Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless

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It’s a statistic that deserves to come out of the closet.

Between 20 and 40 percent of the estimated 575,000 to 1.6 million homeless and runaway youth in the United States identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) – a staggeringly disproportionate figure when compared with the overall youth population, according to this joint analysis of existing research.

Given that figure, the report goes a long way toward providing solid information “to educate those who are trying to provide the best possible care for all the youth they work with,” said report author Nicholas Ray, policy analyst for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

Ray found that the road to homelessness for LGBT youth often begins when they first “come out” to their parents. One study reviewed for the report found that half of gay teens experience a negative reaction upon disclosing their sexuality to their parents, and more than one in four are kicked out of their homes shortly afterward.

Once LGBT youth are on the street or in temporary shelters, myriad forces work against their efforts to achieve healthy, independent lives, and many of those threats are exacerbated by discrimination. Among the impediments:

• Mental health issues: A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report found that LGBT youth are more vulnerable to mental health problems because they live in “a society that discriminates against and stigmatizes homosexuals.” That vulnerability is even greater for homeless youth, who face additional stigma.

• Substance abuse: Homeless youth often abuse drugs and alcohol to escape from the stresses of living on the street. According to one study, rates of personal drug use, family drug use and drug treatment are higher among LGBT youth than among homeless youth in general.

• Risky sexual behavior: One Canadian study found that LGBT youth are three times more likely than heterosexual youth to engage in “survival sex” – sex in exchange for such basic needs as food, shelter, money and clothes.

• Victimization: According to data from the National Runaway Switchboard, homeless LGBT youth are the victims of crimes at a rate seven times higher than straight homeless youth.

The report decries the chronic underfunding of the 2003 Runaway, Homeless and Missing Children Protection Act, which allocates funds for homeless youth services such as drop-in centers, street outreach, transitional living programs (TLPs) and the National Runaway Switchboard.

In 2004, that shortage of resources meant that more than 2,500 qualified youth were denied access to TLPs, according to the report, and more than 4,200 were rebuffed from Basic Center Programs, which provide emergency services and work to reunify youth with their families.

The report also examines the potential for LGBT discrimination by faith-based organizations that oppose homosexuality but receive federal funds to provide services to homeless youth, many of whom are LGBT.

It also includes the voices of homeless LGBT youth as expressed in focus groups conducted across the nation, as well as chapters by staff members of five model programs working to improve service delivery to such teens in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and Michigan.

The report concludes with recommendations for federal, state and local governments and for practitioners. Those recommendations include training staff about LGBT awareness and requiring agencies to demonstrate competence on this issue in order to be funded and licensed.

Ray said the failure of practitioners to address the special needs of LGBT youth is due not to a lack of caring, but to other factors: “They’ve not had the training, they’re nervous about addressing it, or they might be working in an atmosphere – politically or socially – where acknowledging that this is a special problem is problematic in and of itself.”


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