The state of Montana first categorized Michael* as homeless a few years ago. However as a young, transgender man living in Billings, he has lacked vital emotional and family support for as long as he can remember.
Michael can’t pinpoint the exact moment he first experienced homelessness because it has been an ever-present force in his life—since the moment he looked into his mother’s eyes and knew that she wouldn’t love or accept him for who he is.
For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth, the road to being homeless starts well before they are physically on the streets. In fact, according to a recent study, the top two reasons that LGBTQ youth are homeless is because they ran away due to family rejection of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, or were forced out by their parents after coming out.
When navigating the streets of Billings, Michael is confronted with multiple different challenges. Where will he sleep that night? What if the weather drops below freezing—how will he stay warm? When will he have his next meal? How can he make sure that he doesn’t get robbed? Is there somewhere he can go to shower? If he can’t get his clothes washed, how will he be able to interview for a job?
These questions rush through his head on a daily basis, and on most days there is not a satisfactory answer. On top of dealing with the logistical challenges of being homeless, Michael is also trying to cope with the feelings of trauma and isolation that come from being rejected by your family.
And he is not the only one. It has been estimated that approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, despite making up only 7% of the general youth population.
Due to social stigma and discrimination, homeless LGBTQ youth face a heightened risk of violence, abuse, and exploitation compared to their heterosexual peers. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance, and are often turned away or not allowed into shelters because of their gender identity.
Despite these realities, Michael has gotten by the best he can—connecting himself to resources and support, and seeking out programs and services that are welcoming and accepting. He has big dreams for the future as well—hoping to attend college for financial advising/accounting and to become more involved in advocacy work.
Every day, across the Northwest and our country, homeless youth like Michael are simply looking for a safe place where they can be open about who they are.
Yet LGBTQ youth who have endured homelessness routinely struggle when trying to navigate social services. They commonly fall through the cracks due to unsafe programs or non-affirming policies, housing or employment barriers, a lack of a safety net or permanent connections, and a timeline that ignores the structural barriers that keep queer youth from succeeding. In addition, transgender youth routinely confront barriers around legal names, dress codes, inappropriate questions, and sex-segregated programs.
Each of these unique challenges has the potential for an innovative solution, however, and that’s what we’re working toward. That’s why when we talk about ending youth homelessness; it is of the utmost importance that we take into account the unique set of challenges facing LGBTQ youth.
While nearly all providers report working with LGBTQ youth, only 24 percent of LGBTQ youth report accessing LGBTQ-specific services. This makes it even more critical to create a smart, comprehensive strategy that incorporates all service providers. There is a strong need for reliable, accountable training, and to establish a robust network of resources that providers can access.
By increasing the capacity of service providers to assist those most vulnerable—youth of color and LGBTQ youth—all youth are better served.
What we’ve learned from working closely with homeless LGBTQ youth is to always listen, never make assumptions, and do everything we can to support youth in being their full selves. These are the lessons that we’ll continue drawing upon as we work to ensure that all youth have a safe place to call home.
*A pseudonym was used to protect the individual’s identity
Tumbleweed is a community organization for runaway and homeless youth and families in crisis based in Billings, Montana. Tumbleweed provides counseling, life skills classes, street outreach survival packets, Transitional Living Program, and a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth.
Pride Foundation is a regional community foundation based in Seattle, Washington that inspires giving to expand opportunities and advance full equality for LGBTQ people across the Northwest.