Living life without a place to call home is a trying and difficult situation for anyone, but with the added variables of youth and sexual orientation, many homeless LGBTQ (lesbian, gay,bisexual,transgender, queer/questioning) youth face an incredible mountain of obstacles. Without the proper life skills to make it on their own, youth experiencing homelessness often fall into illegal activity such as drug use, prostitution, or theft within 48 hours of being on the street (http://lnfy.org/). LGBTQ individuals often face discrimination, judgment, and even assault from other people on the streets, in shelters, or from services who should be offering them help. LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness seem to be the marginalized of the marginalized. They face rejection from mainstream society because of their homeless status and rejection from other people experiencing homelessness because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Support system after support system seems to fail them, and if this is true of service agencies too, many of them will become trapped in addiction or become victims of mental illness and suicide. This paints a bleak picture, and, for many LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, their reality is definitely a dark one. However, in the more recent past, new and existing organizations have begun to realize the specific needs of this population and the obligation to provide for them in better ways.
Here are 5 important things you need to know about LGBTQ youth and homelessness:
- Their sexual orientation/gender identity is often the cause of their homelessness. Especially teenagers 12-18, who should still be living with their parents, are often runaway or throwaway youth. That is, they have either voluntarily left home because they did not feel comfortable there or they were actively kicked out by their family because they chose to come out to them. Although being on the street may seem better than dealing with judgment and discrimination from their family, leaving home and facing rejection is a painful experience. If they have faced similar rejection from extended family, friends, and the school system, LGBTQ youth may be holding onto a last shred of hope when they show up at an agency. Thus, no matter one’s political or religious beliefs, providing care for these youth at service agencies is critical because they often have no where else to turn.
- 2. Around 40% of youth (ages 12-24) experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ. This number is highly disproportionate to the general population. Between 5-10% of all youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. While some sources claim around 20% of youth experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ, it seems to be widely accepted that, despite the large percentages, the numbers of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness are actually under reported. What all of these numbers tell us is that, first of all, if you are working with youth experiencing homelessness, many of them are likely LGBTQ, even if they have not openly expressed that identity. Second, the disproportionate about of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness shows us that LGBTQ youth are not receiving the care and support that they need as they discover their identity. Whether from families, schools, or other sources, LGBTQ youth, it seems, do not feel as though they have safe support systems. So, no matter your job or position, you have the power to make a difference in the life of a young person, whether through mentoring, religious activities, or just being a listening ear for your children and their friends.
- Around 70% of homeless LGBTQ youth claim family rejection as the reason for their homelessness. Many of these youth decide to finally make the brave step of coming out to their family, but are then met with rejection and discrimination by the very people who should be caring for them. Asking teenagers to leave the home or making them feel as though they would rather leave the home than remain there is incredibly damaging. All youth deserve a home that is safe, both physically and emotionally. Even if a family disagrees with the youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, there are healthy ways to have a conversation about it. (See some more resources for parents of LGBTQ youth here: Do’s and Don’ts for Family and Friends http://community.pflag.org/page.aspx?pid=541 … Free Publications for Family of LGBTQ youth http://community.pflag.org/freepublications)
- You do not have to become an LGBTQ activist to properly serve this population. While it is wonderful to see individuals and organizations take an active stand for LGBTQ equality, one does not have to walk around waving a rainbow flag to help end homelessness. If you work or volunteer for an agency that provides services to people experiencing homelessness, your goal should be to provide the proper care and services without discrimination to every individual who walks in the door. As previously stated, service agencies are often the last stop of many for these youth, and, if they face discrimination there too, many of them give up hope. There is no need to draw attention to their gender identity or sexual orientation in the process of providing care and services. After all, most LGBTQ youth are just wanting to be treated like everyone else. If a client has a name that doesn’t seem to fit their gender, giving them a strange look or calling attention to your confusion about their gender is not an appropriate response. For those who are not affiliated with a service agency, you can make a difference by knowing and providing safe spaces in your community. If your church or community of faith is not a safe space for LGBTQ youth, find out other resources in your community where youth can go in times of need and make sure the youth in your life have access to them.
- Things are better than they were, but not as good as they should be. Some of you might feel like this blog post was unnecessary because of the progress that’s being made across the country for marriage equality and LGBTQ rights. The United States is a safer place to be for LGBTQ individuals than it was ten years ago, and that is undoubtedly something to celebrate. However, the fact that LGBTQ youth are still so overrepresented in the homeless population is a sign that there is more progress to be made. LGBTQ youth still do not feel safe in schools or in their own homes, and, until all schools and neighborhoods are safe places to come out, there is still work to do.
This article was written by Brenna Lakeson, our summer intern from Emory’s Ethics and Servant Leadership program.