When one thinks of homelessness, it is almost never associated with LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) individuals. Worse yet, the fact that this group is largely comprised of individuals under age twenty-three calls into question the current policies and programs aimed at helping the homeless population. This lack of association is steeped in biases towards this community which create a unique set of challenges in becoming, being, and recovering from homelessness. Despite the fact that society has made great strides in creating and enforcing equality in public services and institutions, the LGBT Homeless demographic continues to suffer under the yoke of stigma and discrimination.
There are currently few policies or programs which deal directly with this demographic. What is shocking about this problem is the fact that the LGBT homeless comprise a tremendous segment of the population- between 30% and 43% of the under 18 homeless populations (Cray, Miller, & Durose, 2013) (National Homelessness, 2015). Despite this enormous population, there are few targeted policies and programs available for LGBT homeless youth. This creates a problem for both the LGBT homeless youth as well as the social workers attempting to help them. As a result of lack of data and research in this area, there are few options available for social workers to offer. For this reason, it is imperative that research efforts be directed to the LGBT youth homelessness issue, to create a more comprehensive view of the demographic data on homeless youth for the purpose of program and policy creation.
Framing the Problem
The LGBT homeless youth are a highly vulnerable group prone to several risks that other homeless groups are not. The problem begins in the fact that most of these individuals became homeless because of prejudice and social rejection (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013) (Durso & Gates, 2012) (National Homelessness, 2015). Prejudice and biases towards LGBT persons are the leading cause of youth homelessness. As a result of being underage, these individuals are further subjected to the “heightened risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers” (National Homelessness, 2015). Transgendered individuals are at an extreme risk of physical violence and are consistently turned away from shelters. The LGBT homeless youth are overrepresented in the total population of homeless:
According to the Williams Institute, 40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT, 43% of clients served by drop-in centers identified as LGBT 30% of street outreach clients identified as LGBT 30% of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBT (National Homelessness, 2015).
These statistics show that there is a serious issue with LGBT youth homelessness, in which this population is tremendously higher than all other youth homeless groups.
One subpopulation that is consistently overrepresented among homeless youth is LGBT youth. Among the general population of youth in the United States, between 5 percent and 7 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or trans- gender.11 But compared to this relatively small portion of the overall population, LGBT youth are vastly overrepresented among the homeless youth population. While data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of homeless youth are not universally collected, several state and local studies from across the United States have found shockingly disproportionate rates of homelessness among LGBT youth compared to non-LGBT youth. Estimates of homeless youth using interviews or surveys of homeless populations at the state and local level suggest that between 9 percent and 45 percent of these youth are LGBT.12 (Durso & Gates, 2012).
Nine to 45% of the population of homeless LGBT youth is a tremendous variance. There is no way to properly design programs and policies to serve this group due to the large inaccuracies in the data. In fact, the entire population of LGBT homeless youth is impossible to surmise statistically. In Figure 2. One can see the limited nature of these statistics as transgendered homeless is not even considered.
As a result of this issue, the population of homeless youth is improperly or not served at all. There are far reaching consequences for this problem such as increased poverty and long-term welfare costs. These factors stress the need to better understand the LGBT youth homeless issue through research and study. Historical Data When most people think of homelessness, they visualize hobos and panhandlers occupying street corners of large cities. One does not normally consider sexuality as a component of homelessness. Homelessness in LGBT youth is a unique and difficult problem as it is intrinsically linked with prejudice and social bias. To understand this problem, one must understand the nature and causes of homelessness in the United States. The major causes of homelessness in the United States are:
● Lack of Employment Opportunities
● Decline in Available Public Assistance
● Lack of Affordable Health Care
● Domestic Violence
● Mental Illness
● Addiction (National Homelessness, 2015).
These areas of homelessness are widely studied and there is a wealth of federal and state programs available to this population. As well as having programs, these areas of homelessness are specifically targeted in the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (Congress, 2015). However, despite being a disproportionately large segment of the homeless population, the LGBT homeless youth are not considered regarding the causes of homelessness in general. How could such a large population of individuals not be considered when looking at the causes of homelessness? The answer to this question is that biases and prejudice towards the LGBT are deeply embedded into the social services and policymaking in the US. To understand how this failure in policymaking has occurred, one only need look back on the history of policies and treatment of the LGBT in the US.
There is a long history of policy which ignored homosexuals and transgendered individuals in the US. This period is so long that it could fill a book with a description. Suffice it to say, sexual equality did not come to be regarded in formal policies and such as in the workplace or military until sometime around WWII. More importantly, it was not until this period in which homosexuality began to be viewed more critically by the medical establishment. According to Rathus (2005), laws in modern society were based on the religious belief that any sexual acts not procreative between male-male, female-female, or male-female were considered sinful and made illegal.
As a result of this transference from religion to legal view, homosexuality was promoted with negative attitudes from the social majority (Rathus, 2005). The negative perception of homosexuals would bias most scientific research by assuming the behavior was abnormal. As a result of this thinking, before and during World War II, homosexuality was not discussed openly and was completely ignored by the mainstream media as it was considered a moral failing. After World War II, homosexuals began to ‘discreetly’ appear with an emergence of gay literature and social groups (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015). Literature from Tennessee Williams “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), Gore Vidal “The City and the Pillar” (1948), and Malaparte’s “The Skin” (1949) began to appear and became a motivating force in the gay social movements of the day (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015). Most of these gay groups were situated on college campuses and localized to major cities such as New York. This period of ‘coming out’ for homosexuals was catalyzed in part by the ending of the War and many veterans who began attending college using their GI benefits (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015). This change is well-documented by the Oberlin LGBT, community history project:
From 1946 to 1948, veterans comprised most of all males in colleges across the country. Stories from three of these veterans…suggest the impact the war had on gay and bisexual life at Oberlin. The three students were considerably older than traditional undergraduates and had matured quickly during the war. In the service, they, and other veterans they befriended at Oberlin had sexual experiences with other men, and some were “brought out” into a gay social life. As such, veterans were much more likely than other students to act on their desires, understand their same-sex attractions as a sign of a “gay” identity, and form friendship networks with other gay and bisexual students and faculty (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015).
This emergence of gay social groups and gay literature would begin the formation of a gay identity in opposition to the idea that being gay was a negative behavior or moral shortcoming. It should be noted that this gay identity was far from being openly displayed or acceptable. Most of the gay groups and social circles were secretive and the members maintained ‘straight’ personas outside their circle (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015). The stigmatization of gay individuals was a significant threat as US policies reinforced workplace prejudices that could lead to loss of livelihood.
The emergence of homosexuality in the mainstream during the ’40s was very stunted due to the consequences of being labeled homosexual. For legal and social reasons, homosexuals were forced to hide their orientation due to the social repercussions and stigma. Most homosexuals, in the past and today, were isolated and alone in their situations. “…he recalled, “I felt I was the only [gay] person in the world [and] kept all my feelings to myself” (Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project, 2015). This feeling was not unwarranted as homosexuals were routinely jailed placed in sanitariums and at the minimum faced the loss of jobs, family, and friends.
This labeling of homosexuals would remain static until 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association and many other healthcare organizations recognized homosexuality as a sexual variation and removed homosexuality as a pathology. “…the scientific position of the American Psychiatric Association which has maintained, since 1973, that homosexuality per se, is not a mental disorder” (APA, 2011). This finding by the APA would take 30 years to be acknowledged even though there was clear scientific evidence as early as 1948 which contrasted the professional belief that homosexuality was a mental illness. Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and researcher published “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948 (Kinsey, 1948). In this groundbreaking research, Kinsey discovered that homosexuality was far more prevalent and challenged the notion that homosexuality was a form of mental illness (Kinsey, 1948). It would take 33 years of research to confirm Kinsey’s findings and begin the road to LGBT rights.
Even though the APA and every other major medical institution has changed its views on sexuality, organizations such as the National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuals (NARTH) continue to promote the idea that homosexuality is a pathology (APA, 2008). While these claims by NARTH are considered to lack professionalism and are considered pseudoscience, they persist in promoting stereotypes and prejudice in the public. Organizations such as NARTH continue to impact public opinion and cloud public policy (APA, 2008).
