Editor’s note: This is the final installment in our special yearlong focus on poverty in the LGBT community.
The problem of LGBT youth homelessness, which is particularly acute this time of year, is one that Sassafras Lowrey knows all too well.
As a teenager in the early 2000s in semi-rural Oregon, Lowrey was kicked out of her mother’s home after coming out. After living in the home of adult friends for five months, she was again tossed out after they read her journal and learned she identified as queer, forcing her to couch-surf among the homes of friends.
“I was lucky to have some friends whose parents were fairly supportive and let me stay with them,” Lowrey said. “There really weren’t a lot of resources in the area I was from. My high school never had a homeless youth before; they didn’t really know what to do.”
Throughout her experience being homeless, which she called a time of “real awakening and understanding,” Lowrey said she began to build community with other LGBT young people who were without homes.
“I very quickly began understanding my experience within a politicized context of the epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness and recognizing that while my experience might have been unique in terms of what my school was saying, it was not unique, and I was part of this large number of teens and young adults throughout the country that were having very similar experiences,” Lowrey said.
That period of homelessness lasted throughout most of her senior year in high school, Lowrey said, until she moved to Portland, Ore., and was able to rent a room she could call home. The experience was a source of literary inspiration for Lowrey, who later served as editor of “Kicked Out,” a 2010 anthology of stories from current and formerly homeless LGBT and queer-identified youth.
According to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, estimates of LGBT people among the homeless youth population range between 9 and 45 percent, even though the number of people in the entire U.S. population who identify as LGBT is in the single digits. The most commonly cited statistics, provided by a recent nationwide LGBT Homeless Youth Provider Survey of organizations serving homeless youth, estimate that on average LGBT youth comprise 40 percent of the agencies’ clients.
Laura Durso, co-author of the report and director of the LGBT project at the Center for American Progress, said LGBT youth homelessness is a “significant problem” because research shows LGBT youths are overrepresented on the streets.
“They are more likely to be victimized while they’re there,” Durso said. “I hate to use the word ‘epidemic,’ but we are facing a significant problem for our young people, and we don’t have the resources we need to address the problem that we have now and really work toward prevention, which will ultimately solve that problem.”
According to the report, few studies examine the racial diversity of LGBT homeless youth, but those that have suggest they’re disproportionately people of color.
In a 2007 survey of homeless youth in New York City, about 44 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in the survey also indicated they are black, and 26 percent indicated they are Hispanic, the report says. Moreover, roughly 62 percent of the transgender survey respondents said they were black, and 20 percent said they were Hispanic, according to the report.
The No. 1 perceived cause of LGBT youth homelessness is family rejection of youths after they come out as LGBT or families discover their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), an original co-sponsor of the Runaway & Homeless Youth Act, said family rejection is the primary reason so many LGBT youths are living without permanent homes.
“I think they’re still facing discrimination in their home and problems in school due to bullying and harassment,” Pocan said. “You take those compounding factors and you end up with a larger number of homeless youth are from the LGBT community and because we know what’s causing it, we need to make sure we’re creating effective ways to address that.”
Family rejection based on LGBT status is but one factor seen as contributing to LGBT youth homelessness; experts say the reasons are complex and may involve the general persistence of poverty and employment discrimination.
Jama Shelton, “Forty-to-None” project director for the True Colors Fund, said the reasons are complex, but one “can’t really divorce a conversation about homelessness” from a conversation about poverty and the lack of explicit LGBT protections at the federal level.
“Perhaps if people had access to certain resources, they wouldn’t be homeless,” Shelton said. “I do think that it’s also important that we’re talking about poverty and access to employment protections and adequate income when we’re talking about homelessness, even if the most frequently cited reason is in some communities continues to be family rejection.”
Among the stories Shelton has heard of LGBT homelessness stemming from employment discrimination is from a shelter provider in Texas, who said she’s working with a young transgender man who when seeking employment identified as a man on his paperwork, and when they processed his documentation, he was fired on the grounds of being “deceitful.”
Proposed solutions to the problem are just as varied as explanations for the cause, although the general sense is additional funding and legislation would help.
Lowrey said “if there was a silver bullet, we’d all have a fast job,” but one method of addressing LGBT youth homelessness is increasing resources for direct service providers across the country — both within large, urban environments and cities as well as rural and suburban communities.
“It would be incredibly beneficial just on a really tangible level,” Lowrey said. “There are not enough resources for any homeless youth, let alone specialized resources for LGBTQ youth, which we know are necessary and literally increasing that funding is the difference between a young person having somewhere to go tonight or not.”
The attention that LGBT groups have paid to the issue, Lowrey said, has grown in recent years, but is still not enough.
“I think there’s been a significantly increased focus on LGBTQ youth homelessness, particularly in the past five years or so,” Lowrey said. “But I think particularly among LGBTQ organizations and groups, it’s still not a primary issue that folks are lobbying around.”
Pocan said reauthorizing the Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act — which was last authorized in 2008 — with his legislation for LGBT youth would be another step.
Introduced for the first time last year, the Runaway & Homeless Youth Act would prohibit discrimination against LGBT youth at homeless shelters that receive federal funds and require grant recipients to have the cultural competency to serve these youth. Additionally, the bill would provide resources to support services for families struggling with the sexual orientation or gender identity of their children.
Despite the expanded Republican majorities in the upcoming Congress following wins on Election Day, Pocan hopes the legislation will pass within two years.
“The public at large has clearly moved significantly,” Pocan said. “And this is an issue that it shouldn’t be a left or right issue. If someone’s a homeless youth, we’ve got to make sure that they get the care and protections that they need, especially given these statistics. And I would hope that as society has moved, we can get elected officials to move a little bit and try to make sure that we can amend this act.”
Shelton said communities should include youth in their Point-in-Time count, which is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January required by the Department of Housing & Urban Development.
Additionally, Shelton said she’s part of a program sponsored by HUD and other federal agencies called the the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth Homelessness Prevention Initiative, which consists of developing and implementing a plan for LGBTQ youth homelessness prevention and intervention in two communities: Hamilton County, Ohio, and Harris County, Texas.
“I don’t think people have to wait until the implementation is done and the official data is released,” Shelton said. “The plans for those communities are going to be made available really soon and communities can start planning now.”
Another organization, Covenant House International — a privately funded child care agency that offers shelter to more than 1,900 homeless youth every night in 27 cities across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — announced last month a partnership with the True Colors Fund to expand the overall number of beds dedicated to homeless youth, including LGBT youth.
But Shelton said the key thing to keep in mind is collaboration because service providers and LGBT community centers can’t do it alone and need help from schools, child welfare systems, the police and other places that come into contact with LGBT youth.
“I think now is the time to think outside of the box and be bold,” Shelton said. “We have a crisis on our hands in terms of the future of the LGBT community and our movement.”
If you’re struggling with homelessness in D.C., here are three organizations that can help:
The D.C. Center for the LGBT Community: 2000 14th St., NW, #105; 202-682-2245; thedccenter.org
The Wanda Alston House: 202-465-8794; wandaalstonhouse.org
Casa Ruby: 2822 Georgia Ave., N.W.; 202-355-5155; casaruby.org