A good chunk of the homeless population out there is LGBTQ+. According to The True Colors Fund, nearly 4.2 million of our youth experience this on a yearly basis. Keep in mind — that number is just for a particular age demographic so you can imagine how many more there are overall in our community.
This is a problem that has been going on for decades and is something that we need to get a good hold on in order to minimize those numbers and hopefully make homelessness a thing of the past for our brethren. But how do we do it? And have things changed for the better or worse in this matter since Donald Trump rose to his presidency 4 years ago?
I spoke with three key people on this matter: Brandon Robinson, Ph.D. | Board of Fellows at Time For Homes; Assistant Professor, University of California, Riverside; Harmony Rhoades, Ph.D. | Board of Fellows at Time For Homes; Research Associate Professor, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, and James Ryan, President |Time For Homes. Each gave thought-provoking and honest answers about the state of LGBTQ+ homelessness in 2020 and what we can do to help. Take a look.
Has the homeless problem within the LGBTQ community increased or decreased over the past several years.
Brandon: We do not have any data — that I know of — to suggest that numbers have increased or decreased. Partly, it is often hard to measure, as some people might not want to identify as LGBTQ+ on surveys or intake forms. Also, different studies have measured the issue differently. Some studies ask service providers about how many LGBTQ+ people they work with, where other studies ask people experiencing homelessness themselves if they identify as LGBTQ+. Given these varying reasons, I do not think there is any valid data to fully claim if the numbers have increased or decreased. One of the largest national studies that I know of — from Chapin Hall, a couple years ago — showed that LGBTQ+ young adults experience homelessness at more than twice the rates of their peers. I don’t know of a national study since then, nor do I know of studies that look at people who identify as LGBTQ+ within the adult homelessness populations.
Harmony: My research can’t answer this directly, but homelessness in the U.S. continues to increase year after year, and given that LGBTQ+ persons make up a disproportionate proportion of those experiencing homelessness, at least among youth, this suggests that the number of LGBTQ+ persons experiencing homelessness is also increasing.
James: Compiling and analyzing data on homeless populations is incredibly difficult — the best publicly available data (HUD’s Point in Time Count) is fundamentally flawed and widely accepted as incredibly inaccurate. Funding for data analytics is hard to come by as most organizations are concerned with funding direct services (which is admirable, but it’s just not enough). More resources are needed to be able to gather this data. Time For Homes has a Data for Good program that would make this available, but we aren’t there yet. Based on anecdotal evidence, it would seem though that the problem is getting worse and the LGBTQ+ community continues to be disproportionately impacted.
Do you think the growing acceptance worldwide for our brethren has helped in some kind of way?
Brandon: There is no evidence — that I know of — to suggest that growing acceptance has helped. As I show in my book Coming Out to the Streets: LGBTQ Youth Experiencing Homelessness, there actually seems to be a backlash to the growing acceptance, and trans and gender-expansive youth, especially trans and gender-expansive youth of color, appear to be bearing the brunt of this backlash. On a macro-scale, as same-sex marriage began to be legalized, we saw this backlash through things such as “bathroom bills.” For the LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness that I worked with, they often weren’t rejected because they identified as LGBTQ+, but because they were trans and/or gender expansive. So, as some rights have been gained — mainly around sexuality — there appears to be a backlash around gender, and gender expansive and trans people, especially gender expansive and trans people of color, are deeply experiencing this backlash, with homelessness being a result for some.
Harmony: While acceptance and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ persons has expanded in many spheres, the experience of individuals in the U.S. varies greatly based on where they live. In many communities, homophobia and associated victimization have increased and family rejection continues to be a persistent problem for LGBTQ+ youth. When we talk about homelessness, it’s possible (and my research is attempting to explore this in more detail) that a lot of homelessness is the consequence of economic insecurity at the family level, rather than homophobia, victimization, or family rejection. As poverty and economic inequality continue to increase, so will homelessness, particularly for marginalized groups who — because of years structural exclusion and discrimination — are often the first to suffer during times of economic instability.
