Expert Commentary

The needs of gay and sexual minority, homeless youth: Results of a national survey

2015 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law that focuses on the needs of gender and sexual minority youth, who are over-represented within the homeless population and face more mental and physical health problems.


More than 575,000 people were homeless in the United States in January 2014 – and nearly one-quarter were under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Other organizations estimate that the number of homeless youth is higher and is growing. But it’s hard to know how many children do not have adequate housing and other provisions, partly because of their mobility. In 2013, the Congressional Research Service released a report estimating there are more than 1 million homeless youth in a given year and between 1 million and 1.7 million runaway youth, including “thrownaway” children – those who have been thrown out of the family home or otherwise abandoned.

Research on homelessness and young people has consistently found that youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) are more likely to be homeless than their heterosexual peers. Over the past several years, the news media have increasingly focused on the problems of homeless, LGBTQ youth, including their likelihood of engaging in “survival sex,” or trading sex for basic needs such as food and shelter. Singer-songwriter Cyndi Lauper, once a homeless teen, has helped bring national attention to the issue of youth homelessness. In early 2015, actress and singer Miley Cyrus wrote to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers asking for increased funding for programs serving homeless children.

While homeless, LGBTQ youth are at a greater risk for physical and sexual violence and have particularly high rates of mental health and substance abuse problems, there is little reliable data on a national level that captures the experiences of these young people or the perspectives of the agencies that provide them support. To address this gap in research, Soon Kyu Choi, Bianca Wilson and Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law collaborated with Jama Shelton, the deputy executive director of the True Colors Fund, to administer a survey of 126 agencies that offer services to homeless youth. The goal of the LGBTQ Youth Provider Survey was to document providers’ experiences working with sexual minority populations and the needs of homeless, LGBTQ youth. The agencies sampled were evenly distributed across the U.S., and 20% reported working exclusively with sexual minority youth. The results of the survey are discussed in detail in a June 2015 report titled “Serving Our Youth 2015: The Needs and Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth Experiencing Homelessness.”

Key points highlighted in the study include:

  • LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among homeless populations, and a disproportionate number are racial and ethnic minorities. While LGBTQ youth are estimated to make up 7% to 8% of all young people in the U.S., approximately 20% of homeless youth served by the surveyed agencies identified as gay or lesbian while 7% identified as being bisexual and 2% as questioning. In addition, 30% of the homeless, sexual minority youth served by these agencies were black, 14% were Latino, 1% were Native American and 1% were Asian and Pacific Islander.
  • The individuals served by these agencies were generally between the ages of 18 and 20 — a finding that indicates that these support services are helping primarily young adults rather than minors.
  • The most common reason that these sexual minority youth were homeless was because they were forced out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender identity or because they ran away.
  • While family conflict was the most frequently cited reason for leaving home for all homeless youth, those who identified as LGBTQ were more likely to cite experiences of domestic physical abuse as a reason for leaving.
  • In addition to facing homelessness at higher rates, young, sexual minorities were estimated to report being homeless for a longer period of time and typically had poorer physical and mental health compared to heterosexuals, confirming prior research that found that sexual minority adolescents tend to be at a greater risk of depression and suicide.
  • The most frequently identified needs of homeless, sexual minority youth were related to housing and support and acceptance of their sexual or gender identity as well as employment and healthcare. Nearly 1 in 5 agencies, however, did not offer any physical health services to homeless youth, and 18% of agencies offered no mental health services.
  • Among the providers surveyed, 65% offered meals, 56% offered testing for sexually-transmitted diseases and 42% offered general health services. With respect to mental health care, 67% offered suicide-prevention assistance, 66% offered individual therapy and 58% offered group therapy.
  • Nearly 90% of the agencies surveyed offered drop-in services, and a comparable proportion also provided street outreach. Approximately 41% of homeless youth who were contacted through street-outreach initiatives identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning while approximately 9% identified themselves as transgender.
  • The major barriers to serving LGBTQ youth include a lack of funding, poor community support and a need for more information on best practices.

Although this study was based on the estimates of agency staff regarding their clientele, Choi and colleagues note that the survey helps advance the understanding of this vulnerable population. It allows for the identification of “facilitating factors and barriers to meeting the needs of LGBTQ youth accessing homelessness services.” The authors also indicate a need for additional study to determine the effectiveness of the services that are offered. “Evaluations of the effects of what currently exists may help the field better understand how to fill in the gaps highlighted by this report,” according to the authors.

Related research: A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service offers details about the various federal programs that serve homeless people and related legislation. A 2015 study published in the Journal of School Health, “Homelessness and Sexual identity Among Middle School Students,” found that homeless middle-school students who identified as lesbian, gay or transgender were more likely to stay overnight in a public place rather than a shelter. A 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Out on the Street: A Public Health and Policy Agenda for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless,” explores the causes of homelessness among sexual minority youth and the mental health and victimization risks they face.


Keywords: LGBT youth, LGBTQ, homelessness, shelters, depression, suicide, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, survival sex, sexual violence, mental health, thrownaway children, runaways

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