Homelessness among LGBT Youth: A National Concern

For many of us, in November our minds turn toward plans for Thanksgiving, a holiday likely spent at home, surrounded by family. This scenario is far from the reality for many homeless youth in the United States. November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, reminding us that even as we think about what we are grateful for in our lives, we should consider all the work that needs to be done to improve the welfare of this vulnerable group.

Approximately 1.6 million youths in the U.S. experience homelessness for at least one night each year. Additionally, 550,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 24 are homeless for a week or longer; about 380,000 of these youth are younger than 18. These numbers demonstrate a great need for responses to short- and long-term homelessness among youth.

One group that is particularly at risk for homelessness is lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. LGBT youth are often homeless because they were rejected by their families, schools, and communities for their sexual orientation or gender identity. In a national survey of homeless centers and agencies that serve youth, it was reported that LGBT youth comprise 40 percent of the clientele served. In fact, one in five transgender people in their 30s report having been homeless at some point in their lives. These numbers show that homelessness among youth who are LGBT is much more than a niche problem; understanding and reducing homelessness among these youth is a crucial part of understanding and reducing homelessness, period.

Besides being at greater risk for homelessness, LGBT youth are more likely to become homeless at younger ages. LGBT youth are also more likely to be sexually assaulted on the streets and in shelters. In fact, in one study, 58 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual homeless youth reported having been sexually victimized, compared with 33 percent of heterosexual homeless youth. Gay and lesbian youth who experience homelessness are also more likely to be infected with HIV than heterosexual homeless youth.1

Homeless LGBT youth may be less accepted in shelters, programs, and foster homes. Among homeless transgender adults, 55 percent have reported being harassed by shelter staff; 29 percent have reported being turned away by shelters because of their gender identity; and 22 percent have reported being sexually assaulted by residents or staff. Although these statistics do not directly address what happens to transgender youth at homeless shelters, they paint a grim picture of what these and other LGBT youth might face.

There are some centers specifically for homeless LGBT youth, that recognize the unique problems that face LGBT homeless youth and provide them a safe place to stay while they acquire the skills needed to get back on their feet. Alone, though, these centers cannot solve the problem of homelessness among LGBT youth.

Looking forward, there is a great need for more high-quality research on the topic of gay and transgender youth homelessness to inform policies and practices. Some work is already being done to help train shelter staff and foster parents about the needs of gay and transgender youth. Perhaps most importantly, we should work to help families, schools, and communities support the healthy development of LGBT youth along with other at-risk young people, to prevent their becoming homeless in the first place.

[1] Rew, L., Whittaker, T. A., Taylor‐Seehafer, M. A., & Smith, L. R. (2005). Sexual health risks and protective resources in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual homeless youth. Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 10(1), 11-19.