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Homeless youth, sometimes referred to as “unaccompanied” youth, are individuals under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster, or institutional care. Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons, but rarely by choice. Factors contributing to youth homelessness include family dysfunction, sexual abuse, “aging out” of the foster care system, exiting the juvenile justice system, and economic hardship. According to data from The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, close to 1.7 million youth are homeless because they either ran away from home or were kicked out of their home.
The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence cites the primary cause of youth homelessness as family dysfunction in the form of parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, family substance abuse and family violence. Furthermore, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports that twenty-five percent of former foster youth became homeless within four years of exiting care.
Data from the Williams Institute indicates that between twenty and forty percent of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBTQ. Forty-three percent of clients served by drop-in centers identified as LGBTQ. Thirty percent of street outreach clients identified as LGBTQ. Thirty percent of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBTQ. In short, LGBTQ youth make up a large percentage of the overall homeless youth population.
The roots of LGBTQ youth homelessness are similar to their non-LGBTQ peers. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, et al., report that the most common factor contributing to LGBTQ homelessness is family rejection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Similarly, the second most common factor is being forced out by parents or caretakers after coming out. At school LGBTQ students often face harassment–both physical and verbal–which leads to high dropout rates and a greater risk of chronic homelessness. Gay and transgender students are two-times less likely to finish high school or pursue a college education compared to the national average; seventy-five percent of LGBTQ homeless youth drop out before completing high school.
Generally, homeless youth are at greater risk of psychological and physical trauma. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics show that 61.8% of homeless youth report depression, 71.7% report experiencing major trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, and 79.5% experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for more than a month. Homeless youth are already a vulnerable population, but for the twenty to forty percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning), the situation is even more dire.
Once homeless, LGBTQ youth report a greater risk of victimization as a result of physical and emotional violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers. Unaware of the biological complexity of sex and gender, many people discriminate against transgender people on the basis of ethnic, religious and cultural values. Transgender youth face the most extreme threats to their safety due to a lack of acceptance. Additionally:
- Eighty-six percent of LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed at school due to their sexual orientation
- Forty-four percent of LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed at school because of their sexual orientation
- Twenty-two percent of LGBTQ students reported having been physically attacked in school
- Sixty percent of the students who were physically attacked in school said they did not report the incidents because they thought no one would care
- Thirty-one percent of LGBTQ students who did report incidents of harassment and violence at school to staff claim they received no response
All too often, the service organizations that serve homeless youth fall woefully short of supporting LGBTQ homeless youth. Exacerbated by family dysfunction and high drop out rates, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing. Reports of widespread discrimination in federally funded institutions are often cited as a major contributing factor to the recent epidemic of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Overt discrimination is not unheard of: in some instances signs are posted barring transgender homeless youth from accessing services, or they are kicked out of shelters when their transgender identity is discovered.
There are currently no federal programs specifically designed to meet the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth, and there are no protections in place to keep gay and transgender youth from being discriminated against while accessing federally funded homeless services. The Obama administration is aware of and making an effort to respond to the growing rates of LGBTQ youth homelessness, but there is a chasm between program recommendations and program implementation.
[This article is part 1 in a series of 3 articles on LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 1 identifies origins and challenges for LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 2 identifies federal, state, and local initiatives aimed at LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 3 summarizes best practices and offers a state & local approach based on best practices.]