It is estimated that 20% of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. Many of these youth report that serious family conflicts are the reason they became homeless. Abuse, discharge, foster care emancipation, or aging out of the system all contribute to homelessness as well. Many LGBTQ young people stay homeless because of factors including drug use, lack of affordable housing, inability to complete their education while homeless, and an inaccessible job market.
While homeless, LGBTQ youth have a higher risk of being victimized and suffering mental health problems. They are 7.4 times more likely to suffer acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth. At temporary shelters, LGBTQ homeless youth are often mistreated, experiencing harassment, sexual assault and rape. Many have reported a preference for living on the streets rather than staying in the hostile environments they find in some homeless shelters.
Transgender homeless youth face particular danger because shelters may require them to be assigned to beds based on the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than based on their gender identities. This can result in transgender girls or women being placed in male facilities where they face the heightened risk of abuse and rape.
Every agency and shelter should adopt anti-discrimination policies and provide training to staff on issues related to serving the LGBTQ population. However, states, counties and cities differ with regard to their recognition of LGBTQ individuals’ rights to be free from discrimination and harassment. Moreover, a number of faith-based providers actively oppose LGBT equality.
A model state statute related to homeless youth has been published by the American Bar Association and the National Network for Youth. It addresses LGBTQ homelessness issues specifically, as well as education, health, custodial systems, housing, public benefits, and identification documents.
LGBTQ homeless youth face particular challenges in finishing school. Many jurisdictions assign students to schools based on geographic designations. If there is a new living arrangement or a loss in one’s home, schools often turn away students on the grounds that they no longer qualify as residents of the school district. Homeless youth may also be unable to access “good schools” due to previous school performance, discipline concerns, or displacement.
The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act (the “Act”) is a federal law that is intended to ensure that homeless youth are immediately enrolled in school and stay in school. Homeless youth are supposed to be able to enroll even if they lack the documents that are usually required, such as proof of residence. They must also be provided with transportation from where they are staying to their school of origin if it is in their best interest. If you are living in temporary housing and not staying with a parent or guardian, you are considered an unaccompanied youth and you have the right to make a decision about your school enrollment with the help of the liaison or shelter caseworker.
Under the Act, states are given federal grant funding for the purpose of supporting district programs that serve homeless students. In exchange, states are bound by the law’s requirements, including the requirement that the school district designate a homelessness liaison. In some cases, government regulations regarding education provide additional protections.
Heath Care Rights for Homeless LGBTQ Youth
LGBTQ homeless youth face particular health challenges. They may be at much higher degree of risk for mental health problems, exposure to STIs, and other health issues. In some cases, they are forced to engage in survival activities like sex work, which puts them at further risk. Transgender youth may turn to an underground market for hormones and other medical procedures in order to transition.
The Affordable Care Act includes provisions that expand nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals, and also expands Medicaid in some states. (While the ACA faces an uncertain future, it remains in effect as of this writing.) In states where Medicaid has been expanded, eligibility is based on income, and LGBTQ homeless youth should therefore qualify. While most state Medicaid programs don’t cover health care related to transition, these denials have been challenged successfully in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
Discrimination based on gender identity and sex stereotypes is prohibited in any health program that receives federal funds. Several states—including California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and Washington—prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in this context. California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and D.C. also prohibit transgender exclusions in health insurance by regulation and legislation.
Some cities maintain clinics that are specifically designed to treat transgender youth. While there isn’t a set age at which to start prescription hormones in order to transition, if you are under the age of 18, you will generally need consent from a parent or guardian. This can present a challenge to a transgender runaway, though it may not present problems for an emancipated homeless teen.