LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth experience homelessness in a disproportionate rate compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers. Some studies suggest that 20 to 40 percent of street youth identify as LGBT.
According to a 2007 report from the National LGBTQ Task Force, titled “An Epidemic of Homelessness,” 26 percent of gay teens were kicked out of their homes after they came out to their parent or guardian. Additionally one-third of those in the study stated that they experienced physical violence when they came out. As a result, LGBT youth need access to support services. However, they face additional barriers that their peers do not encounter when seeking services such as homeless shelters.
The report by The National LGBTQ Task Force examined some of the barriers faced by LGBT homeless youth. Youth have reported facing discrimination in shelters from both staff and other residents. Some report being denied admittance with the explanation that the shelter was not a safe place for LGBT people.
When left on the street, LGBT youth are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, according to The National LGBTQ Task Force report, which cites two studies. The first study, of homeless youth in Canada, “found that those who identify as LGBT were three times more likely to participate in survival sex than their heterosexual peers.” In another study, “50 percent of homeless youth … considered it likely or very likely that they will someday test positive for HIV.”
According to the Ali Forney Center, a homeless shelter in New York City dedicated to working with LGBT youth, out of the estimated 3,800 homeless youth in the city 1,600 of them identify as LGBT. Yet the city only provides funding for 250 youth shelter beds. This past spring New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio committed to funding 100 additional youth beds. The lack of sufficient shelter services for youth is not a problem in New York City alone. Across the United States there are not enough shelter beds to meet the demand. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, there are an estimated 500,000 homeless people nationwide younger than 24, but only 4,000 beds dedicated for homeless youth.
The lack of youth shelter beds led the Ali Forney Center and the National Coalition for the Homeless to partner on a national grassroots movement to increase the number of beds. The National Campaign for Youth Shelter is advocating for:
1. A federal commitment to provide all young people, ages 24 and younger, with immediate access to safe shelter, affirming the principle that no young person in the United States should be left homeless in the streets.
2. An immediate commitment to add 22,000 shelter beds along with appropriate services — a five-fold increase over the current level of resources.
3. A more accurate and comprehensive effort to count the number of homeless youth in the nation in order to determine the number of beds that are needed over the next decade.
To find out how you can support The National Campaign for Youth Shelter visit their website at nationalhomeless.org.
It is also important that we advocate by letting state and federal legislators know that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. You cannot underestimate the importance of writing and meeting with your elected officials. Sites like POPVOX and GovTrack make it easy to contact your representatives in Congress. Additionally, you may want to reach out to a local LGBT advocacy organization. Many advocacy organizations, such as in New York hold annual lobby days.
At the Federal level there are a few bills that address homeless LGBT youth. Passage of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act of 2013 would amend the Runaway and Youth Act so that it specifically mentions LGBT youth. The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, introduced this past summer, would expressly prohibit service providers from discriminating against clients based on sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. It is highly unlikely that either of the bills will make it to a floor vote before the end of the 113th Congress in January.
Social workers can collaborate with the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and individual schools of social work to ensure that they are training students to be LGBT affirmative practitioners. A study conducted by Lambda Legal and the CSWE found that many social work programs were not adequately preparing students to meet the needs of LGBT clients.
In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, Rachel L. West is a consultant. Her consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations and private practitioners. Additionally, she offers career coaching to macro social work students and professionals