Health & Human Services

Why the District of Columbia Wants to Count LGBT Homeless Youth

The LGBT population makes up a disproportionate share of homeless youth, so the District wants to make its shelters safer and more accommodating for them.
by | February 25, 2014
Residents of the Wanda Alston House in Washington, D.C. Wanda Alston Foundation, via Facebook

Sometime in March, the District of Columbia will require official government counts of homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

Though some places already try to estimate their LGBT homeless youth populations, the District may be the first to establish a policy backed by the City Council that calls for better tracking tied with new funding.

“This will put D.C. on the forefront,” says Mary Cunningham, a researcher on homelessness at the Urban Institute. “As far as I know, there isn’t a bill of this scope across the country.”

The LGBTQ Homeless Youth Reform Act requires the District to conduct a special study every five years to calculate the number of LGBTQ homeless youths. Based on those counts, the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness will recommend a certain number of beds for LGBT homeless youth to ensure their safety in shelters. The bill also sets the District apart by requiring shelters to provide staff with cultural competency training for serving LGBT clients and by creating a full-time staff position dedicated to LGBT youth homelessness.

A veto-proof majority of the D.C. Council approved the measure Feb. 18. Mayor Vincent Gray has until March 4 to decide whether he will officially support the new law with his signature.

Councilwoman Mary Cheh, the bill's author, said she was looking for ways to reduce overall homelessness in the city and heard from several local shelters that they needed help serving the LGBT population, which makes up a disproportionate share of homeless youth. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that about 550,000 Americans under the age of 25 are homeless at some point in a given year; about 40 percent of young people served in youth homeless shelters are LGBT, according to a 2011-2012 national survey by the Williams Institute, a think tank on sexual orientation and gender identity at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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The District's legislation comes with about $486,000 in additional funding to provide at least 10 additional shelter beds explicitly for LGBT youth. Although LGBT homeless youth use beds at shelters across the city, the Wanda Alston House is the only housing program with shelter beds set aside explicitly for that population.

“Until this bill, we had only eight beds [city-wide] being set aside for these young people,” Cheh said. “That was inadequate.”

Homeless youth who identify as LGBT need separate accommodations because they often become targets for assault in regular shelters, said Carl Siciliano, director of the Ali Forney Center, a shelter in New York City for LGBT homeless youth.

“Many of the shelters are so violent and dangerous,” Siciliano said, “that they prefer to stay on the streets.”

Many LGBT homeless youth are escaping an unsafe family environment. The Williams Institute survey found that 54 percent of LGBT youth had a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse by family and 46 percent cited family rejection on the basis of sexual orientation as the cause for their homelessness (either by running away or being kicked out of the house). There’s also evidence to suggest that LGBT homeless youth have a greater need for mental health services than their heterosexual peers: A 2004 study by sociologists at the University of Nebraska found that gay, lesbian and bisexual homeless youth across eight Midwestern cities were more likely to suffer from a major depressive episode, post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts than a heterosexual comparison group.

Homeless youth are an especially difficult population to track, according to an Urban Institute report co-authored by Cunningham last year. That’s largely because they typically avoid formal supports, such as the foster care system, and they don’t always want to be found. The Urban Institute examined how the following nine local governments try to count homeless youth and homeless LGBT youth in particular: Boston; Cleveland; Hennepin County, Minn.; Houston; King County and Whatcom County, Wash.; Los Angeles; New York City and Winston-Salem, N.C.

Some jurisdictions used schools to survey youths; others fanned out to shelters and a shopping mall. The report noted that youth counts aren’t standardized, so municipalities define “youth” and “homeless” differently. Not every place has published its results, but Boston found that 21.4 percent of its homeless youth are LGBT. “It’s probably an undercount,” says Jim Greene, director of the emergency shelter commission in Boston’s public health department. He noted that 6.5 percent refused to answer the question. He suspects others said they were straight as a precaution. “We’re not sure that everyone would feel safe or secure in answering [truthfully].”

Cunningham and Siciliano agreed that the legislation isn’t a complete answer to youth homelessness -- cities across the country need more funding for shelter beds and preventative services. Several shelter providers in the District told the City Council that they had concerns about making straight and LGBT homeless youth compete for shelter beds. The only way to avoid such a conflict would be greater overall capacity, Siciliano said.

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