LGBTQ homeless youth face dire health risks

Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr
Photo: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

One in five young people on the streets in Monterey County are at increased risk for mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual exploitation and suicide.

Those young adults and teens are the estimated 20 percent of young homeless in the region who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or are questioning their sexual identity.

The disproportionate rate of homelessness among gay teens and young adults – who make up only 7 to 10 percent of the total population – was uncovered in a first of its kind survey for Monterey County. The numbers reveal a population facing increasingly dire health risk when compared to their straight, homeless counterparts.

“It’s not good and it’s not good pretty fast,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Gay homeless kids are about 7 times more likely to be sexually abused while homeless than straight homeless kids and they commit suicide at much higher rates, research shows.

Youthful homelessness for LGTBQ youth can create health problems that follow them for a lifetime. A 2004 University of Nebraska study found homeless gay teens at increased risk for PTSD and mental illnesses.

These additional risks come on top of the health problems faced by all homeless people, including lack of access to health care or proper nutrition.

More than 40 percent of all homeless people surveyed by the county said they needed health care but could not get it, Peter Connery who directed the county’s homeless census for the nonprofit ASR at County Supervisor’s meeting.

Those numbers don’t just focus on the youth, whose inexperience could compound the difficulties of homelessness.

“It’s even harder when you are young. You don’t know how to access social services. You may be 18 and not even know that you qualify for food stamps or other services,” said Robin McCrae, Executive Director Community Human Services in Monterey County.

The county’s homeless gay youth count may be somewhat surprising to experts. While many have long assumed that LGBTQ teens and young adults are more likely to be homeless than their straight peers, it is often assumed the 20 percent rate estimated nationally would be lower in rural areas.

That’s because early counts of LGBTQ homeless youth focused on cities with large gay and lesbian populations that may draw young people from other areas, Roman said.

But with the new survey of young adults conducted as part of Monterey County’s homeless census, Roman wonders if the numbers might even be higher than reported.

“Would you tell a stranger doing a survey about your sexuality?” she asked. “I bet a lot of kids didn’t answer completely.”

It is suspected that family rejection causes both the increased homelessness and increases the risk of health problems.

“Kids who are rejected by their families are more likely to use drugs. They have more mental health problems and are at higher risk of risky sexual behavior,” Roman said.

Researchers believe that these young people face greater self-esteem and mental illness issues because of the hopelessness that can stem from family rejection, bullying and discrimination or fear of it.

Those stressors make the teens and young adults more likely to be homeless and more likely to do poorly as homeless teens.

In Monterey County outreach workers are trained to deal with LGBTQ issues for both its homeless and teen populations and regularly reach out to homeless teens where they hangout.

But, Vincent Delgado, youth program services officer for Community Human Services, has noticed he must work harder to overcome the rejection and victimization in LGBTQ teens’ past.

“It’s just harder to get their trust,” Delgado said. “They don’t have the support system. It’s difficult for them to grow up when the cards are stacked against them.”

And that trust is eroded when he can’t offer a teen a place to sleep.

The county has just six beds exclusively for teens and young adults and turnover isn’t quick, Delgado said. Young people aren’t often familiar enough with the system to be able to score beds at adult shelters, which may require arriving at a spot by a certain time, he added.

“It’s very difficult when you spend all day with a youth making progress with them and then that night to have them come and not have shelter for them. It erodes the trust you’ve built,” Delgado said.

An increase in beds and services should be coupled with work to stem the tide of homeless LGBTQ youth onto the streets, said Caitlin Ryan. She’s worked and researched this population for years and is today the director of the Family Acceptance Project.

Her research shows that parents who key in on accepting behaviors despite feeling uncomfortable with their child’s identity can reduce the likelihood their child will become homeless.

“Homelessness and its main antecedent, family rejection, is a serious problem,” Ryan said. “Most of these families really want to help these children to have a good life. We need to work with them to find ways to make that possible by stopping the rejection, even when families think it comes from a place of love.”

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