The plight of uprooted, dispossessed teenagers and near-teens, out on the street and on their own, has long been the festering secret of America’s chronic homelessness crisis. It’s finally starting to receive the public and policy attention it deserves. But one critical aspect of this crisis has largely escaped the public’s attention, though those who try to help them are keenly aware of it: It’s in large part a crisis of gender and sexual orientation.
A vastly outsized share of these homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Often their sexual identity makes it impossible for them to stay with their families; sometimes it gets them thrown out of their homes. And when that happens it also makes it harder for them to assemble a new life.
In 2012 researchers at UCLA’s Williams Institute surveyed 351 agencies serving homeless youth across the country on that question. On average, they reported that 40 percent of new clients placed themselves in one or another LGBT category (30 percent gay or lesbian, 9 percent bisexual, 1 percent transgender). This is somewhat higher than the estimate — 34 percent LGBT— often attributed to an earlier University of Nebraska study. But either tally is likely low, since some respondents would be wary of disclosure and some might not respond to a survey that doesn’t include their preferred designation: “queer.”
As Shannon Perez-Darby, youth services program manager at the Northwest Network (of Bi, Trans, Lesbian and Gay Survivors of Abuse) puts it, “A lot of them don’t identify as male or female.” The survey writers haven’t caught up with that fact.
Whatever they call themselves, young LGBTQ kids are flocking to Seattle, the city of voter-approved gay marriage, “It Gets Better” guru Dan Savage, and one of the largest Pride festivals in the United States. “Seattle definitely has a higher [LGBTQ] percentage than average” in its young homeless population, says Bryce Bahler, a caseworker at the Seattle nonprofit Youth Care who specializes in serving the young LGBTQ cohort. “I don’t think I’ve heard a youth specifically mention Dan Savage," adds Bahler, "but I have heard them say they came here because it’s more gay-friendly — whether they came from Auburn or Billings, Montana. Sometimes they heard about Seattle from a great aunt, sometimes it’s people coming from here who tell them.”
Young people who arrive from such backwaters are often naïve about the dangers that lurk in a big city, and thus particularly vulnerable to predation. Bahler, along with many academic researchers and others who work with gay and transgender young people, finds that this population makes up an outsized share of sexually exploited and victimized youth, a finding confirmed by a number of academic studies. “Transgender people are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the sex trade,” says the Northwest Network’s Perez-Darby.
Young lesbians get ensnared in the same sort of trafficking networks as other vulnerable girls and young women (serving male clients, though often with women pimps). Gay boys occasionally get trafficked, says Bahler, but more often they engage in so-called “survival sex,” in exchange for shelter, food and protection, and get passed around among friends. “A lot of young men see it as work for survival," says Perez-Darby, "whereas many young women see it as their identity.”
Desperation is the driver. Young LGBTQ people often have fewer supports to fall back on when times get tough. If they disclose their orientations, their families may throw them out. “Often they don’t feel safe going to certain service providers — religious institutions, schools, guidance counselors,” says Bahler. “If they did tell their teacher confidentially, would it be kept confidential?”
Service professionals find that transgender youth have the most severe needs and the most frayed safety nets. They often suffer “huge levels of violence and hardship [and] high levels of rejection from their families,” says Perez-Darby. And they face a suite of special challenges, particularly medical.
Just finding a supportive physician can be a struggle. “Often they don’t have documents that match their current gender, so they aren’t able to get conventional, legal employment,” says Perez-Darby — another factor pushing transgender youth into the sex trade. Furthermore, she says, “shelters are for men and women. If you are transgender and you are homeless, which shelter do you stay in? It's really hard for them to find a place.”
Perez-Darby says she’s heard that one local shelter has a nurse conduct physical exams of those who present themselves as transgender and assign them to quarters deemed suitable. Her claim could not be verified.
Untying such a tangle, says Bahler, “starts with building relationships [with LGBTQ kids],” just as it does for any other homeless youth. “There’s a combination of practical and therapeutic endeavors that happen within that relationship. Some youth have higher needs; we might have them work with one of the counselors, get medication.
"I’ve worked with some for six, 12, even 18 months," he continues. "Even after they’ve gotten themselves established they check back. Once you have their trust you can start offering guidance. The relationship dynamic allows us to challenge young people to make the next steps, challenge their own barriers. They wouldn’t take that coming from a stranger. It doesn’t mean we have all the answers, that we know what’s best for them. But we do a lot of work to help them find resources they can use to move forward." YouthCare, for example, offers barista, technology and construction internships.
Even as he tries to help uprooted and outcast youth move on, Bahler encourages them to reach out to the families, churches and other communities they’re estranged from. He remembers a young, gay African-American man who hitchhiked to Seattle from the East Coast. He’d been rejected by both his family and his church. He had his GED but not much employment experience.
“His primary goal," recalls Bahler, "was to develop a community, a support system where he felt safe." Bahler worked with the young man for almost two years. He earned an internship at Youth Care and excelled there. He went on to earn an associate's degree from Seattle Community College and land a job with a local thrift store. He has even taken tentative steps to reconnect with his family.
“I don’t know that that relationship is where they really want it to be, but it has improved," says Bahler. "Last year he did go back and visit his family on the East Coast and reported it was much more positive.”
Church is another matter. The young man is a Mormon, and the community has not been welcoming. Nevetheless, says Bahler, he still practices Mormonism — on his own terms — and hopes to go back to the church someday.
His is a story of success, says Bahler. “He was able to create community, develop resources. Over time, I heard from him less and less. He's gotten to a level of self-sufficiency where he doesn’t need us anymore.
“We’re slowly working ourselves out of a job.”