The first duty of the government is to afford protection to its citizens yet, despite this truism, government efforts to protect the LGBTQ population only emerged within the last decade. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 criminalizes hate crimes and includes sexual orientation and gender identity among the protected classes. As of this writing, twenty-two states, DC, and Puerto Rico ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and almost as many states outlaw discrimination based on gender identity or expression. However, these protections are often too little too late; government protection continues to lag behind social evolution.
Common law protections are also primarily a product of the past fifteen years. It was not until 2003–in the US Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas–that same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized nationwide. Less than one year ago the Supreme Court required all states to license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples in Obergefell v. Hodges. Both of these decisions continue to be challenged and undermined on moral grounds. Meanwhile, an entire subset of our population are treated like second-class citizens. LGBTQ youth growing up in this environment face discrimination and abuse despite the recent increase in legal protections. LGBTQ homeless youth are particularly vulnerable and need additional protections.
Homeless youth in general are guaranteed the right to access school and support by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act. As with other federal education legislation, the act requires state and local agencies to implement the specific provisions, which states and local agencies do with varying degrees of efficacy. In Texas, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) delegates McKinney-Vento compliance to Local Education Agencies (LEA). Most states comply with McKinney-Vento through the same top-down approach. The challenge for local education agencies is funding. Ensuring a proper education for homeless youth may involve transportation, housing, food, and other costs that local districts don’t incur on behalf of most non-homeless students. In Texas, again, compliance is funded through a competitive grant, and school districts can also apply for subgrant requests directly from the Department of Education. However, grant and subgrant requests require school districts to know or estimate with some degree of accuracy how many homeless youth are in their district at the time they apply for the grant–a number which may change significantly once the grant funding comes through.
Given the transient nature of the homeless population in general coupled with the challenge of identifying LGBTQ homeless youth, districts need to expend time and resources to make the identifications necessary to apply for the funding that they need to serve these youth. Herein lies an opportunity for school districts to coordinate with state and local advocacy and service organizations that serve the homeless youth and LGBTQ populations. In Houston, Texas, for example, school districts might choose to coordinate with organizations like Covenant House and Hatch Youth. By collaborating rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, school districts, service organizations, and advocacy groups can share resources and serve the LGBTQ homeless youth population more efficiently, which likely means they’ll be served more effectively. Furthermore, collaboration across organizations broadens the support net for these youth, helping to ensure more positive outcomes.
The US Government is also stepping up its efforts to protect the LGBTQ homeless population. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness is gathering data and looking to model programs like The Ali Forney Center in New York City, and The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit. These are exploratory stages, and the government moves more slowly than private actors, but the initiative is encouraging. As community collaboration grows, local, state, and federal government will have more examples of best practices to look to and more data to draw on as they continue to increase protections for LGBTQ homeless youth.
[This article is part 2 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.]