some language to try to expand the definition of family for these programs.

That funding mechanism is also minuscule, so that’s a problem. I think our national response to youth homelessness has always come from a reactionary standpoint like, “Oh, there are young people who are homeless. We’ve got to get shelter beds, so they have somewhere to sleep.” But there’s not a lot of focus on prevention, which would require we tackle something like poverty, because family reunification also doesn’t work if there’s no room in the house or the apartment for the young person. A lot of times when I worked with young people directly, they say, “My family is totally fine that I’m gay, but I turned 18 and I’m sharing a bedroom with my four siblings. It was time for me to go.” No amount of family counseling is going to fix that.

It's not about family, it’s about poverty. How can we make sure people’s basic needs are being met? 

On the state level, we really have to look at what is going on with anti-trans legislation. All of these measures, which are specifically targeting trans people, are also about gender nonconformity. There’s some overlap in terms of gender nonconformity or gender expression that I think is the target of all of this. That can extend beyond people who are trans, that can extend to people whose gender expression or gendered behavior is outside of white heterosexual norm.

GC: What’s your advice for someone who is just starting out in a Ph.D. program or might want to follow a similar career path?

Shelton: I had a vision, once I started working and decided to go back to get a Ph.D., of the topic I wanted to focus on. But I didn’t go in knowing that I wanted to be a researcher or an academic; I didn't know what was going to come of it. Being able to remain open to possibilities, and to assess whether or not, really worked out well for me. I know that’s not true for everyone.

I love teaching. I’m a total nerd. I wanted to keep doing this. Then the True Colors job came about and I was like, “I should do this.” It didn’t change my trajectory, but it changed the scenery, it made the ride a little smoother. A core part of what we teach in social work and organizing, and it’s also been a core part of my experience, is that relationships are super important. I say to my students, “These people in this room with you right now are your colleagues for forever.”

Make these connections and relationships. I think one of the reasons why I’ve been able to develop and begin to implement a pretty solid research agenda is the relationships I made with people when I was doing direct service work, and then when I was doing organizing work and advocacy work with True Colors. Without being really involved in the community, I wouldn’t be where I am.

I feel like a lot of times people think, “Just keep your head down and do your work. It’s going to seem hard but don’t give up." Which is true. But really make and nurture relationships because that’s the way we’re going to get work done. That’s the way we’re going to make change.