Homeless LGBTQ youth struggle to escape harassment at shelters

LGBTQ youth need shelters to be safe from harassment and sexual assault. But too often, shelters fail to protect them.

Baresco Escobar, 19, left, from Fairfax, Va., an aspiring entertainer who identifies himself as bisexual, sits next to his friend applying nail polish while visiting a local fast food hangout, March 1, 2012, in New York. CREDIT: AP/Bebeto Matthews
Baresco Escobar, 19, left, from Fairfax, Va., an aspiring entertainer who identifies himself as bisexual, sits next to his friend applying nail polish while visiting a local fast food hangout, March 1, 2012, in New York. CREDIT: AP/Bebeto Matthews

LGBTQ youth often run away from or are pushed out of their homes by unaccepting families, but too often, long-term placements and homeless shelters don’t offer a better alternative. Instead, they become just another place where LGBTQ youth are harassed, sexually assaulted, and denied recognition of their gender. To make matters worse, few states have effective policies that recognize their particular needs, and federal rules protecting this population are in danger.

Despite the fact that LGBTQ youth make up about 40 percent of homeless youth, advocates for homeless people and policymakers haven’t granted them the attention other homeless populations receive, said Shabab Ahmed Mirza, research assistant for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

“When we look at homelessness, we see a lot of work focused on ending veteran homelessness and that was a huge success under Obama administration and that’s great, but it goes to show how much we can achieve when we put our emphasis on one particular issue,” she said. “Why are we not talking about [LGBTQ people] every time homelessness comes up under discussion when it’s a disproportionate amount of that population?”

But LGBTQ homeless youth are in dire need of this attention. A lack of organization on the state level makes it difficult to hold shelters accountable for bad behavior, shelters that don’t receive federal and state money may not have the incentive to treat LGBTQ young people well, and there is a dearth of research on LGBTQ homeless youth. In addition to all of these challenges, advocates face an administration that has shown every intention of withdrawing LGBTQ rights gains over the past few years.

How LGBTQ youth become homeless

The most common reason LGBTQ youth gave for being homeless was family rejection, according to 2012 Williams Institute study of youth shelters. Forty-six percent of participants said they ran away because their family rejected their sexuality or gender identity and 43 percent said they were forced out for belonging to the LGBTQ community. The rest of the young people who took part in the study said they experienced some kind of abuse at home, aged out of foster care, or suffered from financial or emotional neglect.


Mirza said LGBTQ youth homelessness demonstrates the failure of other systems that were supposed to protect them as well, such as schools and child welfare systems. LGBTQ youth are more likely to be in the child welfare system and more likely to experience disproportionate rates of harassment when they are inside it.

“It’s a last resort for them, that they are pushed out from other systems. They’re in a school where they’re not able to be in a safe environment and they’re not able to be safe at home,” Mirza said.

“If there is no other shelter, that is a major public policy concern, because what happens to young people?”

Currey Cook, director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project at Lambda Legal, said the foster care system is a “huge pipeline” for LGBTQ young people.

“How do we as a community say this is important to us, that kids are valued and don’t end up in systems because families are still learning to accept them?” said Cook. “If your group home is not affirming or you’re placed in foster care, you just bolt.”

Homelessness is not a priority on the state level

Homeless shelter staff usually know they have a responsibility to protect homeless youth, but they don’t always have a specific policy in place on how to treat LGBTQ homeless youth. Without a clear guide for shelter staff, complete with examples of unacceptable treatment of queer and trans young people, staff may let their personal prejudices affect how they treat LGBTQ youth or tolerate mistreatment from others when they see it, Cook said.


“The problem is if you don’t explicitly say that you can’t harass or treat young people differently on account of sex orientation or gender identity, and don’t then provide training on what does that means,” Cook said. “That’s where you have this opening for people who have their own personal beliefs creep in that they don’t think it’s okay to be trans or that you’re being ‘too gay.’”

Although Cook said many faith-based shelters do not discriminate against LGBTQ homeless youth, he is concerned about the minority of those shelters that treat them poorly. In many rural towns, these are the only shelters available. The vast majority of shelters receive state and federal funds, Cook said, but it’s difficult to find data on shelters that don’t, and it’s a challenge to hold those shelters accountable in any way.

“Where does that leave young people? If there is no other shelter, that is a major public policy concern, because what happens to young people?” Cook said.

An April report from Lambda Legal looked at state policies on LGBTQ homeless youth and found that only 12 states and the District of Columbia explicitly included sexual orientation and gender identity in nondiscrimination protections for facilities that served runaway and homeless youth. Only four states had statutory or regulatory guidance on placement of trans youth in out-of-home care that was in accordance with gender identity.

In many states, responsibilities for these services are scattered across agencies, Cook said. So there may be an office for juvenile justice and child welfare services, but not for services for the homeless.

“That means it’s difficult to have one concrete set of policies to govern all [services for the homeless],” Cook said.

Federal protections may be in danger

The Obama administration offered LGBTQ homeless youth new protections, but advocates say that they are concerned the Trump administration will roll back those gains.


The Equal Access Rule makes it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in housing that receives funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or is in insured by the Federal Housing Administration, and regulations intended to ensure trans people can stay in homeless shelters and have staff respect their gender identity. All of these protections are now under threat from the new administration.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who oversees federal policies affecting LGBTQ homeless youth, has a record of making homophobic comments. Only a few years ago, Carson compared same-sex couples to child molesters.

The administration as a whole has already taken a number of actions that are hostile to LGBTQ people, such as rescinding guidance on trans student protections and removing LGBTQ people from surveys. There have been a couple of less noticeable anti-LGBTQ actions at HUD. A guide on inclusion of transgender people in shelters was removed from the HUD website and a HUD survey on LGBTQ homeless people has been withdrawn.

Cook said the removal of data collection is disappointing because communities need to see models of other communities implementing LGBTQ-inclusive policies.

“To pull back a requirement about data on implementation of those plans so you can’t see the effects of implementing these plans, that impacts whether other communities pick up these models and use them,” said Cook.

The White House’s proposed 2018 budget would decrease HUD’s budget by about $6 billion and slash its affordable housing and community development programs, but it would maintain funding for Fair Housing Act enforcement.

Mirza said there have been mixed messages coming from the White House on whether they will protect some of the policy gains LGBTQ homeless youth made during the Obama administration.

“We’re hoping for the best and preparing for the worst,” Mirza said.

ThinkProgress is one of seven D.C.-based newsrooms dedicating a portion of our newsgathering to a June 29 collaborative news blitz aimed at uncovering barriers and solutions to ending homelessness. See all participants’ work at DCHomelessCrisis.Press