LGBTQ Youth Homelessness In Focus

USICH on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness 

A Conversation with Jeff Krehely, Director of The LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress

Two Model Programs for Serving LGBTQ Homeless Youth: The Ali Forney Center in New York City, and The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit

Additional Resources on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

Youth homelessness is a problem that doesn’t fit neatly into a box. The exact number of youth experiencing homelessness is difficult to determine: they are undercounted in national data as unaccompanied youth are often unconnected to services or shelters.  Though they do not have a safe stable place to call home, many wind up “couch surfing” with friends, relatives, or acquaintances.  There does appear to be agreement that twenty to forty percent of youth experiencing homelessness self-identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ), which is disproportionate to the percentage of LGBTQ youth in the general youth population.

Like many homeless youth, LGBTQ youth either runaway or are forced out of the home due to severe family conflict, abuse, neglect, mental health or physical disabilities. They are more at risk once they are homeless for sexual abuse and exploitation. There is a high incidence of depression, suicide initiations, and other mental health disorders among all youth experiencing homelessness, and chronic physical health conditions are common as are high rates of substance abuse disorders.  Yet, in spite of all this, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to hang out with LGBTQ youth in a drop in center or elsewhere, you know they are energetic, funny, thoughtful teenagers who have the same hopes and dreams as their peers.

Across the country, there are programs aimed at reaching out to and assisting LGBTQ youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness, we highlight two such programs below. There are people and programs across the Federal government working to provide housing and services that will best help LGBTQ youth to become stable enabling them to lead safe, healthy and productive lives.  We provide a list of resources below that help to paint a picture of the difficulties LGBTQ youth encounter in America and the work that is being done around the county to aid these youth in finding a sense of self they can celebrate.

There is more we can and should do to help these young people to safety. Opening Doorsthe Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness sets the goal of ending youth homelessness by 2020. Through collaborations between the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and 19 federal agencies, we are working to make sure that all youth, including LGBTQ youth, do not fall through the cracks and that they receive the following

   1. Low Barrier Housing
   2. Education that helps lead to employment
   3. On-going support services connected to mainstream resources
   4. Independent Living Skills Training
   5. Connections to supportive and trusting adults and a support network

In collaboration with the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs, USICH will draft a framework to specifically address the housing and service needs of youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness. This group will also examine ways that Federal agencies can better collaborate and allow better access to existing resources for those most at risk, including LGBTQ youth.

A Conversation with the Director of The LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress Jeff Krehely

USICH: Why are LGBTQ youth so disproportionally represented in youth homelessness today?

We are seeing a new epidemic of LGBTQ youth homelessness largely because youth are coming out earlier.  They are coming out to their families at age 12 or 13 instead of 18 or 20.  In some ways this is a good thing, it means they are getting societal cues that it is ok to be gay, but they are not old enough to be able to live independently yet and they face rejection by parents and families and emotional and/or physical abuse at school.  They fall through a series of failing support systems.  It’s a chain reaction.  Rejection leads them to run away from home (if they aren’t physically locked out) and then they end up dropping out of school, and tumble from a stable life in a family to couch surfing, living at a shelter or in foster care, and ultimately end up on the street.  Because at each step they are discriminated against, they just keep falling.

USICH: Why are LGBTQ youth a special needs population?  Shouldn’t we just try to end youth homelessness in general?

Tackling homelessness across the board is very important and the Federal Strategic Plan released last year is hugely important toward this goal.  This population deserves special attention though because the youth’s LGBTQ identity is very often the direct cause of homelessness.  Because homelessness and LGBTQ status are so closely intertwined, it is a special area that needs to be addressed.  These kids have exhausted the usual safety nets (family, schools, often foster care). We need to make sure we catch them at the level of shelter and/or service provider.  Service providers are often the last stop before the streets and if a youth’s very identity is attacked here as well, it can be very damaging.  Providers need to understand gender identity issues on a basic level.

USICH: What should we do differently to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth in America?  What can our readers do or advocate for that will help create better outcomes for these kids?

There are three basic components that are needed at the service provider level.  The first step is to give provider staff basic cultural competency awareness training and to make service providers around the country aware that this population is out there and they have special needs.  Most studies show that they make up 20-40% of the homeless population which is well more than double the LGBTQ percentage in the general population.  They have higher rates of suicidality, depression, abuse, and are more likely to engage in risky social behaviors.  These kids don’t need all staff to become advocates for gay rights, but they do need the staff to look at them and their needs as individuals and they need a safe space free of attacks on their identities.

