Identifying Promising Practices and Common Shortcomings in Programs Serving LGBTQ Homeless Youth

A smiling young person.

We know that a significant number of young people experiencing homelessness are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, or LGBTQ. But even as organizations like Forty to None raise awareness of LGBTQ homeless youth, service providers are still learning how to meet this group’s unique needs. Researchers Kristin Ferguson and Elaine Maccio have spent years studying runaway and homeless youth programs to determine what makes them most effective for LGBTQ youth, as well as what service gaps still remain. Here, we explore three of their studies.

What’s in a Promising Program for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth?

To answer this question, Ferguson and Maccio reviewed past studies examining youth outcomes related to areas like mental health, substance use, education, employment, and housing. They also revisited their interviews with 24 staff members at 19 organizations across the country. Based on that research, they found that promising programs:

  • Relied strongly on clinical evidence
  • Used a trauma-informed approach
  • Provided safe, stable, and supportive housing
  • Incorporated peer providers from the LGBTQ community
  • Offered opportunities for joint learning between LGBTQ and heterosexual homeless youth

The authors cite examples of programs that meet these criteria. For example, a model known as Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress, or SPARCS, adopts a trauma-informed approach to help youth solve problems and make social connections. In addition, the LGBT Host Home Program creates safe, stable housing options for all young people, including those who are transgender or gender non-conforming.

What are the Current Service Gaps?

It’s one thing to deliver services based on an evidence-based or evidence-informed program for LGBTQ homeless youth. It’s another to comply with all aspects of the program in order to meet youths’ needs. From their interviews with service providers, Ferguson and Maccio learned that gaps in services for LGBTQ youth exist in the areas of housing, education, employment, family services, cultural competency training, advocacy, and organizing. They explain these shortcomings in more detail in a 2012 toolkit outlining agency resources and protocols, including cultural sensitivity and nondescrimination standards (PDF, 748KB). Four years later, they published a related study offering program and policy recommendations from the literature in response to each area.

Some of the recommendations include the following:

  • Housing LGBTQ youth in a designated space can be helpful, although researchers caution programs against unfairly segregating them or removing transgender youth from housing dedicated to the gender with which they identify.
  • Family therapy, such as the services offered by the Family Acceptance Project, is often needed to help LGBTQ homeless youth exit homelessness and to prevent the family rejection that can contribute to their time on the streets.
  • Staff members who assess and screen youth for mental health and substance use concerns should receive training in LGBTQ cultural sensitivity.
  • Agencies can help LGBTQ youth feel safe and welcome in their programs by offering trained, culturally competent staff who administer LGBTQ-affirming interventions and services.

The authors note that service providers aren’t the only ones who should receive training on cultural sensitivity and awareness of LGBTQ issues. Such education should be extended to youth as well to create a safe, welcoming environment for all.

Read the Abstracts

Toolkit for Practitioners/Researchers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY).” Kristin M. Ferguson and Elaine M. Maccio. National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College (September, 2012).

Promising Programs for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning Runaway and Homeless Youth.” Kristin M. Ferguson and Elaine M. Maccio. Journal of Social Service Research, Vol. 41, No. 5 (2015).

Services to LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth: Gaps and Recommendations.” Elaine M. Maccio and Kristin M. Ferguson. Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 63 (April 2016).

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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