Nearly 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 run away from home and/or spend time homeless each year in the United States. Approximately 400,000 of these children remain outside their home for over a week, and 125,000 are homeless for over a month.
As many as 20 percent of the runaway and homeless youth population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ). This suggests as many as 80,000 LGBTQ youth are homeless for over a week each year. These young people face particular difficulties. Ending homelessness for LGBTQ youth will require specific policies to address those difficulties, such as:
- Promoting a culturally competent approach to service delivery and care;
- Ensuring nondiscriminatory access to housing resources;
- Supporting family intervention approaches that address conflict over sexual orientation and gender identity;
- Promoting supportive services models that take into account the experiences and needs of LGBTQ youth; and
- Including LGBTQ youth in data collection and analysis.
Challenges faced by homeless LGBTQ youth
To a large extent, the factors that lead to homelessness for LGBTQ youth are the same as for other youth: family conflict, physical violence, sexual abuse, chronic neglect, abandonment, and poverty. However, many LGBTQ youth leave or are driven from home at least in part because their families are not accepting of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Once LGBTQ youth leave the home they are at increased risk for being sexually exploited by others. LGBTQ youth may need additional support in building their protective factors and a sense of community.
LGBTQ youth have a difficult time finding welcoming environments when attempting to access services. Many LGBTQ youth have particular experiences of trauma, rejection and abuse related to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and programs sometimes fail to address these issues. As a result LGBTQ youth may spend more time on the street and exposed to violence and, at greater risk of depression and suicidal ideation. Even when LGBTQ youth access programs, some experience discrimination and harassment by staff who are not trained to be culturally competent on LGBT issues.
Unfortunately, transgender youth face even more difficulties in programs where providers are not adequately educated and trained. Often, transgender youth are placed in shelter without regard to their gender identity, leading to isolating and even unsafe situations. Transgender youth face barriers to obtaining proper healthcare services, and often experience discrimination or harassment at school.
Many of the federally funded interventions that are effective for preventing and ending youth homelessness, such as targeting and outreach, family intervention services, housing, and supportive services, are the same for LGBTQ youth. Specific adjustments related to youth’s sexual orientation and gender identity, however, are necessary to address the challenges above and ensure that homeless LGBTQ youth have a real, meaningful opportunity to leave homelessness behind.
Cultural competence is a cornerstone of effective practice when serving this most vulnerable population. Cultural competence is the ability to interact effectively with people from a variety of backgrounds. Cultural competence is typically addressed through training with the goal of improving providers’ attitudes and beliefs, communication skills, cross-cultural skills and interpersonal interactions when working with others. Federal grant notices of funding availability should include questions about cultural competence of staff to work with LGBTQ youth. Moreover, grant review committees should be trained in cultural competency to better identify inclusive and welcoming providers that do well in serving LGBTQ youth.
Currently, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, part of HHS, requires grantees to provide staff with training on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, and cultural awareness and sensitivity. Other agencies providing services to homeless youth should adopt similar policies. In addition, federal agencies should require applicants to submit their cultural competency training curricula as part of grant applications, and should make the best curricula publicly available for replication. Finally, all agencies should require applicants to have a non-discrimination and non-harassment policy statement that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
Improve Access to Housing and Resources
HUD has widened opportunities for LGBTQ youth through its “Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity” policy. HUD should encourage communities to address outreach and access to housing for LGBTQ youth in the consolidated planning process.
HUD and HHS policies should ensure that all grantees of their housing and other programs that serve runaway and homeless youth implement inclusive non-discrimination and non-harassment policies. These policies should be communicated to the youth and families that grantees serve as well as to community partners and contractors that they work with so that youth are comfortable accessing services to get off of the street.
Federal agencies should promote family intervention models that aim to increase family acceptance and decrease youth’s risky behavior with the ultimate goal of reunifying and/or connecting LGBTQ youth with their families when it is safe and appropriate. The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) is one example of such an approach. Providers should be encouraged to work with youth and their families as family units and be able to provide families of LGBTQ youth with accurate information about sexual orientation or gender identity to increase family acceptance.
Federal agencies can help encourage better outcomes by promoting a “youth development” approach to services, and an approach that is inclusive of the needs of LGBTQ youth. The range of services that are important, including physical and mental health, education, employment, skill building, and relationship building, will largely be the same for all homeless youth.
To provide real opportunity to LGBTQ youth, however, agencies need to encourage service providers to take into consideration the unique needs of those LGBTQ youth who suffer from deep feelings of rejection and trauma when their families and communities are not accepting of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Grantees should provide mechanisms for LGBTQ youth to build a sense of community and support in order to increase their protective factors and well-being. Federal agencies need to assess their grantees’ ability to provide services that are welcoming and inclusive, provide grantees with guidance and technical assistance to improve performance and ultimately base funding decisions on successful outcomes.
HHS should produce the study of the prevalence and incidence of homelessness among youth that was mandated in Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act of 2008 reauthorizing the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act. This study should include information on the number and needs of LGBTQ youth.
Ultimately federal agencies should work collaboratively to consolidate youth homelessness data collection efforts from HHS’ Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS) into HUD’s HMIS. As part of this transition, agencies should capture data on sexual orientation and gender identity, include standardized data elements for all homeless assistance providers, and thereby improve knowledge of the number, characteristics and experiences of all homeless persons, and the appropriate scale for interventions to prevent and end homelessness.