The second piece is to provide a programmatic package of services that can address the special needs of this population.  LGBTQ youth benefit from the same best practices that service providers offer from education help and job training to clothes, beds, and food.  But there are three services that are especially helpful for this population:  The first is to offer a program for family acceptance and reunification.  The second is to offer HIV testing and safe sex programs.  The third is to offer robust Mental Health support that has an understanding of the needs of the population and the identity crisis, abuse, and rejection these kids face as a part of their daily life.  Together these three services provide a fundamental basis of care and health that can then allow these kids to get back into regular development and success at school and at a job.

Finally, the third piece is that providers should be aware that at many shelters LGBTQ youth are abused by their heterosexual peers both physically and mentally.  This is a common and serious problem.  Provider awareness is the first step, but extra care needs to be taken to make sure that LGBTQ youth don’t end up fleeing the shelter that is their last chance at stability.

USICH: What are we currently doing right to make sure this population has its needs met?

We can only go up from here.  While there are certainly some examples of very strong programs that meet the needs of LGBTQ youth and while we now finally have some data on the depth and breadth of the problem, the needs are huge compared to the small number of programs available.

USICH: Besides the obvious positive of helping a young person find themselves and get a foothold on life and the moral obligation we have to help, are there other benefits to society that come with programs that help LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness?

Yes, absolutely.  Many of us are in this fight because we believe deeply in the moral obligation we have as a society to protect our most vulnerable, because we feel a personal connection to these kids, but there is also an economic benefit over time as well.  These kids don’t disappear once they pass beyond the age that we count them as youths.  They cycle in and out of homeless shelters and often the criminal justice system and emergency health care offices.  If we can break the cycle for these kids at a young age and get them on a better path, it can save them personally, but it can also save money over time.

USICH: How do you see the trajectory for this issue?  What does the future hold?

The future is mixed.  I am optimistic because we are finally seeing an accumulation of data on this issue and we are seeing a new awareness in the field on how to address it.  However, we are at the same time going through a tough time economically as a nation and that leads to cuts in social services in general.  It makes it that much more important for us to make clear that these programs need to be viewed from a long-term perspective economically.  The cost is not high and the results can be dramatic.

USICH: Do you have any final thoughts on this topic that you would like our readers to consider?

I would come back to what I said about the need to make clear to our partners on the ground: you do not need to become an advocate for gay rights in general.  It isn’t political.  But, if you are serving homeless youth as your mission, you must be aware of this population and address their needs.  You need to be aware of the unique backgrounds of LGBTQ youth; the rejection and abuse they experience as a part of everyday life.  You need to help them break that cycle by not rejecting them because of their gender identity and sexual preference.

Model Program Profile: Ali Forney Center

Location: New York City

Services Offered: 

The Ali Forney Center provides a safe shelter and nurturing environment for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City.  The Ali Forney Continuum of Care includes four components:

Youth outreach: workers hit the streets and look for youth who might be in need of help and inform them about the available resources at Ali Forney and in the city in general.  They talk to 500-600 youths a month.

Two drop in centers: The first is in Manahattan and offers food, showers, and a place to rest indoors.  Center staff talk to the youth, build up trust and begin to figure out individual needs.  There is a health clinic on site which provides free HIV testing and basic care as well as a mental health and substance abuse clinic.  The second drop in center is in Brooklyn and is focused on job readiness and life skills.  This is also an open to anyone drop in, but it is mostly used by the youth who are in their housing programs.

Twenty-eight beds of emergency housing.  Get youth in as quickly as possible though there is still unfortunately a wait list.  Emergency housing is provided without pre-conditions and is available for 6 months.
Thirty beds of transitional housing which is available for 2 years.  Youth must be willing to work (could be mentorship, volunteer, or paid).  If young person doesn’t have a high school degree, they are required to get a GED.  They are not required to take college courses but they are encouraged to do so and 75% of transitionally housed youth are enrolled in college.  Youth are not charged rent, but they are required to save some of their income in a savings account, so that when they transition out, they have some money available.

Three tips from Ali Forney Center Director Carl Siciliano on how to make sure a general service provider meets the needs of LGBT youth:

Make providing a safe space a top priority. This space needs to be free of rejection and homophobia. The youth need a space to breathe and be themselves. One simple step you can take is to run an LGBTQ support group in coordination with your other services. A group like this gives LGBTQ youth a place to interact, share their experiences, and just enjoy the sense of safety for awhile.

