Homeless LGBT Youth: Living on the Streets at the Dangerous Intersection of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Race, and Class

Living on the streets can be difficult on many levels, but so many of the LGBT runaway and homeless youth we work with live not just on the streets but at the intersection of a dangerous crossroads, one impacted not only by their sexual orientation but by their race, gender, gender expression, socioeconomic status, and age. They live in a society where, if you "do the math" and combine these various forms of bias and discrimination, you see how high the deck can be stacked against our young people. As a community we ignore these intersections not only at our own peril but at the peril of the lives of thousands of out-of-home LGBT youth across the country.

The population we serve is overwhelmingly made up of youth of color, in a society ruled by white privilege. Many are transgender or visibly do not conform to gender norms, in Michigan, a state that has no anti-discrimination laws that would protect them. And they live in Detroit, a city that has been economically devastated by the decline of industry and the current recession.

The dedicated staff and volunteers of the Ruth Ellis Center could tell hundreds of stories about LGBTQ youth who have been rejected by their families and driven onto the streets. And while so many such youth have displayed great resilience, wisdom, and independence in overcoming the obstacles they face, basic survival -- let alone sustained independence -- is a day-to-day challenge.

How great a challenge? The numbers are stark: 40 percent of the youth we serve self-report being HIV-positive. Many are functionally illiterate. A large percentage are 18- to 21-year-old youth who have aged out of the foster care system, which, statistically, makes them subject to additional risks: one in four will be incarcerated within two years of exiting the foster system; 42 percent will lack a high school diploma by age 19, compared with 13 percent nationally; and they are far less likely to earn college degrees.

But I think we are finally seeing a turning point in awareness and action.

This past Friday, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development's first-ever LGBT Conference on Housing and Homelessness, we experienced a day of discussion, sharing, planning, and consciousness raising on many levels.

And it is about time these stories are being told on a national level and in the media to more diverse audiences, from the larger LGBT community to the general public.

As I have written previously, the need for the Center's services is enormous, far beyond what we can provide; in the past year, our drop-in center has seen a 60-percent increase in clients.

As for other shelters and service organizations, their ability to serve LGBT youth is limited at best, thanks to a combination of limited resources, a lack of staff training, and a cultural bias against LGBT people. Single-gender shelters have no idea where to house transgender youth, and some are openly hostile to the idea. Some shelters will accept LGBT youth but will take "safety" measures, such as flagged individual rooms, that make these youth feel isolated and stigmatized -- and make housing additional LGBT youth more impractical. How could one take youth who "need" more space when all of Detroit's shelter beds are full on many nights?

But I know that right steps forward are being taken, thanks to the extraordinary leadership shown by the White House, HUD, and all the organizations that are working toward shelter for all youth. At the conference, I participated in a panel with two other extraordinary advocates for LGBT homeless youth: Carl Siciliano of the Ali Forney Center, and Theresa Nolan of Green Chimneys, both from New York. The panel was an opportunity to share frank and bold realities about making this issue a priority in the LGBT movement, the tremendous lack resources, and the still-hostile environment in "mainstream" facilities that serve the homeless.

We know this is not like the issues of marriage equality or the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," both LGBT rights issues with a seemingly more simple set of unambiguous solutions, and more "palatable" not only to the public but to those who help fund and drive the agenda for LGBT equality. But we must do whatever we can to make it a priority for the larger LGBT community and child welfare advocates. We know visibility, education, and collaboration are key and ready to work together to move the ball forward. As Carl Siciliano said in a recent Associated Press article, "these kids are the collateral damage of our cultural wars." He is absolutely right, and we can no longer ignore it.

Our youth are beset by a variety of far-reaching cultural, social, and economic factors that pervade society. LGBT youth homelessness cannot be solved with the stroke of the president's pen or a court decision overturning these harsh realities. Addressing this crisis will take years of struggle and effort against the structural factors that place our youth at this dangerous intersection, but as I saw at the conference last week, the path has been laid out before us -- and those who wish to end this crisis will continue to work toward a world in which all our youth have shelter over their heads.