Fighting Homelessness Among LGBTQ Youth

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December 1, 2014

As we secure more victories for equality every day, a staggering and disturbing statistic remains: between 500,000 and 1.6 million youth in America experience homelessness each year, and up to 40% of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ.

Many homeless youth have not only been rejected by their families, but they have also been failed by their communities. As many of us head home over the holiday season, it’s important to focus on members of the LGBTQ community who experience homelessness and highlight recent efforts to end this serious problem.

Time in foster care significantly increases the chance youth will experience homelessness at some point in their lives, and LGBTQ youth are twice as likely as their non-LGBTQ peers to end up in foster care. Once homeless, LGBTQ youth are at elevated risk for juvenile justice involvement and commercial sexual exploitation.

Lambda Legal is a founding member of the National Coalition for Homeless Youth, and we joined a coalition, organized by the Center for American Progress and True Colors Fund, that filed comments requesting that the federal government strengthen proposed regulations in support of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act to offer even more protection and support for LGBTQ homeless youth.

Lambda Legal was proud to be a part of the True Colors Fund’s Forty to None Summit, a groundbreaking event, held this fall at New York City’s LGBT Community Center. It was the first national summit focused exclusively on addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness and brought together young people, advocates, service providers, government employees and funders from around the country.

The summit was an invigorating day of talks, presentations and idea exchange. Forty to None’s Project Director, Dr. Jama Shelton, spoke of the need to go beyond mere acceptance of LGBTQ youth and to create spaces that openly celebrate them. Dr. Shelton urged attendees to put LGBTQ young people at the center of our work around youth homelessness. “Because at 40 percent,” she said, “they kind of already are.”

The most compelling presentations of the summit came from youth themselves. Throughout the day, a diverse group of LGBTQ young people with homeless experience stepped up to talk about their own struggles, successes and dreams for the future. They spoke of their need to be their own authentic selves, their appreciation for affirmative spaces and fulfilling relationships, and the important role that they believe education will play in eradicating LGBTQ youth homelessness. Members of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, based in Chicago, gave a moving performance through song, dance and poetry. These youth-led presentations were a powerful reminder to the adults in the audience that our efforts are incomplete without youth voices.

Cyndi Lauper, co-founder of the True Colors Fund, addressed the group as well. She stressed the weight of the responsibility that fell on attendees’ shoulders and the need to create more strong allies for LGBTQ youth. “You’re the foot soldiers,” she told the room. “You’re so important.”

Participants learned about exciting new ground being covered in addressing youth homelessness, from upcoming research reports to technological advances to large-scale initiatives. One such initiative will use federal funds to focus specifically on reducing LGBTQ youth homelessness in Houston and Cleveland. Teams from both cities have already prepared action plans for the initiative. These plans will be made public, so that other communities can learn from their experiences.

It was an amazing and important day, and attendees left feeling energized and inspired. But the hard work had just begun for everyone, including Ms. Lauper, who also spoke on a panel hosted by the Federal Family & Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), entitled Ending Youth Homelessness: A Call to Action. The event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) and reaffirmed FYSB’s commitment to ending youth homelessness by 2020. Ms. Lauper used the opportunity to draw attention to the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth among homeless populations. She outlined the recently introduced Runaway Homeless Youth and Trafficking Act, an expansion on the RHYA that supports family reunification and seeks to improve services to LGBT homeless youth. The act is now headed to the Senate, and Lauper’s enthusiasm for the legislation, and her devotion to the cause, were infectious. “Let’s be energized,” she urged the audience, “and make this thing happen.”

Lambda Legal’s Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project advocates for LGBTQ youth in foster care, juvenile justice and homeless systems.

More information: Best Practices for Working with LGBTQ Homeless Youth, a publication developed by Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and the National Network for Youth.