Addressing LGBT Homeless Youth Population Target of New UIC-led Initiative

Photo by coldsnowstorm / Thinkstock 

In nationwide efforts to tackle the pervasive problem of homelessness, the vast community of LGBT youth on the streets often flies under the radar. With temperatures dropping to deadly record lows in Chicago and elsewhere – and the number of LGBT children without shelter only climbing – the University of Illinois at Chicago is launching a project to target this exact demographic with needed services.

In fact, of the homeless youth on the streets today, statistics indicate that around 40 percent are LGBT-identified. That’s a very high concentration of the homeless population, considering that LGBT people make up only 10 percent of the total population.

The Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago and prominent advocacy groups in an ambitious 3-year plan to address LGBT homelessness nationwide.

UIC received a $900,000 grant from the agency and began preparation for the project, called 3/40 BLUEPRINT, last October. Working alongside the Human Rights Campaign and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, researchers at UIC are working to expand and improve the resources available nationally to homeless LGBT youth.

“It’s basically a knowledge gathering and disseminating project,” said UIC Assoc. Professor Alan Dettlaff (pictured at left), the project’s lead researcher. “True to its name, we’re producing a plan for what an agency could actually do to build their capacity and expand their services.”

The project is split into three phases, Dettlaff said, each lasting one year and receiving a third of the total budget. The first phase, which moved into full gear this month, is the information-gathering period.

“It’s a systematic review of all the literature,” Dettlaff said, “everything that’s out there on these services and how to provide for these youth.”

The first year also includes a “needs assessment” period, when researchers and advocates tour facilities, interview youth and providers, and determine where the gaps in service exist.

A key element of the project, which researchers are calling the “technical expert group,” is initiating this month as well. Project leaders have spent the last few months identifying valuable members for the group, which will advise and guide the project through quarterly meetings. Members of the group include homeless youth, advocates, and service providers from urban, rural and tribal areas of the nation.

Bill Bettencourt, of the Washington, DC-based Center for the Study of Social Policy, is spearheading the organization of the technical expert group.

“We wanted a diverse group of people with a lot of expertise in different areas,” he said. “From the very first meeting, they are going to help determine where this project is going to go.”

Their job in the first meeting includes identifying areas of interest around the country: service providers who are innovating and doing good, regions that need serious expansion of services, and identifying the greatest needs of LGBT homeless youth – who are thought to be among those who hide from shelters as much as take advantage of them, feel less welcome in service agencies and represent a large share of the juvenile justice system.

The experts will help analyze and assess the information gathered by researchers throughout the first year, then help construct the titular “blueprint” in the second year.

The Human Rights Campaign will be involved throughout the project, but their main role will come in the project’s final year, when the project leaders will distribute their findings to advocates and service institutions.

“The HRC has brand recognition that helps,” Ellen Kahn, the Director of HRC’s Family Services, said. “We have a lot of supporters that we can reach with one click.”

Though known for its political activism on issues like legalizing marriage for LGBT couples, Kahn said the HRC has been working on youth issues for a number of years. The advocacy group took a greater interest in LGBT youth homelessness after a survey they conducted in 2012 that revealed among LGBT teens significant harassment and a sense that they had to leave their homes or communities in order to find happiness.

“LGBT youth who are homeless, it’s strikingly high, statistically,” Kahn said. “What made them run in the first place? We find, experience or fear of rejection.”

The high number – and the large share – of LGBT youths among America’s homeless makes the grant all the more worthwhile, Kahn said. “We all know there’s a problem, it’s very well documented, and yet people are flummoxed.”

The project is a brainchild of the Department of Health and Human Services, which conceived the idea then sent out a call for proposals.

“It’s a very powerful partnership,” Dettlaff said, “and I think that’s why we ultimately got the grant in favor of what I’m sure were very strong proposals.”

The leaders of the project added the 3/40 to the project’s name to reflect its goals, that by the end of the three years they will have found a plan to significantly and permanently reduce the community of LGBT young people that comprises 40 percent of the youth on the streets.

“There’s an immediacy to this very severe problem that makes the three years we have feel like a luxury,” Kahn said. “But we need time to really look at the state the of provision of services, in order to transform it into a path going forward.”


This story was produced by the Chicago Bureau. 


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