Gay, Young, and Homeless
Though all homelessness is troubling, the problem’s disproportionate effect on LGBT young people of color is especially worrisome.
Homeless people demonstrate in New York City in 2007. (Flickr/Pr3ilator)
Nico Quintana never considered himself homeless, but he felt that way for a long time.
At 13, Nico came out as gay to his low-income Latino family, which made things worse in an already abusive household. Two turbulent years later, he left his Oregon home for good. "It wasn’t safe," he says.
Looking back, Nico, now 26, living in Washington, D.C., and identifying as transgender, says his sophomore year of high school was the worst; he lived out of his locker and had a hard time finding reliable shelter, often staying at coffee shops late into the night. “I was cold at certain times,” he remembers. “I was always thinking about where I was going to sleep and how I was going to get food. I shouldn’t have gone through that.”
Despite his hardships, Nico graduated high school and matriculated at Smith College, eventually landing a fellowship with the Center for American Progress’ Poverty and Prosperity team. It was during his fellowship at CAP—while researching LGBT poverty issues—that he wrote a comprehensive policy report on LGBT youth homelessness.
In the United States there are between 1.6 and 2.8 million homeless youth, and approximately 320,000 to 800,000 of them identify as LGBT. Because LGBT young people comprise only between five and 10 percent of the overall population, their community is drastically overrepresented in the homeless community.
Nico, who finished his fellowship last summer, first realized how rare his adolescence was when he went to college, “I had to make a huge adjustment to comforts,” he says. “There were kids around me that had shelter their entire lives. I already felt like a grown-up.” He says his most welcome adjustment was planned meals: “It was quite a lovely experience to not worry about where I was getting food from.”
Nico says the reasons for his homelessness were largely institutional. For years he kept his residential status a secret from teachers and authority figures fearing he would end up in foster care, a fate his friends told him could be little better than not having a home at all.
One 1994 study found that 78 percent of LGBT youth were either removed from or ran away from their foster care placements due to conflict and discrimination related to their sexual identity. Additionally, a 2006 study found that approximately 64 percent of the more than 400 homeless youth in San Diego had a history of foster care.
Andrew Barnett, executive director of Washington, D.C.’s Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL), says many parents are now bringing their children to his organization for counseling after they come out. Nevertheless, some are still getting by in foster care, transitional housing, or by couch surfing. As strange as it sounds, Barnett says life on the streets is sometimes preferable to public housing solutions.
“At a lot of the youth shelters—even if they have a commitment for safe spaces—kids are put into big dorm style rooms with other youth,” he says. “And very often, transgender youth are assigned by their birth sex and not their chosen identity, which can be really dangerous.” According to a 2002 study of homeless youth in out-of-home placements, 78 percent of youth clients and 88 percent of professional staff stated that LGBT youth were not safe in group-home environments. Barnett adds that, on occasion, even the staffs at shelters can be harmful: “I’ve heard of instances of staff saying things [like], ‘If I were your parents, I’d kick you out too.’”
Nationwide, homeless gay and lesbian young people are disproportionally minorities. According to a 2008 study of homeless youth in New York City, a full three quarters were people of color, with African Americans making up 45 percent and Latinos making up 24 percent.
Similarly, the SMYAL serves mostly black youth from D.C. wards 7 and 8, the poorest in the District. In Ward 8—the poorer of the two—36 percent of families lived below the poverty line in 2000, along with 47 percent of the children.
“I have a sense that sometimes there is a perception that minority communities are not as accepting,” Barnett says. “But, it comes down to access to resources, resources that make it easier for [families] to work through a child’s coming out. If they have fewer resources, sometimes they do not have as much education.”
Nico believes the racial disparity seen in young LGBT homeless communities stems from structural discrimination. “I come from a low-income Latino family and a lot of things correlated: poverty and inacceptance,” he says.
The consequences of homelessness on LGBT youth—and many other homeless communities—range from poor health to mental illness to substance abuse to suicide. Nico attributes his survival to a weekly internship he started that allowed him to alleviate stresses by working on Latino justice issues and local activism, giving back to his community despite being alienated himself.
“I was lucky that I ended up where I am now,” he says, “and that’s largely due to having that opportunity to put all my anger and frustration into something that was larger than myself. I was lucky that I got this organization that hired me and gave me my voice.” But he adds, “My future should not have been based on luck.”
Lisa Gillespie is a former staff writer for Campus Progress as well as the Managing Editor & New Media Director at Street Sense. She graduated from the University of North Carolina–Asheville.