Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

What’s Home Got to Do with It? Unsheltered Queer Youth

D was 17 years old when she was kicked out of her mother’s house. D’s mother didn’t accept D’s sexuality. While she was never able to state honestly that it was D’s sexuality or gender expression that was an issue, she constantly tried to change who D was. She fought with D about who her friends were and would never let her bring friends home. She harassed D about how she dressed, told her to dress “more like a girl,” and became physically violent during their arguments. It wasn’t long before D was forced to leave her home with none of her belongings—no clothes, no ID. In the beginning she managed to bounce from couch to couch, staying with various friends. But due to the instability she wasn’t able to continue with high school. When the couches ultimately dried up, D found her way to a youth homeless shelter. There she remained for the 30 days allocated for crisis shelter beds. When her 30 days were up, she made her way to a service agency where she met with advocates who tried to get her into foster care. But the system was unresponsive. When the city investigated why D, still a child, was homeless, they concluded that she came from a troubled family but one that could be repaired through counseling. Little effort was made to reunite this family and D’s mother was not interested in addressing her underlying homophobia. The issue was masked as a behavior problem on D’s part. In the end, D was expected to return home to her mother. D tried to return home but was soon forced out by her mother’s abuse. By this time D was 18 years old: too old for foster care services. Without a high school diploma, identification, and a source of income, D’s options were limited. Once D found her way back to a youth homeless shelter, she began the brutal journey through New York City’s various systems.[1]

In New York City, estimates of homeless and street-involved youth range between 20,000 and 30,000. Nationwide studies indicate that 20 to 40 percent of youth living on the streets identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning (LGBTQQ), not including those whose behavior and identity don’t fit any officially recognized category.[2] Marginalized and vulnerable, homeless LGBTQQ youth are overwhelmingly low-income youth of color who have been kicked out by parents, or have fled abusive homes because of their gender or sexual nonconformity.

In general terms, LGBTQQ young people become homeless as a result of the same social inequities that face all poor people, but especially poor people of color. They are affected by unemployment and underemployment, cuts in public benefits, and rising housing costs. They leave high school before graduating, and face regular police harassment. They are overrepresented in the foster care, juvenile justice, and shelter systems. They struggle with higher than average levels of substance abuse, mental health issues, and violence. They are more likely to turn to sex work to survive. And LGBTQQ youth are often more severely affected by such difficulties than most other young people. Home, school, the streets, and the social service system can all be dangerous places of bullying and fear, as well as everyday discrimination.[3]

What are LGBTQQ communities doing to help these young people? Progress over the past decades has encouraged more members of our communities to come out, often at younger and younger ages. This means that the LGBTQQ homeless population is becoming younger too, on average. Despite overall progress in LGBTQQ rights, these homeless youth often face anger, violence, and confusion at home—and discrimination, harassment, and more violence when they leave. The institutions designed to help homeless young people, the foster care and shelter systems, do not do a good job of ensuring the safety and support of LGBTQQ youth. Many choose to live on the streets rather than face the violence and harassment they confront in homeless shelters and foster care placements. On the streets, they can create their own networks of friends and families, and learn from each other how to navigate the various agencies and service programs that they need to survive.

The mainstream LGBTQQ movement organizations generally encourage young people to come out, usually with no real comprehension of the hostile forces they are likely to confront, and without strong material commitments to addressing their needs. The national LGBTQQ organizations working on youth issues emphasize issues such as education and sexual health, but largely neglect the violence and isolation that young people face in homeless shelters and foster care agencies, or the challenges they face when confronting the police and negotiating with johns on the street.[4]

Issues Confronting LGBTQQ Youth

LGBTQQ young people experience hostility in their families and schools, in the social services and juvenile justice system, and on the streets. They are affected by homophobia and transphobia, and also by the structural inequalities of poverty, racism, and sexism. The weak social service system, the nonprofit world, and the LGBTQQ movement itself too often address these problems as individual difficulties rather than social problems. At worst, young people are criminalized or pathologized, and at best, they are usually offered short-term individual solutions for difficulties requiring collective action for social justice.

Social Services and the Shelter System

LGBTQQ youth are sometimes kicked out of their homes by parents who will not accept them, and sometimes they run away to escape hostility or abuse. The first option for many is the foster care system. For older adolescents, however, accessing the foster care system can be a challenge. For these young people, the first step is often a crisis shelter. In New York City, teenagers who have been thrown out of their homes or who have run away from abusive families often face barriers to the child welfare system because they are viewed as troubled teenagers who are old enough to survive in the youth shelter system. Despite allegations of homophobic abuse or neglect, many of these young people are referred to a 30-day crisis shelter instead of long-term foster care services.

For the youth in foster care in New York City, there are two foster care programs offering services specifically for LGBTQQ youth. These programs offer a limited number of beds, however, and do not address the larger problems of institutional homophobia and transphobia in the wider system. Such limits clearly show that segregation cannot be a solution to the problems facing LGBTQQ young people, for whom all programs must become safe and welcoming.

