Could Shelter Policies Increase a Youth’s Vulnerability to Sexual Exploitation?

Last month, the Urban Institute released a report that examines the experiences of young Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth who have engaged in “survival sex” in New York City. Survival sex is a term frequently used to describe the exchange of sexual acts for money or goods that people require to live (e.g. food and shelter)

Of all the findings in this compelling report, “Surviving the Streets of New York,” one in particular should give homeless service providers pause: “Many [youth] … credited the instability and rules associated with emergency housing with driving them back to the street [and sexual exploitation].”

Most of the LGBT youth in New York City who spoke to the researchers for the report said that they wanted to escape sexual exploitation, and they recognized that they would need help meeting their most basic needs—for food, shelter, income, etc.—to do so. Unfortunately, they also told researchers that they frequently encountered barriers to accessing services to meet these needs.

Are homeless service providers contributing to this problem by setting up policies—perhaps needlessly—that make it more difficult for youth to access shelter or transitional housing?

One thing we have learned from the adult homeless service system is that rules-oriented shelter and transitional housing programs typically don’t work for the most vulnerable people. Strict program rules and expectations do not compel all people to “get with the program.” Instead they often drive those with the greatest challenges away from critical services because they are unable or unwilling to comply.

Youth experiencing homelessness have unique needs. But we can learn a few things from the gains experienced by the adult homeless service system. Lowering the threshold to program services, making what people want and need to escape homelessness more accessible to those with the highest barriers, can work wonders to help people escape the streets and it is critical to ending their homelessness.

It’s time for emergency shelter and transitional housing programs to examine their requirements to determine whether their rules or expectations may be too onerous for some vulnerable youth. To use an old social work adage, we need to start “where young people are” and tailor services and supports accordingly.

Here are some other strategies that the Urban Institute recommends communities adopt to assist LGBT youth vulnerable to sexual exploitation:

  • Make sure young people know where they can go to access help. Broadly advertise drop-in centers and shelter programs, particularly in places where young people congregate.
  • Ensure program services and staff are welcoming and affirming to LGBT youth. Programs should be LGBT competent and trauma-informed. Programs should be highly attentive to accommodations that are appropriate and desirable for transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
  • Explore, adopt, and expand a range of low-threshold shelter and housing programs for LGBT youth experiencing homelessness. This may include family-like housing placements (like Host Homes), emergency housing and longer-term housing and support programs.
  • Advocate for culturally competent services for LGBT youth and help eradicate barriers to services.

Finally, I’ll add one of my own. Get involved in public policy. One of the biggest barriers to helping youth is that our homeless systems lack the capacity to serve them. According to this report, researchers found only 300 shelter beds in New York City available for homeless youth.

We can have the best possible crisis housing programs for homeless youth—trauma-informed, LGBT-competent, welcoming, and affirming programs—but if the demand for these services continue to far outpace the supply, young people will continue to remain subject to sexual exploitation on our streets each night.