Updated: Sep 2, 2021
June is Pride Month—that time of year to commemorate the history, challenges, and contributions of the LGBTQ community. As we celebrate this community, however, it is important to remember that there is still progress to be made, particularly for a portion of the community that often goes unacknowledged: LGBTQ young adults experiencing homelessness.
LGBTQ-identifying young adults experience homelessness at staggeringly disproportionate rates compared to non-LGBTQ young adults. An estimated 7% of young adults in the United States identify as LGBTQ, but among youth experiencing homelessness, up to 40% identify as LGBTQ. With roughly 4.2 million young adults experiencing homelessness every year, up to 1.68 million young adults grapple with the unique challenges of being both LGBTQ and homeless.
Behind these statistics are individuals, including Luis Pacheco, 23. Luis (who uses they/them pronouns) graduated from Breaktime’s job training program in December 2020 and identifies as transgender, non-binary, and formerly homeless. LGBT young adults (ages 18-25) like Luis have a 120% higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to non-LGBT young adults. But where does this disparity come from? Sadly, the vast majority of LGBT young adults list parental rejection because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression as the main reason for leaving their homes. This rejection is listed as the primary cause of homelessness for 55.3% of LBGQ and 67.1% of transgender youth, and in the top three causes for 78.2% of LBGQ and 84.5% of transgender youth. Luis’s experience aligned with these numbers, stating that their family’s refusal to accept their identity had “everything” to do with how they became homeless.
Luis described how their mother treated them differently compared to their other siblings because of their identity. “My mom would allow [my brothers] to bring their girlfriends into the house and have their girlfriend sleep over, do whatever they wanted with their girlfriends...but then when it came to me, she picked and chose what I was allowed to do,” Luis said. “One time I told her, what if I brought a boy over and stuff like that, brought him in my room? She’d be like, ‘Oh, I’d beat both of you guys up.’”
The unequal treatment and disparaging comments toward Luis gradually escalated during their junior year of high school, leading to frequent arguments with their mother. Eventually, during one of these fights, Luis’s mother became physically violent and threw a metal kitchen spoon at Luis’s face. “From that day, I just realized that I couldn’t be there anymore because the abuse was getting too much,” they said. They left home, couch-surfing at first until they moved into a Boston youth shelter. That shelter helped Luis finish high school and find subsidized housing, which is where they are currently living.
Experiencing homelessness is difficult for numerous reasons, and LGBTQ individuals face specific challenges as a result of their identity. Homeless shelters can be unwelcoming environments where LGBTQ individuals may be subject to harassment, misgendering, or discrimination. Additionally, sex-segregated shelters may isolate transgender and nonbinary individuals who don’t fit into the gender binary.
Luis had a mixed experience at their shelter. “By a lot of the staff, I was treated well and with respect, and they understood me. But there were some staff members in there that questioned my identity a lot,” they said. “They made me second guess my goals and my dreams because of my identity.”
Outside of shelter environments, LGBTQ individuals also face challenges more generally within the housing system, such as when seeking more permanent living situations. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “one in five transgender people in the United States has been discriminated when seeking a home, and more than one in ten have been evicted from their homes, because of their gender identity.” Such discrimination makes exiting homelessness even more difficult for LGBTQ young adults.
Luckily, Luis doesn’t personally feel that they have faced significant housing discrimination due to their gender identity. In their experience, the City of Boston provided opportunities they needed to find housing and employment—they just needed to ask. However, they also acknowledged that the speed of the system is frustratingly slow and often illogical regarding who is prioritized for certain resources. “I wish everything happened faster,” they said. “It’s about to be four years that I basically have been in a process of just trying to get myself together and see if I could find my own apartment and stuff like that. And I still haven’t gotten [anything].”
The challenges facing LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness may also be compounded by other aspects of their identities. For example, youth of color are overrepresented, comprising 47% of LGBTQ young adults experiencing homelessness. Between 4.2 to 6.2% of people in the United States will experience homelessness in their lifetime, while 20% of transgender individuals will. For transgender people of color, that number doubles; 41% of Black transgender people have experienced homelessness.
Luis, who is Puerto Rican, reflected on the intersection of their identities as both transgender and Hispanic when discussing their experience feeling disheartened by the legal system after they were assaulted by their roommate. “If anything ever happens again, like a physical altercation that I get with somebody, given my identity, I do feel like...I won’t get any justice at the end of the day” Luis said. “Just seeing how it has happened for many other trans [people] and people in the LGBT community and people of color.”
There are many things we can do to improve the conditions for LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness. Within homeless shelters, inclusive practices can be implemented to make these spaces more welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community. This might include educating staff and shelter guests on proper terminology, setting aside queer-affirming spaces or programming, and allowing shelter guests to stay in areas that align with their gender identity, rather than their sex assigned at birth.
Outside of the shelter system, stronger and more enforceable legal protections could be enacted to protect LGBTQ individuals against discrimination when applying for housing or employment. Only this year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that the Fair Housing Act would be enforced to protect LGBTQ individuals from housing discrimination. However, 20 states still do not have explicit laws prohibiting housing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, creating a confusing patchwork of laws that leaves the community vulnerable. Passing a comprehensive bill that ensures widespread protection for LGBTQ individuals against housing discrimination might help fill in these gaps.
Still, in addition to these practical solutions, Luis said there is a need for programs that engage with the humanity and creativity of young adults experiencing homelessness. Luis wishes there was an organization that helped LGBTQ young adults process their trauma through creative outlets, such as art therapy. This space would also provide guidance and education to people looking to learn about and discuss issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and mental health.
Luis also wants the general public to better understand the urgency of addressing LGBTQ young adult homelessness. “When someone experiences homelessness, especially someone from the LGBT community, they experience an immense amount of trauma, anxiety,” they said. “This trauma and anxiety can follow them through their entire lives. And the act of kicking somebody out just because they are a person of the LGBT community is costing us all more as a society than it would cost us to just accept the person.”
“Help a person to flourish by accepting them and letting them be themselves, giving them the safe space that they can’t have [anywhere] else, and just see how much of a positive change that creates,” Luis added.
This article was written by Emma MacKenzie (Breaktime Coordinator).