“A Place Just For Us So That We Can Feel Safe:” Learning to Better Serve LGBTQI2-S Youth

LGBTQI2-S Youth are overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness. Once on the street, they are at high risk for abuse, substance use, and mental health issues. To learn more about best practices for minimizing these risks and serving these vulnerable youth, HRC embarked on a Listening Tour of organizations. The findings of this Listening Tour are summarized in this article.

“It hurts to have to move away from where you live because they don’t accept you. That’s why we need a place just for us so that we can feel safe.”

       - Youth participant in HRC’s LGBTQI2-S Listening Tour

Imagine a young person you know – someone as young as 12, or as old as 24, who you care about very much. This person could be your daughter, son, niece, nephew, intern, or friend. Imagine the hope you have for his future and the pride you have in his unique strengths. Now imagine this person sharing something about himself – something central to who he is, to the people he loves. This person is rejected for it, made to feel he is not normal, and kicked out from home. Now imagine that this person who you care about is at risk for drug use, violence, sex work, and suicide, searching for shelter on a friend’s couch or on the street. He is alone, scared, and begins to doubt all the wonderful qualities you love about him.

This is the experience of so many young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, or two-spirit (LGBTQI2-S). It can be easy to focus on statistics, for example that an estimated 20%-40% of the 575,000 to 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States identify as LGBTQI2-S (1,2). But behind every number is a face. Imagining the young people in our lives experiencing such severe rejection and risk can be sobering.

In shelters, sexual and gender minority youth may be exposed to homophobic attitudes among staff and discrimination and harassment from their peers (2). Hostile shelter situations lead many LGBT youth to life on the streets. Once on the street, youth who identify as LGBT are three times more likely to engage in “survival sex,” exchanging sex for anything needed than their heterosexual peers (3). The literature also points to the extreme vulnerability of youth identifying as transgender. They appear to be at much greater risk for exploitation, drug abuse, survival sex, and HIV (4).

Given the lack of specialized services available to this population, SAMHSA’s Homelessness Resource Center (HRC) embarked on a listening tour of promising programs serving LGBTQI2-S youth experiencing homelessness. The HRC wanted to explore the practical ways programs were implementing strategies to support their LGBTQI2-S youth. Listening Tour programs were selected based on geographic diversity and programmatic focus. HRC found that successful programs create adaptive, flexible solutions to their specific challenges. There were several common elements among the six diverse programs:

  • Develop Trusting Relationships by Fostering a Strengths-Based Approach—Creating an environment of acceptance and respect among providers and peers can help improve a youth’s self-esteem. Negative experiences can be transformed into strengths.
  • Develop Culturally Competent Staff—Youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S and experience homelessness may face discrimination and misunderstanding when accessing services. Hiring the right staff and providing cultural and linguistic competence training can help improve service delivery.
  • Empower Consumers—Sexual and gender minority youth provide an invaluable perspective about their service needs and preferences, and can act as effective ambassadors to their peers.
  • Design Responsive Services Interventions—The complex and unique needs of sexual and gender minority youth demand flexible, tailored programming. These can include adapted housing models, employment training, and safe and accepting environments.
  • Develop Community Partnerships—Connecting with agencies dedicated to LGBTQI2-S issues or homelessness issues can help provide positive role models and alternative safe spaces to LGBTQI2-S youth experiencing homelessness. Partnerships can also help providers with outreach.
  • Expand Public Awareness—Providing education about LGBTQI2-S youth and homelessness can help reduce stigma within communities.

Given the disproportionate percentage of youth who identify as LGBTQI2-S among the youth homeless population, any program serving youth should assume some of their consumers are sexual or gender minorities. Break the common pattern of rejection in these young people’s lives, and examine whether your program is taking the necessary steps to be a safe and accepting environment.

Download the draft report, “Learning From the Field: Programs Serving Youth who are LGBTQI2-S and Experiencing Homelessness” to read profiles of effective programs, learn recommended steps to make their agency more culturally competent, and access additional resources.

To view existing resources on serving this population, visit HRC’s Topic Page on LGBTQI2-S Youth.

If you have comments for SAMHSA’s Homelessness Resource Center about how to improve the Listening Tour report or would like targeted training about improving cultural competency in your agency, contact Laura Winn.


1. Robertson, M.J. & Toro, P.A. (1998). Homeless youth: Research, intervention, and policy. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 8, 2010, from http://aspe.hhs.gov/progsys/homeless/symposium/3-Youth.htm. Estimates that include young people age 18 to 24 suggest that 2 million youth experience homelessness. See National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2009). Ending Youth Homelessness Before It Begins: Prevention and Early Intervention Services for Older Adolescents. Washington, D.C.: National Alliance to End Homelessness.

2. Ray, N. (2006). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: An epidemic of homelessness. New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and the National Coalition for the Homeless.

3. Van Leeuwen, J.M., Boyle, S., Salomonsen-Sautel, S., Baker, D.N., Garcia, J.T., Ho.man, A. & Hopfer, C.J. (2006). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth: An eight-city public health perspective. Child Welfare, 85(2), 151-170.

4. Ryan, C. LGBT youth: Health concerns, services and care. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 2003, 20(2):137-158.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA