It sucks to be young and homeless. What you may not know is that a new study drills down to the problem’s core with statistics that say it sucks exponentially more if you’re also gay or transgender, and the proof is right outside your door.
The LGBT thinkers at UCLA’s Williams Institute apply their survey skills to the issue in a new report in partnership with the True Colors Fund. More than 120 youth homelessness providers across the country participated to shine a light on exactly how bad the problem is from the perspective of agencies with boots on the ground.
Spoiler alert: It’s bad, according to the institute’s Serving Our Youth 2015 report. LGBTQ youth represent about 5 percent of all youth but 40 percent of homeless youth, and the disproportion on the streets is just the beginning.
"Transgender youth experienced homelessness at higher rates than all other youth,” according to the report. “Not only are sexual and gender minority youth over-represented among youth experiencing homelessness, but remain homeless for longer periods of time, and face more mental and physical health problems."
Cases from Lost N Found Youth in Atlanta and the Montrose Center in Houston are included in the study via the True Colors Fund network of providers. Both cite being kicked out of their homes for their sexual or gender identity as the number one reason LGBT youth are on the streets in the first place.
“Additional factors include involvement in the child welfare system, poverty, abuse and neglect,” Deb Murphy, youth services specialist at Montrose Center, tells Project Q.
Rick Westbrook, co-founder of Lost N Found Youth, agrees. He adds that job loss and discrimination on the job, as well as aging out of foster care, contribute to the issue.
Homelessness comes with a set of particular co-contributing factors for LGBT youth, according to the study. Gay and trans youth are more likely to experience harassment and bullying, experience mental health issues, physical abuse, and sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Beyond housing and emotional support, the affected youth have other needs that the community can help provide. Both the Atlanta and Houston agencies say they are working to train clients on life and job skills and to offer other means of support including satisfying clients’ legal and medical needs. There's an ongoing registry for LNF youth needs in Atlanta.
In Atlanta, Lost N Found operates a 24-7 hotline and a seven-days a week drop-in center for youth. Volunteers conduct weekly outreach on the streets, and once a client is on board, LNF helps provide housing, transportation, food and counseling, as well as helping youth obtain documents like a Social Security Card and ID. The LNFY Thrift Store thrives doing double duty as a community hub, the annual vigil continues to draw attention and support, and renovations continue on the LNF House to eventually offer a larger, more permanent home.
Houston has further to go, but there’s a plan in place, Murphy says.
“Montrose Center helps today through our Hatch Youth (top photo) program's current services of three times a week meetings conducted by Montrose Center staff and volunteers. Youth who ask are given referrals to a variety of programs and services,” she says. “Working towards a better future for youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness, Montrose Center is the lead agency for NEST, an innovative program based on the federal government's "Framework to End Youth Homelessness." NEST is focused on prevention and early intervention.”
The NEST program sees treating the problem at its source, in addition to helping the kids already affected, as a way to stem the tide.
“We as a community need to move away from the ‘Bad parents. How could they do that?’ way of thinking to ‘How can we help a family before youth homelessness happens?’," Murphy says. “Helping families does more than keep a youth off the streets; it helps everyone in the family deal with each other in a healthier way. That family then serves as a model for other families within their networks. It really is dropping a pebble, the ripples will change the entire community.”
How can you help? Donations and word-of-mouth support are still vital. The Williams Institute study finds that the biggest obstacle to helping homeless LGBT youth is funding. Westbrook cites community support as the key to continued success in the fight, and he offers an ominous prediction that makes getting a handle on LGBT homelessness now not only prudent, but critical.
“We need to remain vigilant as it is only going to get worse before it gets better,” he warns. “We are bracing for even larger number of youths being kicked out because of who they identify as. Atlanta is quickly becoming the epicenter of what I promise will be our community’s next epidemic.
“With that said and with continued community support, LNFY will continue to address the problem head on,” Westbrook adds.