Do Common Beliefs About LGBT Homeless Youth Reflect Reality?

A young person with brightly colored braids and a nose ring.

“Homeless Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Youth in New York City: Insights from the Field” (abstract). Geoffrey L. Ream and Nicholas R. Forge. Child Welfare, Vol. 93, No. 2 (2014).

What it’s about: Ream and Forge wished to see whether typically held beliefs about homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) accurately reflect young people’s experiences. The researchers reviewed more than 50 journal articles to see why LGBT young people leave home and what they experience after making that decision.

Why read it: LGBT young people are overrepresented among homeless youth. Many studies explore the impact of family dynamics on LGBT youth homelessness, such as teens being asked to leave home or running away to escape abuse. Others focus on the challenges that keep LGBT young people on the streets. Ream and Forge, motivated by their experiences helping youth-serving organizations in New York City, set out to explore if existing studies conflicted with “common wisdom” around LGBT youth homelessness. Better understanding the existing data, they write, can help family and youth workers assess their programs and identify changes that meet young people’s actual needs.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Research has shown that homeless LGBT youth, like most homeless youth, have experienced family disruption, abuse, and family substance use. But homeless LGBT youth face difficulties beyond those other homeless youth face. Here are some of the authors’ main findings from their extensive literature review.

  • Roughly 14 to 39 percent of youth participating in studies examined by the researchers report getting kicked out for being LGBT. However, the research also suggests that LGBT status contributes to rejection at home and school that might prompt a young person to leave home. Nearly half of youth said they sought shelter because of conflict with their parents that was neither abuse nor related to their LGBT status.
  • Many LGBT youth who seek emergency shelter have been involved in the child welfare system, the authors write, and they experience problems similar to their peers in that system. Yet nearly all LGBT homeless youth with previous child welfare involvement said they had been verbally harassed or experienced physical or sexual abuse. 
  • Two studies of LGBT homeless youth in New York, including one by Forge, found that few participants were using hard drugs, engaging in sex work, or battling alcohol addiction. Forge’s study also found that many participants had accurate knowledge about HIV risk, knew where to access condoms, and practiced safe sex with casual sexual partners.
  • Although most homeless LGBT youth have experienced trauma, the studies showed that outreach services and emergency shelters do not consistently offer trauma-informed services.

Helping homeless LGBT youth move into adulthood, the authors conclude, requires a mix of services and opportunities, including a stable place to live, positive relationships, age-appropriate education and job training, and steady work. Homeless young people will also benefit from accessing services past age 21, the authors add, due to the growing challenges of becoming self-sufficient in one’s early twenties.

Additional references: Look for more articles about homeless LGBT youth in NCFY’s research library. You can also watch these short videos on better serving LGBT homeless youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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