While the road to LGBT acceptance was long and difficult, in many ways the policy-making has outpaced the current attitudes and prejudices of the American people. Since the 1970s there has been growing tolerance in society for the LGBT which is reflected in law making such as advances in same sex marriage and workplace discrimination (Stroman, 2003). Events in the mainstream media reflects the movement towards equality with television shows such as “Ellen” and “Will and Grace” which provided a less stereotypical view of homosexuality (Stroman, 2003). However, media and policymaking seem to stand in contradiction with many American attitudes. In many ways, the media may be clouding the issue by presenting a false view of acceptability for LGBT that they have reached levels of equality comparable to other subordinate groups. The proof of this rests in the causes of LGBT youth homelessness. The causes of LGBT youth homelessness are as follows:
Figure 1 (Durso & Gates, 2012)
Progress in attitude reform and changes in law making stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of LGBT homeless youth. This is the only homeless group which is forced into homelessness by prejudice, violence, and psychological abuse (Durso & Gates, 2012). So, while attitudes have altered to some degree, it is obvious the long history of LGBT prejudice and bias continues to be pervasive in US society.
While coming out has become widely viewed as a positive life changing force for many individuals in the LGBT community, for many youths, this event is the beginning of a downward slide into homelessness and juvenile delinquency. Lack of understanding and stigmatization of alternative sexual lifestyles and preferences create a backlash in families during the coming out phase. LGBT youths are often faced with rejection from family causing them to run away or they are simply kicked out. The story of Sassafras Lowrey has been documented by several homeless organizations and provides a stark view of how the coming out process can become a nightmare for LGBT youth,
The adult friends I ran away to asked “if I was over that whole gay thing” — they read my journal, called my bluff. When I was kicked out, my semi-rural high school told me they had never had to handle a homeless teenager, when they told me they didn’t know what to do. Parents called the school guidance counselor to say I was “leading their kids down a path to hell,” when the school made it clear there was nothing I could do. I had no idea that I was part of an epidemic of homeless queer kids. Three days after I was kicked out, I went to the public library and looked at every book that was shelved under “homosexuality.” I was searching for hope, for home (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013) (Durso & Gates, 2012).
Stories such as this coupled with the fact that most LGBT homeless youth are rejected by family, provide an insight into the reality that while media and laws are changing, the attitudes of many individuals have remained constant. Deep rooted prejudices and biases continue to create negative outcomes for the LGBT and the government is slow to understand these issues and correct them.
While on the one hand, the government has been a driver in LGBT equality through the implementation of workplace equality and gay marriage laws, on the other hand, it has failed to address the needs of the large demographic of LGBT homeless youth. Currently, 24% of all homeless youth programs are targeted programs for this group but these programs are inadequate to serve the needs of the LGBT homeless youth group (Durso & Gates, 2012). Forty percent of the targeted programs do not address the largest cited cause of homelessness- family rejection (Durso & Gates, 2012). Most of these programs only deal with the problem of finding shelter for these individuals. There is a clear disconnect between the policymakers and the program needs as these targeted programs often fail to address the real issues. This is a key sign that there is a lack of quality data and information concerning the causes and needs of the LGBT homeless youth population.
The Center for American Progress (2013) identified two policies that would greatly improve the outcomes for LGBT homeless youth and reduce their population. These policies include:
• Support initiatives that strengthen families with LGBT children, and that pro- mote acceptance and understanding between parents and children.
• Initiate efforts to research LGBT youth homelessness and track demographic data on homeless youth that includes sexual orientation and gender identity (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013).
The first strategy needs to be designed which is focused on strengthening family bonds and promoting acceptance for these youth.
Despite the fact that family rejection and conflict are among the major drivers of homelessness among LGBT youth, there is a considerable gap in services aimed at reuniting families and building support and acceptance. More than 40 percent of agencies responding to the LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey do not provide programming that addresses family conflict.158 To address this problem, bills introduced in previous sessions of Congress have attempted to increase the availability of programs that focus on improving family relationships to reduce homelessness — especially among LGBT youth159 — although none have passed thus far (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013).