Over the years, LGBTQQ foster youth and their advocates have worked to improve services for LGBTQQ youth in care. Today there are policies and training that have been implemented to protect LGBTQ foster youth. Despite these changes, however, there is little support available for people struggling with sexual and gender identity issues within their families.

Whether they end up in foster care or a youth shelter, a disproportionate number of our young people ultimately end up homeless, after families, foster care, and society have failed to meet their needs. There are only a handful of LGBTQQ youth-specific organizations to serve them. In a city of more than 30,000 out-of-home youth, under 500 crisis shelter beds are available.[5] And less then 1 percent of these crisis beds are in programs specifically serving LGBTQQ young people. Five to eight thousand young people use emergency housing services each year, and LGBTQQ populations are disproportionately overrepresented among them.[6] For these reasons, many LGBTQQ youth are faced with entering the mainstream adult shelter system, where their sexual or gender expression is likely to generate disapproval or violence.

Juvenile Justice

The juvenile justice system is charged with the responsibility for rehabilitating young people who commit crimes. If a young person who commits a crime has a supportive family, she is less likely to face time in a detention center. For those without family support, the juvenile system operates much like the adult criminal justice system. LGBTQQ youth are more likely to receive stricter penalties for crimes, and are overrepresented in detention centers, where they are often isolated. As in many institutions, staff report not having the appropriate training to handle queer youth, who must too often fend for themselves.[7]

Schools and Military Recruitment

Low-income and homeless LGBTQQ youth working to earn an education face an uphill battle. One study reported that up to 75 percent of older homeless adolescents drop out of high school.[8] Those that remain in school are likely to attend schools heavy policed by the city’s police department. These young people, along with all low-income students, attend schools that feel more like detention facilities than educational institutions. Conflict in these heavily policed schools is often resolved through the juvenile and criminal justice systems. There have been efforts to make schools safer for LGBTQQ youth; however, some of these efforts use increased punitive measures to address conflict around sexual and gender identity issues.

For homeless queer youth, dropping out of school is often a result of an unstable family life, or violence and harassment at school. LGBTQQ youth in New York City public schools report being called derogatory names, being threatened with physical violence, and lacking protection by school staff. Despite this reality, national LGBTQQ organizations direct more money to colleges than to high schools and GED programs. They sponsor National Coming Out Day as a major event on college campuses, assuming that when young people come out they will be safer and more accepted. But coming out is not always a good option for young people with no financial or family support, and schools are not necessarily the central point of engagement for poor queer youth. With increasing national attention being drawn to the devastating effects of bullying, many of these national organizations are directing efforts to address the isolation and anti-gay bullying many LGBTQ youth are experiencing in schools across the country.

For queer youth not able to go to college, the military moves in. Low-income and poor youth of color are primary targets for military recruitment. Recruiters flock to high schools and set up camp in low-income communities of color, with the goal of filling their ranks with young people who have few other options. When mainstream LGBTQQ organizations fight for inclusion and equality in the military—but ignore the economic pressure placed on the least privileged young people to join up—they are abandoning the situation of queer young people whose military participation is not simply chosen.

When substantial resources are directed toward college campuses in support of “coming out” activities, or when emphasis is placed on inclusion in the military but not on the economic underpinnings of recruitment patterns, the plight of less-privileged young people is neglected. The mainstream movement often fails to analyze the intersections of class and race within the broader LGBTQQ community, and tends to ignore the experience of poor queer youth of color in particular.

Public Access and Representation

Since the 1969 Stonewall rebellion, the Christopher Street area in New York City has been identified with queer life. Over the past decades, the Christopher Street Pier as well as the street itself have become collective public gathering places for queer youth of color especially. But over those decades, the surrounding West Village has gentrified, and increasingly wealthy property owners often see the streets as their private space. Low-income queer youth of color have been increasingly marginalized as local property owners have pressured police and community boards to restrict uses of the pier as well as the streets. Such pressure has resulted in an increased policing of queer youth of color in the neighborhood and a shift in the services offered there. Intake centers for emergency shelters have been moved to outer boroughs, funding for mobile units parked in the neighborhood has been cut, and policing has been intensified.[9] Despite its history as a queer social movement center, the entire Christopher Street area has erased that democratic, public history as the forces of gentrification have created a whiter, wealthier neighborhood in which queer youth of color are less and less welcome.


The funding streams for government services and nonprofit organizations generally support and encourage programs that deliver services to individuals who need services as a result of individual problems or pathologies (drug use, trauma, depression). This politically conservative model of social service provision neglects or denies the systemic and structural causes of collective need for resources. Accountability to LGBTQQ youth is also missing from this traditional structure of social services. Services and advocacy priorities are often set by professionals working with homeless youth and do not come from the experiences of young people. In general, there is a disconnect between homeless youth and the organizations, foundations, and agencies providing services.

Mainstream LGBTQQ organizations do not recognize the major issues created for queer youth by this model of individualized service provision. Many organizations are silent on issues of class, race, and the intersections of oppression. A falsely unified gay identity is often portrayed, rendering multiple identities and forms of oppression as relatively invisible on the mainstream “gay agenda.”

