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A Brighter Rainbow
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In the face of national activity around youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness, SAMHSA has developed a workgroup to address the needs of this population. Contributing author Rachael Kenney outlines current initiatives and provides concrete tips for how you can make a difference.
A brighter Rainbow

Imagine for a moment that you are sixteen years old. Your family disowns you for reasons that are beyond your control. Your parents tell your relatives that they cannot have any contact with you. Where would you turn? How would you eat? Would you keep going to school or would you try to find enough work to make ends meet? Would you push the boundaries of the law to meet your needs?

For youth who are not sexual or gender minorities, being disowned by one’s parents is a rare occurrence. But, over a quarter of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S* are kicked out of their homes when they come out to their parents. When compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQI2-S youth who are homeless experience higher rates of abuse, mental illness, substance use, juvenile justice involvement, and nearly every other risk factor that one can imagine. Even with so much working against them, these youth are often fiercely resilient, creative, and inspiring individuals. SAMHSA’s National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and their Families was convened in 2008 to address the needs of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S.

The group was initiated by The Child, Adolescent and Family Branch (CAFB), Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and it focuses on youth in systems of care. “The system of care model is an organizational philosophy and framework that involves collaboration across agencies, families, and youths for the purpose of improving access and expanding the array of coordinated community-based, culturally and linguistically competent services and supports for children and youth with a serious emotional disturbance and their families.” The Homeless and Housing Resource Network (HHRN) has been at the table with this workgroup since its inception.

Over the past five years, this workgroup has developed numerous products that are changing the way that service providers work with youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. Most notably, the workgroup contributed chapters to and edited the book Improving Emotional and Behavioral Outcomes for LGBT Youth: A Guide for Professionals, which includes a chapter on youth homelessness. Additionally, some of the Homelessness Resource Center’s work on this population, including a video series, expert panel, listening tour, and numerous trainings was born out of involvement with this workgroup.  

SAMHSA’s initiatives around youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness reflect a larger movement. Last year, the Platte Fund, True Colors Fund, and Williams Institute published Serving our youth: Findings from a national survey of service providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. They found that 94 percent of respondents work with youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. They also found that 40 percent of youth in the programs surveyed identify as LGBTQI2-S. To put this in perspective, only 5-7 percent of youth in the general population identify as LGBTQI2-S. The percentage of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S varies depending on the type of program; in drop-in shelters, as many as 43 percent of the youth identify as LGBTQI2-S, but this number drops to 21 percent in shelters.

In its 2013 report Seeking shelter: The experiences and unmet needs of LGBT homeless youth, the Center for American Progress proposes solutions for engaging youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S in shelter. The report synthesizes the literature and suggests that street outreach is important but underutilized (one study found that less than 10 percent of youth in shelters had encountered street outreach). Technology-based outreach is offered as an effective strategy for engaging youth; 58 percent of homeless youth have access to cell phones. Additional recommendations include increasing the cultural competency of service providers, developing relationships with community organizations that focus on LGBTQI2-S issues, adding questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the intake process, and ensuring that transportation is available.

But even as SAMHSA’s workgroup moves forward and organizations around the country provide solutions, there is legislated discrimination toward youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) was first passed in 1974 and reauthorized in 2003. It is the primary federal funding stream for services provided to homeless youth. As RHYA currently stands, there are no protections in place for youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S. This means that shelters can turn them away or place young people who identify as transgender in dorms that don’t reflect the gender with which they identify. The Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act was introduced in August 2013 by Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan Democratic Representatives from Wisconsin. This act would amend RHYA to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Additionally, it would promote training to help service settings better address the needs of this population, as well as adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the demographic data that is collected.    

For Representative Moore, the issue of homelessness is close to home: “I ran away from home when I was an adolescent. It was the first and last time. Living on the streets is a difficult and dangerous experience — one that no child should have to endure. Unfortunately, homelessness is the reality for hundreds of thousands of youth each year…. LGBT homelessness is an issue that negatively impacts our children, our families and our communities. Omitting these young people from the RHYA sends a powerful message to this population: that addressing their trauma and fear is not a priority.”

With all of this national activity around youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness, one might wonder what an individual person can do to support this population. There are many things that one person can do:
  • Contact your congressmen https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/map regarding the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act. Start your letter with: “I support/oppose H.R. 2955 (“Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act of 2013”) because . . .” Effective strategies for writing letters like this include using a personal story, keeping it short, and saying thank you.
  • Join a listserv, such as the Cultural and Linguistic Competence Community of Practice Listserv (this includes the National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and their Families), the Forty to None Project  and True Colors Fund, or sign up for housing or gay and transgender news alerts, such as the Center for American Progress. Share the information with your colleagues and friends to help raise awareness.
  • Support or encourage the opening of programs that serve youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and are homeless in your area. If possible, offer financial support, volunteer, or provide referrals.
  • Start the conversation in your program or community. SAMHSA’s National Workgroup to Address the Needs of Children and Youth Who Are LGBTQI2-S and their Families started as one person’s idea and has grown into a workgroup with over fifty-two members and numerous projects. One person can have a lasting impact.

In the words of Representative Gwen Moore: “The LGBT youth homelessness experience cannot be ignored.”

* LGBTQI2-S stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and two-spirited. Essentially, it means youth who are not strictly heterosexual (romantically attracted to the opposite sex) or cisgender (identify with the biological sex with which they were born).

Source: Ray, N. (2006). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless.

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