Provide visual clues that you are open to this population. This sends a signal both to LGBTQ youth but also to staff and other youth that the center supports the needs of this community. A rainbow flag or a coming out poster can go farther than you might think in setting the tone.

Talk to your staff openly about the issue. This is not a minute subpopulation. LGBTQ youth make up anywhere from 20-40% of homeless youth. LGBTQ status is an important part of a youth’s identity.This identity needs to be reaffirmed.  If possible, hire openly gay staff. If youth see that a staff member feels safe sharing their identity, they will feel safer themselves.

Two tips from Carl Siciliano on running programs for homeless youth:

Don’t assume that if you cut a service, you can save money.  We have found that often the opposite is true.  When you provide more services, you can open yourself up to more funding streams.  This is especially true when you provide quality mental health services.  Mental health is a critical service for homeless youth and LGBTQ youth in particular.  It can also help you secure more funding.

Licensing requirements may seem like a headache, but if you want to help youth and you want your program to grow, it is best to abide by all city, state, and federal laws so that you can receive legal licensing to operate your center.  This is true no matter what services you are providing.  Licensing requirements ensure a safe and comfortable place for our youth, but we have also found that much of the funding that keeps us running would not be available to us if we were not licensed.

Exciting New Partnership:

The Ali Forney Center and the Center for Social Innovation are pleased to announce their collaboration on a new project, the development of a National Center for Excellence on LGBTQ youth homelessness. The collaboration will be a partnership with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness and will translate best practices into tools for homeless service providers. The project will be piloted in the New York City area but will then be scaled nationally. Specific activities include the development of online resources and an online peer-to-peer learning community; creation of web-based training courses; custom technical assistance for individual programs; and face-to-face trainings. The goal of this partnership will be to develop concrete tools and resources that homeless service providers can use to serve youth experiencing homelessness and identifying as LGBTQ—and ultimately improve the lives of these very important young people.

Model Program: The Ruth Ellis Center

Location: Detroit, Michigan

Services Offered:

The Ruth Ellis Center provides short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk gay, lesbian, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning youth in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan. The Ruth Ellis Center Continuum of Care includes a spectrum of services:

Street Outreach: street outreach workers go to the streets and make contact with youth where they are. The Center’s street outreach workers have a great reputation on the streets for listening to youths’ needs and trying to meet those needs at that moment.  They can provide food, clothing, blankets, coats and safe sex kits on the streets. Street work allows youth access to limited services in lieu of coming to the drop-in center, though all youth are encouraged to come off the streets to the Center and get the help they need.

Drop in center that operates two days a week. Here the Center provides for the fundamental needs of the youth (meals, showers, laundry) and served 2,535 youth last year. From here, if the youth choose, they are referred to other community resources for healthcare and transitional housing and enrolled in mainstream services like Medicaid if they are not accessing those resources already. There are mental health counselors on site as well as nurses who can conduct HIV testing. A successful program at the Center is the Gender Identity Support group, which is facilitated by LGBTQ adult mentors from the community who create a supportive space for the youth to discuss their identity.

Ten beds of transitional housing. Five of these beds are for youth under the age of 18 and are dedicated as housing for those in the child welfare system who have gone in and out of foster care.  Working with the Wayne County Department of Human Services, Ruth Ellis is licensed as the primary placement for these youth for roughly 6 to 8 months. The ultimate goal of this partnership is to reunite these children with their families if possible or, if not, to find them a stable foster home. The other five beds are transitional housing for youth ages 18-21. The goal for these youth is to be out of transitional housing and in a stable home within 21 months. Ruth Ellis also offers a variety of educational services to help youth position themselves for the future.  The center also works with youth to find employment or volunteer opportunities and learn valuable job skills. Each transitional resident is also paired with a mentor who has made a successful transition from the Ruth Ellis Center to permanent housing.  The youth and mentor work together in the youth’s journey to independence.

Some recommended best practices for operating a drop-in center from the Ruth Ellis Center’s Executive Director, Laura Hughes:

Don’t push the youth too hard.  We operate around the Harm Reduction Model of case management which basically states: meet the youth where they are.  If they come in for a meal, give them a meal.  Talk to them and build their trust, but if they aren’t ready for your other services (testing or mental health evaluation) don’t push it.  A majority of the youth who come into the drop-in center have had to engage in survival sex and have been rejected by their parents or those on the street.  Because of this history they have trouble trusting new people right away. We never want the youth to come in and feel the same rejection that they have experienced time and again in their lives. With this model of care, we send the message: “When you’re ready, we’re here for you.”