Nevertheless, there is increasing change happening at the local level. Remarkably, the organizing work of local service providers has affected change in more immediate ways than the national organizations whose missions are supported by millions of our community’s dollars. Local grassroots organizations and progressive service providers targeting LGBTQQ low-income and homeless youth are addressing the needs of these young people in a unique way. There is increasing attention being put on the high prevalence of trauma experienced by homeless youth. There is ample evidence that homeless youth are exposed to and experience high rates of family and community violence. This understanding is now informing the ways in which services are being provided to this community. For many youth, these traumatic experiences shape their core identity and behaviors with adults. The consequences of trauma exposure interfere with a young person’s ability to engage in and benefit from services designed to promote stability and improve their quality of life. A trauma-informed approach attempts reduce barriers to engagement and enable young people to create realistic plans to increase their stability and achieve personal goals. Homeless young people responding to trauma frequently exhibit disruptive or challenging behaviors and often get restricted from the programs that are designed to serve them. Successful youth-serving agencies use an approach that promotes healthy attachment, self-regulation, and developmental skill competencies. Trauma-informed work also creates a response to conflict or disruptive events that focuses on the needs of the people involved instead of the need to satisfy the abstract principles of law or the need of the agency to exact punishment. Young people are given an active role in a dispute and young people who exhibit difficult behavior are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and are asked to work towards repairing the harm they have done.

Locally, there are also a number of LGBTQ organizations that have shifted the way in which social services to LGBTQ youth are provided. Traditionally, the voices of LGBTQ youth were not included in advocacy efforts. Adults and professionals working on behalf of young people set the policy and service priorities. In New York, organizations like FIERCE!, SRLP, and Streetwise and Safe (SAS), among others, have transformed the way youth participate in organizing and advocacy efforts. These organizations have created opportunities for lawyers and organizers to share information with youth and provided guidance and support for the youth to create tools to educate and share information with their peers. For example, SAS works with LGBTQ youth of color around policing issues in NYC. Lawyers and organizers engage a group of youth who have direct experience with the criminal justice system in a semester-long program. Together they exchange information about the legal system and police practices, and work to develop a “know your rights” curriculum that the youth can share with their peers. This youth development approach to social and legal services is an important component to any youth services program that seeks to empower young people to participate in the political process.

Together, such organizations are part of a larger social justice movement addressing systemic inequalities that include sexual and gender oppression.[10] There are grassroots efforts to not only improve the lives of low-income LGBTQQ individuals, but to create authentic leadership among the most vulnerable members of the community. Organizations are also looking inward. There are a number of local grassroots organizations that are rethinking the traditional nonprofit and social service models. They are creating models where transparency and accountability are valued. They are breaking down traditional hierarchical models and replacing them with transparent decision-making processes or collective models. They are committed to a world where all people have access to life’s basic needs, where all are empowered to make change, and where everyone is able to live and love freely and safely. Together, we are working hard to change the landscape.

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  1. D’s identity is confidential. D is a young person that both authors worked with in collaboration. [Return to text]
  2. M.C. Clatts, D.J Hillman, A. Atillasoy, and W.R. Davis, Lives in the Balance: A Profile of Homeless Youth in New York City (New York: National Development and Research Institutes, 1996). [Return to text]
  3. Covenant House Institute, Youth in Crisis: Characteristics of Homeless Youth Served by Covenant House New York (PDF). (New York: Covenant House Institute, 2009). Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Youth At the Margins: A Report on the Unmet Needs of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Adolescents in Foster Care (PDF). (New York: Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, 2001). [Return to text]
  4. Most national LGBTQQ organizations have failed to address systemic class and racial inequalities as well as LGBTQQ youth homelessness. However, NGLTF recently released a national report on LGBTQQ youth homelessness. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2007). Also, Lambda Legal has an Out of Home Youth Project that addresses issues facing LGBTQQ youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system. [Return to text]
  5. Empire State Coalition for Children and Families, 2007 Survey (New York: Empire State Coalition for Children and Families, 2007). Note: At the time of this writing, the city’s youth shelters have seen a significant decrease in funding. As a result, we anticipate that there will be a decrease in shelter beds available for homeless youth, especially LGBTQQ youth. [Return to text]
  6. New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Runaway and Homeless Youth Annual Report (New York: New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010). [Return to text]
  7. Randi Feinstein, Andrea Greenblatt, Lauren Hass, Sally Kohn, and Julianne Rana, Justice for All?: A Report on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, Youth in the New York State Juvenile Justice System (New York: Lesbian and Gay Youth Project of the Urban Justice Center, 2001). [Return to text]
  8. Advocates for Children, In Harm’s Way: A Survey of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students Who Speak About Harassment and Discrimination in New York City Schools (New York: Advocates for Children, 2005). B. Cochran, et. al., “Challenges Faced by Homeless Sexual Minorities: Comparison of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Homeless Adolescents with their Heterosexual Counterparts,” American Journal of Public Health 92.5 (2002). [Return to text]
  9. FIERCE, White Paper: Expanding Access to Public Space at the Hudson River Park (New York: FIERCE, 2009). [Return to text]
  10. New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Runaway and Homeless Youth Annual Report (New York: New York State Office of Children and Family Services, 2010). [Return to text]