LGBT homeless youth are significantly more likely to face violence, sexual exploitation and early death than their straight peers, according to new research released Wednesday.
The study, by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, was based on a phone survey of 26,161 young people nationwide about their housing status and in-depth interviews with 215 homeless young people ages 13 to 25 who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It’s part of the Voices of Youth Count, an ongoing study of homeless young people in the United States.
“The findings are a bit grim, but hopefully it will galvanize communities to help these young people,” said Matthew Morton, principal investigator for the Voices of Youth Count. “This is a very resilient population, and many expressed hope that they can rise above their circumstances. The message here is really from the youth themselves — if we listen to them and offer help where it’s needed, they can make great progress.”
The study found that LGBT young people are more than twice as likely to become homeless as their straight counterparts, but not necessarily because they’re LGBT, Morton said. Sexual orientation is usually one factor among many that lead young people to leave home, he said.
Family issues such as poverty, mental health problems, substance abuse, loss of a parent due to death or incarceration, being placed in foster care and a family history of homelessness are also major factors in a young person’s trajectory to the streets, he said.
“It’s like a traffic jam,” he said. “There might be a cone in the road, but there might also be construction, or an accident, or bad weather. It’s not one specific thing that’s causing the back-up.”
Also, the transition to homelessness rarely happens overnight, he said. It’s often a long process that involves months or years of couch-surfing with friends and extended family.
“It’s not like everything’s fine, there’s a single event and the next night you’re living under a bridge,” he said. “It’s a slow boil. But that’s good news, because it means we have a longer time to identify these youth and get them services before they actually become homeless.”
The study found that 38 percent of LGBT homeless youth said they had been forced to have sex, 27 percent had exchanged sex for food, housing or other basic needs and 62 percent said they’d been physically harmed by others.
The initial Voices of Youth Count, released in 2017, found that overall, one in 30 youth ages 13-17 nationwide had experienced homelessness at some point in the previous year. LGBT youth were 120 percent more likely to be homeless than straight young people.
Walter Philips, chief executive officer of San Diego Youth Services, said the Chapin Hall study “confirms a lot of what we see every day.”
His organization provides housing, counseling, help with education and job goals and LGBT youth drop-in centers throughout San Diego County. About 80 percent of young people who rely on the agency’s services eventually find stable housing and jobs, he said.
But the hurdle is money, he said. His agency is only able to provide services to 200 to 300 homeless young people, while San Diego County has more than 1,100, he said.
“What we’ve seen is that a continuum of services works,” he said. “It’s really easy to dismiss homeless people in general — ‘Oh, it’s their choice,’ ‘it’s not my problem’ — but with homeless young people, the public needs to realize it’s not the young person’s fault. They didn’t choose this. They’re escaping an awful situation. They really need our help.”
LYRIC, a nonprofit in San Francisco that serves LGBT youth, has seen a 74 percent increase in the number of homeless LGBT youth over the past six years, said executive director Jodi Schwartz. Almost all of those young people have been victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or bullying, she said.
“It’s clear that lack of safe and affordable housing is linked to an increase in exposure to violence,” she said. “The institutions that exist to safeguard our community’s youth and young adults are failing these young people. Every San Francisco city leader needs to be asking themselves how they can step up for these young people and every resident who enjoys a good life in San Francisco needs to be asking themselves how they can be a better ally.”