Combating LGBT Youth Homelessness

New legislation from Sen. John Kerry calls for services and support for gay and transgender homeless youth and their families.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) introduced Reconnecting Youth to Prevent  Homelessness Act—a bill designed to help homeless youth rejoin their  families and escape life on the streets. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) introduced Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act—a bill designed to help homeless youth rejoin their families and escape life on the streets. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

This spring, policymakers in Washington, D.C. are focusing attention on improving the overall well-being of gay and transgender youth. On March 8, Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act to combat the devastating effects of school bullying on a wide range of students, including those who are known or are perceived to be gay or transgender. Just a few days later, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the nation’s schools. That same week, the White House directed a big spotlight on many of these issues with its Conference on Bullying Prevention.

And now, for the first time ever, LGBT youth are specifically mentioned in a Senate bill to combat overall youth homelessness. Today Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) introduced Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act—a bill designed to help homeless youth rejoin their families and escape life on the streets.

Section 106 of the bill calls for a “demonstration project for improving family relationships and reducing homelessness for LGBT youth.” It calls on the secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a demonstration project that develops programs that improve family relationships and reduce homelessness for LGBT youth. A growing body of research from the Family Acceptance Project, or FAP, suggests that this family-centered approach is one of the best ways to support gay and transgender homeless youth, which is a growing problem facing our nation.

National estimates suggest that there are approximately 1.6 million to 2.8 million homeless young people currently living in the United States. And more than 100,000 of them are homeless for an extended period of time, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This is especially true of LGBT-identified youth, who are disproportionately represented among homeless youth in our country.

Even though there are currently no nationally representative surveys of homeless gay and transgender youth, we know from regional studies that this demographic in particular makes up between 7 and 39 percent of the homeless youth population. This is in spite of the fact that gay and transgender youth comprise no more than 7 percent of the overall youth population. Unfortunately, LGBT youth face an additional set of circumstances beyond those that their heterosexual and nontransgender counterparts commonly experience.

For example, LGBT youth are coming out at earlier ages than they did 20 years ago, due in large part to an increasing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. As a result, LGBT-identified young people are coming out to their families, friends, and educators at an age when many people in their lives are unwilling or unprepared to support the positive development of gay and transgender youth. This source of tension leads to an increased likelihood that families will reject their children, which often triggers a process that can ultimately lead to homelessness. And once on the streets, many of these youth fall victim to violence, drug abuse, and sexual assault.

Work is being done, however, to combat this growing problem. FAP, for example, has developed “evidence-based interventions, educational materials, and training to help ethnically and religiously diverse families support their gay and transgender youth to strengthen families and promote their children’s health and well-being.” Led by Dr. Caitlin Ryan at San Francisco State University, FAP has already been successful working with teens and their families in California to overcome differences and change attitudes.

Specifically, FAP has identified more than 100 specific behaviors that families and caregivers use to express acceptance or rejection of their LGBT children. According to FAP’s findings, “These family behaviors form the basis of the project’s new behavioral approach that empowers families of all backgrounds to decrease those rejecting behaviors that put their LGBT children at risk and to increase supportive behaviors that protect against risk and promote their well-being.”

Sen. Kerry’s bill marks a major step forward in the fight to end youth homelessness in the United States, including within the LGBT community. FAP’s groundbreaking research clearly shows that today’s LGBT youth need services similar to those called for in Section 106 of Sen. Kerry’s new bill. Its passage into law would undoubtedly help gay and transgender young people all across the country.

The greater fight for LGBT equality often focuses on important issues such as marriage equality and employment nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people. Although these headline issues are crucial to securing full equality for LGBT people, it is important that we remember the realities that many gay and transgender youth face on a daily basis. And to that end, we must support policy solutions that begin to address some of their most basic needs, including above all, making sure they have a safe place to call home.

Noel Gordon was an intern with the LGBT Research and Communications Project and Jeff Krehely is the Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

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Jeff Krehely

Former Senior Vice President, Domestic Policy