Nearly 950 LGBT youth in metro Atlanta are homeless, more than a quarter of the region's homeless youth population of 3,374, according to a new study by Georgia State University.
The estimates come from the Atlanta Youth Count & Needs Assessment, which included a count last summer of youth ages 14 to 25 that had experienced homelessness in the past month – whether that meant couch surfing, staying in a shelter, living in a car or on the streets. The count included Atlanta and large portions of Fulton, Cobb, Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.
“We believe that by collecting these data, we’re going to be in a much better situation to talk about the array of needs that the youth will need," said Eric Wright (second photo), a sociology and public health professor at Georgia State who led the study, which was released on Tuesday.
"This is a very poorly understood social problem with lots of ramifications. They are exceptionally vulnerable from a social services perspective," he added.
The number of homeless LGBT youth was higher than past estimates, which put the number at about 750 people. The study showed that 28 percent of the region's 3,374 homeless youth are LGBT.
“Once you crunch the numbers, that means we have 951 LGBT youth on the streets every [night],” said Rick Westbrook (top photo), executive director of Lost-N-Found Youth, which cares for homeless LGBT youth in metro Atlanta. Volunteers from the group also assisted Georgia State researchers in the county last summer.
“Since that time, we have gone from seeing 75 youths a month in our drop in center to over 300 – the number of youth we serve has quadrupled,” Westbrook said.
Impressively, the overwhelming majority (88.5 percent) of homeless youth have been tested for HIV, with younger teens having a much lower rate of testing (50 percent) relative to their older peers (91.6 percent). This compares with only one in five sexually active high school students that have been tested for HIV nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
“Obviously they are vulnerable," said Erin Ruel, a GSU sociology professor and co-director of the study. "Almost all of them had been tested for HIV, the majority of them had been tested in the last six months, which is fantastic."
The report highlights the difficulties homeless youth living with HIV face, including difficulties with access to care and adhering to treatment regimes. Only one quarter of all the homeless youth surveyed had a regular doctor or clinic they go to for health care, yet homeless youth are five times more likely to report being HIV-positive than the overall population in metro Atlanta.
'These kids have nowhere to go'
Marshall Rancifer of the Justice for All Coalition, and a member of the community steering committee for the project, expressed concern about the resources available to help homeless youth.
“The fact that these kids have nowhere to go – we don’t have nearly enough shelter beds, transitional housing beds, I think it’s like 145 beds in the city for all these kids,” Rancifer said.
The report highlights the need for coordinated care among service providers, as homeless youth are likely to move between jurisdictions and care may not follow.
“They had had contact with multiple service providers, and I think this is really important because it kind of suggests a pattern of bouncing around the system on multiple levels,” Wright said.
Homeless youth – especially cisgender women and transgender and gender nonconforming youth–- were likely to engage in sex work of same nature. Overall, 44 percent had been involved in some kind of paid sex work, either of their own volition or facilitated by others.
“A lot of news articles have been highlighting these patterns among homeless youth, now our studies suggest the fact that this is also true in our sample of homeless youth as well,” Wright said.
Wright added that the report “highlights the special needs for transgender young people that are homeless."
Georgia Equality said the report shows the need for expanded resources to combat LGBT youth homelessness. The LGBT advocacy group is already home to two programs that address the issue – the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ Youth and the Shelter LGBTQ Equality Education Project.
“We finally have hard numbers around an issue that has been known to our community for some time. We need more resources across the state to prevent homelessness among LGBT youth," Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director, said in a prepared statement.
GSU's report wasn’t all doom and gloom. Researchers were surprised at the robust social networks many of the youth had, as well as the resilience and optimism the youth surveyed felt about their own future.
“Banding together is something that the youth seem to do and develop these squads or street families that are critical to their survival,” Wright said.
Paraphrasing findings in graduate student Ana LaBoy’s masters thesis, Wright said, “They’re dreamers, and despite their difficult circumstances they really were very optimistic, psychologists would call this resilient.”