Homelessness among LGBTQ youth is a growing, largely hidden national crisis. While the Trump administration worked to suppress data collection and reporting, the population of homeless LGBTQ kids in the U.S. continued to swell. A new report from New York City contains shocking numbers that represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Efforts to count LGBTQ homeless teens continue despite the Trump administration
In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stopped requiring states and contracting agencies to count the homeless LGBTQ youth they serve. HHS scrubbed references to sexual orientation and gender identity from Internet resources. Their main youth homelessness page contains zero references to LGBTQ teens even though such teens make up a hugely disproportionate number of all homeless youth in the U.S.
LGBTQ youth advocates shouted the alarm, telling the Trump administration that agencies can’t effectively help vulnerable teens if they don’t understand the scope of the problem.
But despite the federal government turning a blind eye, some states and cities have continued to collect data. One new survey is so shocking that all Americans should sit up and pay attention.
NYC numbers are staggering
The New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in cooperation with Columbia University has just released a study that shows over one third (34%) of kids in the NYC foster care program identify as LGBTQ. Most of those youth are Black, and a disproportionate number identify as Latinx or Hispanic.
They’re not usually found sleeping on park benches. They might have a place to sleep for the night, but they don’t have a key, and they don’t know how long they can stay. Or they have to trade sex for a place.
34% may sound like a low number, but remember that only 6 to 10 percent of total youth identify as LGBTQ. Think about a high school class of 30 students. Would you expect 10 of them to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender? That’s what 34% would mean.
What do the numbers mean in NYC?
About 8,300 kids are in the NYC foster care system. So roughly 2,800 LGBTQ kids don’t have a permanent place to live, the bulk of whom have been rejected by their families. And that only counts the kids in the system. The total number is much higher.
LGBTQ youth in foster care are diverse
13 percent of kids in the NYC foster care system identify as transgender, 13.5 percent identify as bisexual or pansexual, 5.6 percent call themselves lesbian or gay, and small percentages use other labels like questioning or queer.
Most kids in the NYC foster care system are Black, and so are most LGBTQ kids in the system. White and Latinx/Hispanic kids in the system are significantly more likely to be in the system because of gender identity or sexual orientation, though their total numbers are smaller.
Family rejection is cited as the main cause and outcomes are poor
The ACS/Columbia researchers found that family rejection of a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity was the primary reason LGBTQ teens land in the system. Of those who do, outcomes are not nearly as good as for cis/straight kids:
- LGBTQ kids were more likely to be told they are hard to place
- LGBTQ kids were more likely to be placed with a foster family than with a relative, more likely to be placed in a group home than in a foster family, and more likely to be placed in an institutional setting than in a group home.
- LGBTQ kids reported receiving frequent criticsm for dressing/acting too feminine/too masculine
- LGBTQ kids were more likely to say they experienced little to no control over their lives in foster care
- LGBTQ kids were more likely to miss school and more likely to do poorly in school
- LGBTQ kids were less likely to see family members and less likely to say their family is supportive
- LGBTQ kids were less likely to have supportive adults in their lives
- LGBTQ kids were more likely to report negative encounters with the police and entanglements with the justice system
NYC numbers are unexpected and the tip of the iceberg
LGBTQ youth advocates have been surprised by the scale of the NYC foster care problem. The ACS/Columbia study produced higher numbers than experts anticipated. To make matters worse, Pew Trust researchers caution that LGBTQ kids “in the system” typically do not come close to representing the total number of homeless LGBTQ youth. They say the U.S. homeless youth problem is growing fast, is disproportionately LGBTQ, and is largely hidden.
Homeless youth are notoriously difficult to track, says Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project. “They’re not usually found sleeping on park benches. They might have a place to sleep for the night, but they don’t have a key, and they don’t know how long they can stay. Or they have to trade sex for a place.”
Chicago researchers raise national alarm
Researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago have looked deeply into LGBTQ youth homelessness and have found the national picture to be a genuine crisis that warrants focused policy intervention at federal, state, and local levels.
Their research shows that the scope of the problem is enormous, that most LGBTQ youth are wary about accepting help, and that contrary to expectations, most homeless LGBTQ youth are not thown out of the family home when they come out, but “in large part as the result of family instability and frayed relationships over time.”
These are some of their most critical findings —
- LGBTQ youth had over twice the rate of early death among youth experiencing homelessness.
- LGBTQ youth are at more than double the risk of homelessness compared to non-LGBTQ peers.
- Youth who identified as both LGBTQ and black or multiracial had some of the highest rates of homelessness.
- Among youth experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ young people reported higher rates of trauma and adversity.
- Transgender youth often face unique and more severe types of discrimination and trauma
It’s time to direct national resources to fix youth homelessness
After four years in which the Trump administration refused to admit we had had a problem, it’s time to turn things around. We need dedicated leadership and innovative solutions starting at the top.
The Department of Health and Human Services needs to stop being part of the problem and start driving the solution. With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in in office, LGBTQ advocates can breathe a sigh of relief.
But we must also stay vigilant and advocate for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Let’s make sure our elected representatives know we want homeless LGBTQ youth at the front of the policy-reform line.
I often write about homeless LGBTQ youth because when I was a young man in New York City, I knew too many of them. The essay you just read is one way I’m helping raise awareness. I’m also telling stories about real kids who suffered and whose stories deserve to be known.
Here’s a story I’m telling on Medium right now.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.