Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth make up at least 20 percent of homeless youth in the United States, although they are only about 10 percent of the overall youth population. Both the causes and effects are sobering—but neighbors, policy makers, corporations, and celebrities are taking steps to help.
LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ youth share many of the same reasons for homelessness—including family conflict, physical abuse, substance use, and neglect—but for LGBTQ youth, the family conflict may center around their sexual orientation and gender identity, and lead ultimately to rejection by their families.
Richard Hooks Wayman, executive director of the Hearth Connection, a nonprofit working to end homelessness in Minnesota, says that homeless LGBTQ youth “experience enhanced barriers to reunification” because their families reject them.
The consequences are grim. LGBTQ homeless youth are more likely to be victims of sexual violence than heterosexual ones, according to a 2009 report by Wayman, and are also more likely to have been asked—and agreed—to exchange sex for money, food, drugs, shelter, or clothing.
And Debby Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a youth service organization in Washington state, says that LGBTQ youth “are especially vulnerable because of discrimination . . . including being victims of hate crimes.”
The effects are long-lasting. Theresa Nolan, NYC division director of LGBTQ youth programs for youth service provider Green Chimneys, says, “If we neglect LGBTQ homeless youth, we risk creating LGBTQ adults who are maladapted, addicted, and unable to care for themselves.”
There are signs of progress, however. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now requires that all organizations serving homeless youth be equipped to serve LGBT youth, for example.
But Wayman’s report also noted that because of a national shortage of youth shelters and housing programs, and the greater likelihood that LGBTQ youth have been rejected by their families, “Lack of federal, state, and local funding is a primary barrier” to helping LGBTQ youth.
Nolan adds that the solution requires “social change, not just social services.” Everyone, she says, must intervene with rejecting families, and speak up against institutional homophobia and violence against people who don’t conform to gender “norms.”
In the media
Youth homelessness has received major media attention this year from corporations and non-profits, to celebrity figures like Jon Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga. Virgin Mobile, which has been a leading corporation in the fight to bring attention to youth homelessness since 2006, teamed up with Lady Gaga to extend its FREE.I.P. volunteer program as part of their sponsorship of the Monster Ball Tour. “More than 2 million young people will experience some form of homelessness this year. One in every five homeless youth in the community identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender,” says Lady Gaga.
“This makes me very angry. Now it’s time for us to fight back. Thanks to my partnership with Virgin Mobile and the Re*Generation Campaign, hundreds of my fans have donated their time working at homeless youth shelters over the course of this year’s tour, and have all gotten free tickets to see the show. But we still need to do more.”
What’s being done
As part of this partnership, Virgin Mobile USA’s Re*Generation Campaign and Lady Gaga not only generated more volunteerism but education and resources. Lady Gaga spoke to fans each night heightening awareness and issued a PSA also pledging to match up to $25,000 in donations. Virgin Mobile has raised nearly $600,000 since creating the RE*Generation program and generated more than 55,000 hours of volunteerism since the advent of their FREE.I.P. program. The company was recently noted with the 2010 Private Sector Award from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.