James: I suspect that though the increased acceptance is helping with the mental health status of some LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, the acceptance in the community hasn’t made much of a difference. Most of the increased acceptance remains in more affluent pockets of the country. The unhoused by and large aren’t the beneficiaries of much goodwill.
When you talk to the homeless population do they feel any kind of support from our community and beyond?
Brandon: The LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness that I worked with did not mention feeling any kind of support from the LGBTQ+ community. The organizations that worked with LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness did get support, including funding, from some local LGBTQ+ groups and community members. So, organizations working with LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness might get support from the community, but the people experiencing homelessness themselves often do not seem to be getting direct support from the LGBTQ+ community (or at least, they don’t perceive or see that direct support). Indeed, the opposite is sometimes true, especially in gayborhoods, where LGBTQ+ people don’t want people experiencing homelessness in their neighborhoods and might call police to harass and/or arrest people experiencing homelessness, including LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness.
What about LGBTQ youth? Have things gotten worse or better for them recently?
Brandon: Again, I don’t know of any empirical data to say if things have gotten worse or better (or how one could even really measure this). Overall, things still do not seem to be good for LGBTQ+ youth, especially poor LGBTQ+ youth of color. LGBTQ youth disproportionately make up the youth homeless population and disproportionately are in juvenile legal systems. They also seem to be disproportionately experiencing the school-to-prison pipeline or the carceral continuum. A great deal of empirical data, then, seems to show that things are not good for LGBTQ+ youth, especially LGBTQ+ youth of color.
Harmony: Again, this is likely to vary greatly based on where someone is living. We find that experiences of victimization and mental health disorder symptoms are associated with living in States with worse political records related to LGBTQ+ equality. But this also means that positive socio-political climates are associated with better outcomes, and as such, advocating for legislation to protect LGBTQ+ people is likely to benefit everyone, including youth. Similarly, impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to vary based on whether youth have a supportive home environment, experienced victimization at school, etc.
James: COVID-19 has impacted every group in some way — and it has certainly made life even tougher for the homeless. I don’t think LGBTQ+ youth are exempt for this — services were, and continue to be, limited in many areas and this lack of support (which was already insufficient) coupled with disastrous public health conditions certainly has made things worse for them recently. Time For Homes and our partners are working to increase capacity and make the necessary resources available, but, frankly, more support is needed at every level. If our LGBTQ+ community was interested in helping those of us experiencing homelessness, now is the time to get involved. Especially in the lead up Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (November 15th through 22nd). They can check out Time4Homes.org/HHWeek for more information.
The cold months are here, meaning that things will be that much tougher for them. Outside of clothes donations, what can we do to help them so that the numbers of LBGTQ+ homeless becomes minimized?
Brandon: We need to continue to invest in Housing First and other housing supportive programs. We can also work to advocate for a living wage and to work to end LGBTQ+ discrimination in the workplace. We need to work to build queer and trans support networks to help LGBTQ+ people, so LGBTQ+ people can rely on larger community support outside of families of origin, who may not or cannot or will not support them. We can work to end the criminalization of homelessness and of sex work. We can also just work to educate our local communities about LGBTQ+ people and about homelessness.
Harmony: My most practical recommendation is always to donate money to organizations in your area who are doing the work on the ground. Volunteering your time, donating warm clothing, etc., are all fantastic, but giving money means that the experts at organizations can buy and distribute exactly what is needed. I’m also a huge fan of cash transfer initiatives that directly give people money that they can use however they need. One caveat to donating locally: do some quick research and make sure the organization you are giving to doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Unfortunately, more advocacy is needed to ensure that all homelessness services organizations are practicing LGBTQ+ culturally competent practices.
James: We all need to examine our role in this endemic problem. Everyone should be part of the solution — at the very least that means being politically active. Aside from that? Volunteer and donate. Your time is incredibly valuable to organizations working on this fight day in and day out. Those organizations also need money. For information on how to get involved, check out Time4Homes.org.
About the Author:
Ryan Shea is an established writer who has contributed thought-provoking pieces for many different industries. He has worked for major publications including Newsday, Hollywood Life, Instinct Magazine and The Ladders.