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Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth Face Huge Obstacles

Youth Homeless Agencies Need to Be More Responsive to This Population

SOURCE: (AP/ Paul Sancya)

Donnie Dawson, 20, left, attends a youth advocacy group meeting at the Ruth Ellis Center, a drop-in shelter for gay and transgender youth in Detroit. A new report shows that youth homeless shelters do not have adequate resources to serve gay and transgender youth.

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The Palette Fund, the Forty to None Project (a project of the True Colors Fund), and the Williams Institute released today the results of the LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey. Researchers fielded the survey in late 2011 and early 2012 to better understand the capacity of organizations serving homeless young people to provide services to gay and transgender youth. The survey also analyzed the prevalence of gay and transgender youth within the larger youth homeless population. The final report aggregates the survey responses of 354 agencies in the United States that serve youth who are, or are at risk of becoming, homeless.

The survey found that approximately 40 percent of homeless or at-risk youth are gay or transgender, which aligns with previously aggregated local, state, and regional estimates. This study should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that gay and transgender youth do, in fact, constitute a significant and disproportionate segment of the homeless youth population. More importantly, this study shows why service providers, advocates, and policymakers who work to end overall youth homelessness should take into account the unique needs of gay and transgender youth.

In particular, the survey found that of all youth clients served, 30 percent identify as gay or lesbian and 9 percent as bisexual. Providers also reported that 1 percent identify as “other gender,” while another 1 percent of transgender youth identify as either male or female. These figures are alarming since gay and transgender youth only make up approximately 5 percent to 7 percent of the total youth population in the United States.

The report’s other findings demonstrate that the current network of homeless youth service providers is not adequately addressing the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth. While the full report contains a detailed breakdown of the survey results, below we describe five key findings that highlight the need for comprehensive youth homelessness policy reforms that pay particular attention to the gay and transgender population. Steps the federal government can take to help gay and transgender youth either avoid becoming homeless or, if they do, get access to services that can help them get off the streets follow each finding.

Key findings

Key finding #1: Of homeless or at-risk gay or transgender youth, 46 percent ran away because of family rejection due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 43 percent were forced out by parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Action needed: Pass the Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act.

Section 106 of this legislation, introduced by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), creates programs to help families accept and support their gay and transgender youth. The proposed legislation is based on research-driven service delivery models that the Family Acceptance Project has developed and is implementing.

The Family Acceptance Project works to strengthen relationships within families that have gay or transgender youth with the goal of improving the lives and life opportunities of these young people. Section 106 of Kerry’s legislation would fund programs like the Family Acceptance Project and is a commonsense first step that would help decrease the overrepresentation of gay and transgender youth in the homeless youth population.

Key finding #2: Large numbers of service providers working with youth at risk of homelessness report that their clients are predominantly under age 18.

Action needed: Pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

The average age at which youth come out has decreased each decade, and providers are noticing a significant increase in gay and transgender youth who seek services. As more youth come out in their early and mid-teenage years, appropriate safety nets must be widened and strengthened.

One of the most efficient and effective ways to support this population is through school policies. The Safe Schools Improvement Act requires schools to have clear policies regarding bullying, effective training for personnel, and comprehensive data collection regarding the prevalence of bullying and harassment—all inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Student Non-Discrimination Act extends existing student nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender youth by federally prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and providing legal recourse to students who experience antigay or antitransgender bullying or harassment.

These policies would help foster a safe educational climate for gay and transgender students who might not have any other place to seek support, and thereby keep them from turning to the streets as an escape.

Key finding #3: A clear majority of gay and transgender homeless youth are receiving services available to all clients, with 24 percent of programs designed specifically for gay and transgender youth.

Action needed: Pass a Runaway and Homeless Youth Act that is inclusive of gay and transgender youth.

This act constitutes a major source of federal funding for youth homeless services. When it comes up for reauthorization in the next session of Congress, changes should be made to make it more inclusive of gay and transgender youth. For example, funding should be made available for programs that mediate family conflicts due to a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Most importantly, Congress should add a nondiscrimination statement to the law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and require grant applicants to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their planning documents and funding proposals. By specifically acknowledging gay and transgender youth in strategic planning documents and tailoring services to this overrepresented population, providers will address this population’s unique needs more effectively.

Key finding #4: Nearly 60 percent of the responding agencies reported that transgender youth are in worse physical health than other youth, while almost a quarter reported they are “much worse.” Half reported that gay youth are in worse health than other youth.

Action needed: Improve data collection by including sexual orientation and adding gender identity metrics to the Center for Disease Control’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey at the state level.

Most of what is known about gay and transgender homeless youth comes from local or regional surveys that are not conducted on a regular basis. States should follow the lead of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has launched a Data Progression Plan to add sexual orientation and gender identity questions to the National Health Interview Survey, and add these questions to their Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

By better understanding the risks facing gay and transgender youth, advocates, researchers, and policymakers can work to advance programs and preventive services that help improve the lives and life chances of this population.

Key finding #5: The top three barriers to improving services related to reducing gay and transgender homelessness relate to lack of funding.

Action needed: Prioritize and provide additional funding for providers.

Providers note that the most significant barriers, ranked in descending order, to improving services for gay and transgender youth are a lack of state, local, and federal funding. Without more funding, these service providers—often the last line of support for gay and transgender youth—will continue to struggle to meet the needs of these youth.

These agencies provide critical services such as emergency shelter, transitional living, and street outreach, in addition to educational, medical, and counseling services. With adequate financial support, providers can tailor programming and implement best-practice policies, such as those outlined in the National Recommended Best Practices for Serving LGBT Homeless Youth, to help gay and transgender youth transition from the streets and back to permanent housing.

Conclusion

The new report from The Palette Fund, the Forty to None Project, and the Williams Institute provides a comprehensive picture of the challenges gay and transgender youth face as they try to navigate a society that often rejects them. It additionally highlights many of the nation’s youth-serving homeless agencies’ lack of capacity to serve this population. The report’s findings provide us with a policy roadmap that can help our government and service providers establish programs that meet the needs of all youth who are or are at risk of becoming homeless.

Andrew Phifer is an intern for LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress. Jeff Krehely is the Vice President of LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center and a co-chair of the advisory board for 40 to None.

* In this column, “gay” is an umbrella term used to describe individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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