The number of homeless youth in America is enough to alarm just about anyone. But when you look at the number of these homeless teens who identify as LGBT, the statistics become that much more startling. The Department of Justice estimates that nearly two million teens experience homelessness every year. And of those two million, nearly 40 percent identify as LGBT.

Understanding why LGBT youth are more likely to run away.

When compared to the general population, LGBT teens are far more likely to become homeless, often through no fault of their own. The most common reasons are:

  • Familial rejection: LGBT youth who come out to their family risk being rejected, both emotionally and physically. Families that disapprove of their child’s “lifestyle” often kick them out of the house or create an environment that is so toxic that the child is forced to run away. In a nationwide survey, roughly 46 percent of LGBT homeless youth said family rejection is what forced them to live on the streets.
  • Abuse: Abuse at home and in homeless shelters is an all too common reality for many teens, but especially LGBT teens. Because transgender teens are often placed in rooms and housing programs according to their sex assigned at birth, and not their gender identity, they are at an increased risk of being raped or sexually abused. A 2002 report by the S. Department of Health and Human Services on sexual abuse among adolescent runaways found that 21-40 percent of homeless youth had been sexually abused in their lifetime. This is especially shocking when compared to 1-3 percent of the general youth population.
  • Negligence: Negligence was another major factor for runaway youth. Nearly 41 percent had been abandoned by a parent for 24 hours or more prior to running away from home.

In one sampling of lesbian and gay youth on the street, 50 percent of those questioned said they preferred living on the streets over homeless shelters.

The link between homelessness and risky behavior.

Life on the streets often forces people to engage in risky or dangerous behavior as a means to survive. One of the most common ways for young people to make money is through prostitution. This is also one of the reasons why HIV rates among homeless youth are 3 - 9 times higher than for the general population. And because these teens don’t have the means to get tested or treated, they can unknowingly spread the disease to others.

To manage the pain that stems from being rejected by their parents, living on the streets, and being forced into uncomfortable and dangerous situations, many homeless teens turn to drugs and alcohol as a way of coping. A Department of Health and Human Services study found that roughly 80 percent of homeless youth (age 12 - 21) used drugs and alcohol to cope with life on the streets.

Keeping our LGBT youth safe and off the streets.

Now it’s time to ask the two most important questions about youth and LGBT homelessness: How can we help those who are homeless and how can we prevent this from happening to others?

The first step is to staff homeless shelters with people who are educated on LGBT matters. For example, LGBT teens are often segregated from others or not allowed to have roommates, based on the myth that LGBT people are more likely to sexually abuse their peers. This only deprives LGBT youth the opportunity to interact with others and makes them feel further isolated from their peers. It’s also important to give LGBT youth who are rejected by their family positive, adult mentors within their community.