Imagine for a moment that you are 16 years old. Your family disowns you for reasons that are beyond your control. Your parents tell your relatives that they cannot have any contact with you. Where would you turn? How would you eat? Would you keep going to school or would you try to find enough work to make ends meet? Would you push the boundaries of the law to meet your needs?
For youth who are not sexual or gender minorities, being disowned by one’s parents is a rare occurrence. But, over a quarter of youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, or two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S) are kicked out of their homes when they come out to their parents. In comparison with their heterosexual peers, LGBTQI2-S youth who are experiencing homelessness have higher rates of abuse, mental and/or substance use disorders, juvenile justice involvement, and nearly every other risk factor that one can imagine. Even with so much working against them, these youth are often fiercely resilient, creative, and inspiring individuals. The National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and their Families was convened in 2008 to address the needs of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S.
SAMHSA, the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch (CAFB), and the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) started the group to focus on youth in systems of care. The system of care model is an organizational philosophy and framework that involves collaboration across agencies, families, and youths. The purpose of this framework is to improve access and expand the array of coordinated community-based, culturally and linguistically competent services and supports for children and youth with a serious emotional disturbance and their families.
Over the past five years, this workgroup has developed numerous products that are changing the way that service providers work with youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. Most notably, the workgroup contributed chapters to and edited the book Improving Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes for LGBT Youth: A Guide for Professionals, which includes a chapter on youth homelessness. Additionally, some of SAMHSA’s work on this population, including the Larkin Street Stories video series, expert panels, a listening tour, and numerous trainings was born out of involvement with this workgroup.
SAMHSA’s initiatives around youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness reflect a larger movement. The True Colors Fund and the Williams Institute collaborate on the Serving Our Youth: Service Provider Survey and Report which is issued every two years. In 2012, they found that 94% of respondents work with youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. They also found that 40% of youth in the programs surveyed identify as LGBTQI2-S. To put this in perspective, only 5% to 7% of youth in the general population identify as LGBTQI2-S. The percentage of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S varies depending on the type of program; in drop-in shelters, as many as 43% of the youth identify as LGBTQI2-S, but this number drops to 21% in shelters.
In the 2013 Center for American Progress report Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth, the organization proposes solutions for engaging youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S in shelter. The report synthesizes the literature and suggests that street outreach is important but underutilized (one study found that less than 10% of youth in shelters had encountered street outreach). Technology-based outreach is offered as an effective strategy for engaging youth; 58% of homeless youth have access to cell phones. Additional recommendations include increasing the cultural competency of service providers, developing relationships with community organizations that focus on LGBTQI2-S issues, adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the intake process, and ensuring that transportation is available.
Runaway and Homeless Youth Act
But even as the workgroup moves forward and organizations around the country provide solutions, there is legislated discrimination toward youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness.
The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) was first passed in 1974 and reauthorized in 2003. It is the primary federal funding stream for services provided to youth experiencing homelessness. As RHYA currently stands, there are no protections in place for youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. This means that shelters can turn them away or place young people who identify as transgender in dorms that don’t reflect the gender with which they identify. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act of 2013 was introduced by Gwen Moore (D-WI) and Mark Pocan (D-WI). This act would amend RHYA to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, it would promote training to help service settings better address the needs of this population, as well as adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the demographic data that is collected.
For Congresswoman Moore, the issue of homelessness is close to home. “I ran away from home when I was an adolescent. It was the first and last time. Living on the streets is a difficult and dangerous experience—one that no child should have to endure. Unfortunately, homelessness is the reality for hundreds of thousands of youth each year … LGBT homelessness is an issue that negatively impacts our children, our families and our communities. Omitting these young people from the RHYA sends a powerful message to this population: that addressing their trauma and fear is not a priority,” she said.
With all of this national activity around youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness, one might wonder what an individual person can do to support this population. One person, however, can have a lasting impact. People are urged to start the conversation in your program or community. You can also support programs that serve youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and are experiencing homelessness in your area. If possible, offer financial support, volunteer, or provide referrals.
In the words of Congresswoman Moore, “The LGBT youth homelessness experience cannot be ignored.”
Access the text of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act of 2013 at the Government Publishing Office (GPO).
The SAMHSA publication, Learning From The Field: Programs Serving Youth Who are LGBTQI2-S and Experiencing Homelessness – 2011 (PDF | 2 MB), addresses the unique challenges faced by gender and sexual minority youth.