Peer mentorship works.  We have found that peers are often the most effective at referring youths to services while at the drop-in center. Our Youth Advocacy Project mentors are those who have gained permanence in housing and have created a wide network of opportunities and contacts in the community in order to gain stability. Homeless youth see the change in their peer mentors and trust them with greater ease because they have a shared history.

Five suggestions from Laura Hughes for general service providers to meet the needs of LGBTQ youth:

Realize that not every youth that comes into your Center is straight. Use symbols (rainbow flags, Safe Space stickers, magazines) to cue the youth that here they are safe and accepted.

Training for staff is essential: the staff needs to feel comfortable talking about sexual identity and gender identity, and know the language to use for each type of youth that comes in and does disclose their identity to you. Also learn what language youth in your community use to describe themselves by talking with them – not every youth may use the term “queer” but it might be in the literature. A great first step is to reach out to LGBTQ resources and groups in your community to see if they can conduct training for your staff.

Understand that young people, and LGBTQ youth in particular, are often each other’s best teachers and supports and can be your best teachers too.  Listen to them. They have experiences, stories, and solutions to share and creating something like a Gender Identity Support Group will provide that space for conversation and sharing.

For those searching to make their program serve this population best, partner with LGBTQ community centers and support groups that have positive adult role models. These adults have gone through the unique experience of coming out and have wisdom and support to share. Youth are able to benefit from seeing successful adults, and there is power in hearing their experiences. Volunteers from support groups in our community participate as mentors at the drop in center and facilitate our gender identity support group.

Most importantly, we need to dispel the myth that there is one way to serve LGBTQ homeless and runaway youth and straight allies are not it. Allies are powerful and effective at creating exceptional outcomes for LGBTQ youth in programs where they feel safe and cared for. While we all strive to be the best we can be as allies, we cannot always be exceptional at first. You don’t have to be an exceptional ally—you just need to be an ally.

Resources on the issue of LGBTQ Youth Homelessness 

The profiles above skim the surface of best practices and resources on effectively meeting the needs of LGBTQ youth. For additional best practices and ways to address the issues of the LGBTQ youth homeless population visit the sites below:

Homelessness Resource Center:  SAMHSA’s LGBTQ youth homelessness online center with links to best practices, guides for service providers in areas of public health, safe zone creation, and shelter staff training.

National Center for Homeless Education: the resource page for LGBTQ youth research regarding how to prevent homelessness, working with school homeless liaisons, and working with those in foster care.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: a detailed report of on LGBTQ youth homelessness and fact sheets for LGBTQ homeless youth in 9 major cities.

National Alliance to End Homelessness: the full solutions brief for service providers “National Recommended Best Practices for Serving LGBT Homeless Youth.”

Center for American ProgressOn the Streets: the Federal Response to Gay and Transgender Homeless Youth and statistics on this population

National Coalition for the Homeless: summary of policy issue, statistics, and resources (including videos) to train shelter staff and the public on the issue of LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

The Obama Administration’s It Gets Better Campaign: the Administration’s response to violence against LGBTQ youth, the Federal Strategic Plan on Youth Policy, and links for service providers to LGBTQ youth support services

The Give a Damn Campaign: LGBTQ advocacy organization’s website, that speaks directly on the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness. Videos and links to nonprofit partner websites serving youth and advocacy materials.

National Center for Excellence, LGBTQ Youth Homelessness: A project of the Center for Social Innovation focused on training service providers and advocates on the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, including program highlights, best practices, and training materials and information.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has a National Advisory Council to address LGBTQ homeless youth issues, with subcommittees focused on best practices, appropriations, and transgendered youth. This Advisory Council is always looking for more experts in this area to contribute. If you are interested in joining or want to learn more about the work of the Council, please contact Andre Wade at or 202.942.8254.

A Mayoral Commission in New York City put together a comprehensive report on the needs of LGBTQ youth in New York and the strategies available to meet these needs.  The report, All Our Children: Strategies to Prevent Homelessness, Strengthen Services, and Build Support for LGBTQ Youth, details a ten point plan to improve outcomes for LGBTQ youth.