The programs which do exist that address family conflict, are culturally inadequate because they are not designed to address the specific needs of LGBT family conflict issues. This problem exists as a lack of understanding and presents the need for increased research.
The extreme lack of data concerning the LGBT homeless youth group is disturbing. While policymakers know that the problem exists there is no real way to quantify the issue. The problem with data collection is that there is no adequate collection system in place. Besides a lack of research into the problem, there is a lack of data collection taking place at the social work level (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013). For example, the intake of youth into programs collect a great deal of data but these instruments are not structured to gather information concerning this demographic (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013). As a result, much of the statistical data on this group is based on inadequate questions. This inaccuracy explains the large disparities in statistics concerning the LGBT homeless youth population.
Intake forms should include questions about a youth’s sexual orientation and gender identity but should be made optional for completion. Because youth may be reluctant to provide information about their sexual orientation or gender identity when they first enter a program, additional opportunities should be provided for youth to volunteer this information (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013).
Current Policy Evaluation
The current policies of providing blanket homeless youth services are inadequate to address the needs of the LGBT homeless youth. These youth face hostilities, violence, and are often turned away from shelters solely based on their sexuality and gender (National Homelessness, 2015). Due to this problem, this group faces a dead-end in which they return home and cannot find shelter.
Current policies also promote poor outcomes for the LGBT homeless youth. As a result of having inadequate services, the LGBT are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system and not finish high school. The LGBT homeless youth are also 20 times more likely to end up in poverty (Stroman, 2003) (Cray, Miller, & Durso, 2013).
The most significant legislation governing homelessness in youth has been the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. The act awards grants to both public and private organizations that provide services for youth. This act has been the largest and most effective legislation that the government has passed to help homeless youth. While this important bill provides funding and resources to the homeless population there is no mention of the LGBT youth. There are no provisions in the bill to specify resources or funding to deal with this specialized population. This is a policy failure since the act does not provide for one of the largest homeless groups. It is likely that decades of bias and prejudice have made policymakers blind to the needs of the LGBT homeless youth. The large disparities created in services through this law can only be explained by institutional discrimination caused by decades of bias and discrimination.
To combat the problem of LGBT youth homelessness, policy changes will need to be made at the federal and state levels. The need to increase research in this area cannot be overstated because of the large disparities in statistics concerning this population. While lawmakers may have fallen victim to biases, the efforts to correct this situation with the LGBT homeless youth are not monolithic. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provides a strong measure for assisting this demographic and can be altered to be more inclusive. By creating specific objectives in the act for increased family services and research, the LGBT homeless youth can begin to receive more targeted assistance as well as reduce the long-term outcomes of this demographic.
APA. (2008). Just the facts about sexual orientation and youth. Retrieved from American Psychiatric Association: https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/just-the-facts.pdf
APA. (2011). Therapies focused on attempts to change sexual orientation (reparative or conversion therapies) position statement. Retrieved from American Psychiatric Association: http://www.psychiatry.org/practice/professional-interests/diversityomna/diversity-resources/apa-position-statements-related-to-diversity
Congress. (2015). S.262 — Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act. Retrieved from Congress: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/262
Cray, A., Miller, K., & Durso, L. E. (2013, September). Seeking Shelter The experiences and unmet needs of LGBT Homeless Youth. Retrieved from Center for American Progress: https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/LGBTHomelessYouth.pdf
Durso, L. E., & Gates, G. L. (2012). Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Service Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth who are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless. The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute with True Colors Fund and The Palette Fund.
Kinsey, A. (1948). Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
National Homelessness . (2015). Homelessness in America. Retrieved from National Homelessness : http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/
Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project. (2015). George Brenner and a Gay History Circle. Retrieved from Oberlin College LBGT Community History Project:
Rathus, S. A.-R. (2005). Human sexuality in a world of diversity (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Stroman, D. (2003). The Disability Rights Movement: From Deinstitutionalization to Self- determination. Lanham, MD: University Press.
Article Updated: 12/26/2021