It is no secret that, in many ways, LGBTQ youth have it rough. Anyone with internet access can look up startling statistics about the causes and consequences of disproportionate homelessness that continue to plague young queer individuals. Some highlights include:
- Approximately 20 and 40% of American homeless youth self-identify as LGBTQ, despite less than 10% of Americans identifying as LGBT.
- Higher incidences of mental health problems and substance abuse among homeless LGBTQ youth, compared to their straight homeless counterparts.
- Discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals in many areas, such as employment (26% of survey respondents claiming they were fired for their gender identity), harassment (reports from 78% of survey respondents), and housing (19% of respondents indicating that they were denied a home or apartment on the basis of their gender identity).
- A large group (42% of the sample surveyed) of queer youth in out-of-home (i.e., foster care, juvenile detention facilities, on the streets) indicating that family conflicts due to their LGBT identity led to removal or ejection from their homes
Often, the studies that produce this data are supplemented with anecdotes wherein LGBTQ youth detail the abuses and hardships that stem from intolerance against their sexual minority status. Motifs of neglect, discrimination, and apathy weave through these individuals’ reports. For example, several transgender youth report being put into uncomfortable or inappropriate situations in shelters and state facilities that classify residents on the basis of birth gender; one male-to-female individual in a group home for boys had to petition for a court order when shelter officials refused to let her shower alone, instead of with the rest of the male cohort she lived with. Reports of negligence from authority figures also surfaced more than once. Stories range from queer victims of assaults being told by social workers that they were “asking for it” to gay and lesbian individuals being convicted as sex offenders, and having to deal with the stigma and legal restrictions associated with that label, for consensual, non-violent sex acts that are condoned among heterosexual youth.
By no means can these alarming stats and stories paint an accurate portrait of the LGBTQ community at large, and the healthy skeptic in me is always wary of taking any study or datum at face value or extrapolating research too far. Like all other reports, the studies I read through are not immune to the same mundane sampling biases and insufficiencies or erroneous interpretations that permeates research, not to mention the additional difficulties that accompany working on the intersections of marginalized, transient, and (understandably) distrustful LGBTQ and homeless communities.
Nonetheless, a relatively clear image emerges from the murky mix of quantitative data and anecdotal evidence of a community of adolescents subjected to systemic abuses, offered inadequate social services, and at high risk of trafficking.
Although phrases like “the Defense of Marriage Act” or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” will be foreign to future generations, many reports indicate that the LGBTQ community still has much work to do, particularly for its homeless youth. The social workers, activists, and researchers who have studied the LGBTQ homelessness phenomenon have put together, in their various reports, a list of strategy and policy suggestions that youth care providers can implement to prevent these vulnerable youth from “falling through the cracks” and into the hands of traffickers. These recommendations can be broadly grouped into three categories: suggested services, legislation, and policies. They range from simple to systemic to perhaps a little radical, and a few of the key suggestions are listed below:
1. Services and Programs
- Family Intervention Programs and Counseling: Since conflicts between parents and their children over the youth’s LGBTQ status often lead to the youth being removed or kicked out of their houses and left homeless, family counseling services, youth empowerment programs, and family acceptance programming could help minimize family rejection of queer youth and thus the amount of so-called “throwaway” youth.
- LGBTQ Dedicated Housing: While there is a general demand for more housing for homeless youth—in 2005 alone, over 4500 individuals were turned away from federally sponsored services and centers through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act simply due to a lack of capacity—there is a particular need for dedicated LGBTQ housing options. Existing housing services often fail to be inclusive, safe spaces for the LGBTQ community, because of general discrimination or birth gender-based housing requirements that fail to take into account one’s gender identity. Such gaps may leave youth with no place to turn but the streets, where conditions are worse and risks of becoming trafficked increase. Two recent laudable initiatives—a federal grant of up to $900,000 for transitional housing programs for homeless LGBTQ youth and a new housing development in Chicago’s Boystown for LGBTQ seniors—provide good examples for future programs.
- Research: Nearly all of the current studies on LGBTQ youth and homelessness call for more data and more funding for future studies, so that service providers and policy makers can get a better sense of the community’s and the youths’ needs.
- Safe Schools: Homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools is well documented and is a major contributor of absenteeism, mental health problems, and thus homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Proposed legislation, like the Student Nondiscrimination Act, seeks to emulate Title IX’s protection of women in schools and prohibit intolerance on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in schools.
- Decriminalization of Homelessness and “Survival Crimes”: The debilitating and stressful conditions of homelessness—which, as one study reports, affect LGBTQ adolescents more than non-queer youth—may drive individuals to substance abuse, theft, or so-called “survival sex.” Rather than simply punishing these individuals and burdening them with the legal and social stigmas of being criminals that leads to employment and housing discrimination, continued criminal activity, and higher risks of trafficking, some of the studies advocate restorative justice approaches that decriminalize homelessness, vagrancy, and crimes that needy individuals commit in favor of providing them with healing and empowering services. Illinois, for instance, passed the Illinois Safe Children’s Act in 2010, which eliminated “juvenile prostitution” from the criminal code and recognized all prostituted minors as trafficking victims rather than perpetrators, a major stride in protecting vulnerable youth.
3. Policies for Service Providers
- Universal Definitions among Agencies: What one government agency labels “homelessness” may be considered “sleeping on a friend’s couch” by another program. Creating universal and broad definitions of homelessness, that include less conventional but still relevant forms of homelessness, among service providers and agencies would ensure that more at-risk individuals are eligible for programs.
- Nondiscrimination for Grant Recipients: Federal funds go to a broad range of service providers and organizations, but there is no protocol to ensure that grant recipients carry out LGBTQ-inclusive practices in the programs. Having some form of oversight to guarantee that grant-receiving organizations do not discriminate against LGBTQ individuals, either explicitly or informally, may diffuse some of the distrust that queer youth have for service providers and make services more accessible.
- Implementing LGBTQ-friendly Policies: Small steps, like policies that prevent the disclosure of youth clients’ sexual orientations or gender identities without their consent or that allow LGBTQ clients to use their preferred instead of legal names, can make an organization more queer-inclusive.
- “Cultural Competency” Training: Each study suggested that agencies offer a curriculum that educates employees in LGBTQ issues to dispel misconceptions and biases. Earlier this year, a prison in England offered inmates and employees programming for LGBT history month. The prison has received much praise for its innovative and inclusive program, but the best endorsement comes from one prisoner who explained how the training transformed him from a self-confessed “gay bashing” homophobe to an ally of the queer community.
Looking forward, the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force in Illinois seeks to address these issues affecting LGBTQ homeless youth by collaborating with key LGBTQ community organizations and by working directly with the young people themselves. The New York-based ChildRight Project, IOFA’s new initiative that will equip child welfare workers to assist youth trafficking victims, also aims to address these concerns.
Center for American Progress: “On the Streets: The Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth”
Child Welfare League of America: “Best Practice Guidelines for Serving LGBT Youth in Out-of-Home Care”
Majd, Marksamer, and Reyes: “Hidden Injustice: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Juvenile Courts”
National Center for Transgender Inequality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: “Injustice at Every Turn”
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: “An Epidemic of Homelessness”
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: “Fact sheet: Homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth in Chicago, Ill,”
Whitbeck et al.: “Mental Disorder, Subsistence Strategies, and Victimization among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Homeless and Runaway Adolescents”