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Reframing Danger and Finding Safety
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Dr. Les B. Whitbeck is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln whose research focuses on LGBTQI2-S youth experiencing homelessness in small Midwestern cities. His mission is to keep underserved youth safe from repeated harm.
Reframing Danger and Finding Safety


“The more they are injured, the sicker they become. Harm reduction is essential. Keep young people safe, because if they are hurt again, the damage is serious and lifelong,” says Dr. Les B. Whitbeck, Ph.D., John G. Bruhn Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Whitbeck’s research focuses on LGBTQI2-S youth experiencing homelessness in the Midwestern states.

Whitbeck and his colleagues use a trauma-based approach, especially with young women. Nobody chooses homelessness, he says, and many young people find that the end of the road is a shelter. They have already been victims in their homes or have become victims in relationships. This has serious consequences that are difficult to unravel. “One of our goals is to prevent further victimization. [When this happens,] either the young person will develop new symptoms, or symptoms will increase,” says Dr. Whitbeck.

In translating research to practice, Dr. Whitbeck’s focus remains on the issue of both safety and harm reduction. His research revealed that this population is struggling with mental health concerns, and that the mental health problems tend to come in clusters. Many youth struggle with depression. Many are traumatized and hurt, and Dr. Whitbeck explains that allowing them to be further traumatized will only perpetuate their illnesses. “We argue for allowing youth to stay even if they are using [drugs] or drinking, as long as there is no violence, and for safe shelters that protect youth from sexual assault,” he says.

Youth need a safe place to sleep, but establishing safety is a challenge. Dr. Whitbeck has observed that it has been difficult for youth to observe shelter rules. Yet, emotional safety is scarce for youth living on the streets. Street life changes everything, and youth are hypervigilant out of necessity. Youth have self-reported that they only feel happy if they are using drugs. “Physical safety is imperative. They must have walls around them. Any trauma survivor or provider knows that they are susceptible to re-traumatization,” says Dr. Whitbeck.

Dr. Whitbeck says that the experience of sexual assault is pervasive in this population, and that many youth will reframe sexual assault as a failed relationship. Young people often reframe traumatic incidents to block out the truth of what really happened, he explains. Dr. Whitbeck offers one particularly telling example. A young person is offered drugs, has sexual relations in exchange for the drugs, and is kicked out in the morning. While in reality the young person was sexually exploited, Dr. Whitbeck explains that, from the youth’s point of view, this was a date.

Young LGBTQI2-S youth often overestimate the closeness of relationships. Dr. Whitbeck conducted a hazard analysis, following 13 groups of LGBTQ2I-S youth over 3 years. He found that 30 to 42 percent had been raped. By the final wave of the study, only 9 percent of the males and 15 percent of the females had not been victimized.

“Remember, young people are going hungry much of the time when they are not staying in shelters; 33 to 40 percent are reporting that they are going hungry when not living in a shelter. They are out panhandling and shoplifting. Many are underage and cannot work,” says Dr. Whitbeck. While many youth are resourceful, being resourceful can mean becoming involved in the underground economy. This may involve gang life or, for a very small number, may lead to sex work.

Dr. Whitbeck has examined what he calls “the contradiction of resiliency” found in youth who experience homelessness. Young people who identify as LGBTQ2I-S drift away from conventional behaviors out of necessity on the streets, and they land in adulthood with little or no pro-social behaviors. They have had to become adults at a very young age. The problem, he explains, is that they attain survival skills and proficiencies in the face of adversity, but are not equipped with the social skills they need.

“[Youth] are placed in foster care or group homes, but often leave them, so we have found they have two kinds of resilience and they are antithetical to one another,” says Dr. Whitbeck. “Most youth we have seen do not know how to have strong enduring relationships, but they do know how to hustle and survive on the street. If someone turned me loose on the streets in Des Moines, I would be terrified.”

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