The shelter system isn’t equipped for LGBTQ+ youth

by Morgan Philbin

While Pride Month may be over, we must remember that LGBTQ+ rights remain under persistent attack.

Consider family expulsion, rising hate crimes, discriminatory state policies and negative rhetoric from politicians. This discrimination — coupled with funding cuts to federal LGBTQ+ programs — is particularly challenging for teenagers and young adults who are in a vulnerable developmental period; it also increases their risk of homelessness.

The irony is, we know how to support unhoused LGBTQ+ youth — we simply need the will, and funding, to do it.

A nationwide study among nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ youth found that 28% experienced housing instability or homelessness, and 8.8% ran away from home because of actual or anticipated mistreatment due to their sexual or gender identity; two in five said they had been kicked out or abandoned.

LGBTQ+ young people are disproportionately represented among unhoused populations; even though they make up less than 10% of the U.S. population, they account for 30% to 40% of all homeless youth. Housing instability and poor mental health outcomes are often intertwined: 84% of homeless LGBTQ+ youth reported anxiety in the past year, 82% reported depression and 35% reported a suicide attempt. These statistics demonstrate why we need to develop services and programs that address the needs of unhoused LGBTQ+ teenagers and youth.

Shelters can be an important stopgap to facilitate linkage to services and long-term housing, but many are ill-equipped to serve LGBTQ+ youth. Two-thirds of shelters describe funding as the main barrier to staying open and serving youth, and nearly half lack dedicated LGBTQ+ staff or staff trained in their needs. Scarce privacy (e.g., shared rooms and lack of private showers) can make LGBTQ+ youth uncomfortable. The federal government spends about $75 per homeless youth per year, profoundly limiting what can be allocated to LGBTQ+ tailored programming.

Faith-based organizations, which operate nearly 30% of emergency shelters nationally, are exempt from federal nondiscrimination laws, and can simply refuse shelter to LGBTQ+ youth.  Federal policies should mandate that all shelters — regardless of their funding stream — accept LGBTQ+ youth and mandate training to ensure staff understand their needs.

This lack of tailored programming and shelters where LGBTQ+ youth feel safe has dire consequences. In more than two decades of work with LGBTQ+ youth as a researcher and volunteer, I have heard many stories from young people who were verbally and physically accosted in shelters. Many chose to return to the streets, where they felt safer.

Successful programs and policies can be scaled up and adapted to support homeless LGBTQ+ youth nationwide. For example, the 2020 Runaway and Homeless Youth Act provided $132 million for youth-focused shelters — but not specifically for LGBTQ+ youth. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has created a national policy statement about how to support LGBTQ+ homeless youth. While this statement outlines important and inclusive approaches, their implementation is not mandated by any legal entity and the proposed approaches are not enforceable.

Given their marginalized status, LGBTQ+ youth deserve dedicated housing and tailored resources. Successful examples of this include Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco and Ali Forney Center and Covenant House in New York City. These groups provide emergency shelter, as well as longer-term housing support ranging from dorm-style living to independent apartments.

State and local governments need to invest in tailored services and programs that support LGBTQ+ teenagers and youth, including mental health, education and employment resources. These programs should coordinate with each other to most effectively deliver the services within their expertise, while simultaneously ensuring every young person has their needs met. Only then can we truly support homeless and unhoused LGBTQ+ youth.

Morgan Philbin is an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project in partnership with the UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative.