Homelessness in LGBTQ+ Young Adults: Understanding Perspectives and the Role of Service Providers

Julia Matos, B.S., Mackenzie Kent, B.S., Libby Rianda, B.S., Bridget A. Walsh, Ph.D., CFLE, and Sarah N. Mitchell, Ph.D., CFLE-P
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2020

See all articles from this issue

The homeless and LGBTQ+ populations are both underserved and under-researched. The intersectionality of these two groups calls for an increased understanding of how to assist this marginalized population. Some areas of need include cultural humility and acceptance trainings for service providers, prevention and intervention efforts, access to necessary goods and services for transgender individuals, and understanding the role of family. In 2017, nearly 550,000 individuals were recorded as homeless nationwide. Of those, 31% were aged 13 to 24 years, and 40% of these teens and young adults identified as LGBTQ+, as reported by Brooks in “LGBT Homeless Youth and Trauma Informed Care,” published in the Journal of National Coalition for LGBT Health (2017).


Understanding Causes of Homelessness Among LGBTQ+ Youth

LGBTQ+ youth may become homeless for multiple reasons, including aging out of the foster care system, personal safety risk, and exclusion by one’s family of origin. In their 2013 journal article, “The Role of Religion and Stress in Sexual Identity and Mental Health Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth,” Page, Lindahl, and Malik reported that when individuals express an identity other than cisgender and heterosexual, their own religious beliefs or the experience of familial oppression can create cognitive dissonance. Additionally, the family may not understand or accept their child’s identity. When individuals feel unsafe, they are likely to leave. Without support and essential resources, homelessness is a common outcome of leaving unsafe situations.

In January 2019, a count and a survey were conducted over a 24-hour period by Eddy House, a homeless refuge for youth in Reno, Nevada, to gather information about the currently homeless population. The participants were asked about their current living situations and about the factors that contributed to their state of homelessness. Seventy-seven respondents were asked about the reasons they had “ever lost [their] housing.” Some cited factors such as increased rental costs, but about two thirds referred to family conflict (e.g., violence within the family, being the target of violence, differing religious views, conflicts regarding gender or sexual identity). Whether their leaving was forced or voluntary, many youth indicated that their reasons related to perceptions of safety within the family, as summarized in the “2019 Washoe County Homeless Youth PIT Count Results.” This study, along with previous research, indicates that one of the main causes of homelessness among young adults is family conflict.


Barriers to Services

Service providers have reported multiple barriers to serving this demographic. Maccio and Ferguson, in their 2016 journal article “Services to LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth: Gaps and Recommendations,” found that there was a lack of training for service providers when it comes to working with LGBTQ+ individuals. The main concerns were lack of housing services, minimal education programs for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, lack of LGBTQ+-affirming services, and absence of training that was inclusive of the LGBTQ+ population. In 2017, Coolhart and Brown reported similar findings in “The Need for Safe Spaces: Exploring the Experience of Homeless LGBTQ Youth in Shelters.” They found comparable gaps among providers and also determined that many of the shelters were gender-segregated, there was mistreatment by staff based on personal biases, identifying as LGBTQ+ had become a barrier to access services, and there was a lack of knowledge about the LGBTQ+ community among professionals. Identifying as LGBTQ+ already presents an individual with myriad obstacles, but identifying as LGBTQ+, homeless, and as a young adult creates limitations among services because many professionals are not educated or otherwise lack the resources to support this demographic.


Prevention and Intervention

Maccio and Ferguson (cited above) further asserted that family acceptance and preventive interventions are important to parents’ and other family members’ support of LGBTQ+ youth. The Family Acceptance Project (FAP), as described in 2010 by Ryan in “Engaging Families to Support Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth: The Family Acceptance Project,” was created with prevention in mind and underscores the influence that families have on their adolescent’s well-being. FAP emphasizes that LGBTQ+ youth must be served in the context of the family. An important strategy identified in this model is for the family to encourage their child to speak candidly and to have ongoing dialogue about their child’s identity or identities.

Since 2005, Stephen T. Russell has highlighted the growing need for developing safe environments for LGBTQ+ adolescents, especially in the school environment. Russell explained in his 2010 journal article “Supportive Social Services for LGBT Youth: Lessons from the Safe Schools Movement” that implementing early intervention services that target the overall school environment could not only help change the perspective of LGBTQ+ individuals, but also the layers of other social groups, such as peers, staff, and family, thereby creating a positive environment. Some of the intervention services mentioned included school nondiscrimination/ antibullying policies, teacher training workshops, school-based support groups and clubs, and attainable access to resources. Implementation of these prevention and intervention programs has been effective in changing the school climate to make LGBTQ+ youth feel more accepted.

Although early intervention services have been shown to positively impact school climate, what about those individuals who leave school? What about those (now young adults) who no longer have access to those support groups or services offered through primary or secondary education? These are some of the many questions both young adults and service providers face when it comes to providing not only overall services but also services that are inclusive of the young adult LGBTQ+ community.


Interviewing Service Providers and Homeless LGBTQ+ Young Adults

Our qualitative study aims to explore the ways in which families influence the lives of homeless LGBTQ+ young adults. In doing so, we can learn more about what is needed to support this population. To investigate this, we are currently conducting semi-structured interviews with homeless LGBTQ+- identifying young adults at homeless shelters in four states. Interviews focus on homeless LGBTQ+ individuals and three domains: their experiences, their perspectives about family, and their perspectives of home.

Because this population is both underresearched and in need of a variety of resources, we are also interviewing service providers. By interviewing providers who work with the population daily, we gain crucial information from their perspective. Interviews with service providers revolve around LGBTQ+ emerging adults’ experiences in reference to the work they do and have done with this community. This piece, which also provides specific information about available homeless LGBTQ+ resources, makes our research unique, as we have not found others taking this approach. To date, every service provider who has contributed to our research highlighted the need for more educated providers and additional bedding in shelters, specifically LGBTQ+-friendly beds that are not gender-segregated based on legal identifiers. All interviews thus far have been audio-recorded and transcribed, and we have begun preliminary analysis.

Distinct Identities, Intersectionality, and Cultural Humility

The purpose of our study included highlighting the diversity in LGBTQ+- identifying homeless youth’s experiences to better inform supports and services for this population. First, the abbreviation “LGBTQ+” is often used as a blanket term for a group of people who have very different experiences, often related to their individual and distinct sexual orientation identities. Our preliminary findings indicate that while LGBTQ+ homeless individuals of all orientations experience challenges such as the lack of affirming services, non-inclusive housing, and few employment opportunities, homeless trans individuals (37.5% of our sample) face additional hurdles, such as gendersegregated shelters. Often these shelters require legal identification cards or increase difficulties in obtaining hormone therapies.

Second, by attending to the many distinct identities of the LGBTQ+ individuals in our sample, we can more accurately describe the influence of intersectionality. Crenshaw, one of the first to highlight the importance of intersectionality, pointed out the unique and multiplicative impacts of gender and race in the lives of Black women in the 1989 journal article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” It is important to consider the influence of interconnected identities such as gender, race, age, disability, and other personal identifiers for those in the LGBTQ+ community. For example, a large majority of the participants who have had violent hate crimes committed against them are people of color (62.5% of our sample), highlighting stigmas often associated with both a minority racial–ethnic identity and a nonheterosexual identity. Understanding individuals as “a whole greater than the sum of their parts” fosters a more holistic understanding of the experiences of these individuals and may inform targeted and relevant services for those with multiple identities that others tend to stigmatize.

Third, our preliminary results also suggest that having service providers collaborate with families, both families of origin or chosen families, on sexuality and gender identity can possibly make a great impact on family dynamics and social interaction throughout society. As defined by Foronda, Baptiste, Reinholdt, and Ousman in their 2016 article “Cultural Humility: A Concept Analysis,” cultural humility means being humble and acting with civility, kindness, and respect in all interactions with every person. Cultural humility by service providers may mean the difference between an individual entering into a shelter or chronically staying on the streets.


A Call to Action

Seeing the topic of LGBTQ+ homelessness covered in the news and social media within the past several years has been both exciting and inspiring, and researchers can contribute to highlighting awareness and informing policy regarding this topic. Research findings need to be available to community and professional stakeholders to create and strengthen vital services and resources. Our continuously growing sample, highlighting a lack of high school completion (50%), participation in the foster care system (50%), and jail-time experiences (37.5%), demonstrates that this community requires additional resources at the local and state levels to minimize difficulties associated with homelessness. Upon completion of this research, we plan to meet with policymakers and stakeholders to determine appropriate distributions of state funding, which may be directed toward homeless shelters, LGBTQ+ centers, and service provider trainings on how to better assist people in these situations. Community organizations should partner with researchers to further promote rights for all individuals of varying identities, attending especially to intersecting identities. Moreover, policymakers should be acting to influence these changes on both political and institutional levels. We hope that our call to action serves to illuminate the challenges that this marginalized and intersectional community faces and leads to changes that have a positive impact on their lives.



Julia Matos, B.S., graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies in December of 2019. Matos is currently interning with a respected Occupational Therapist while she applies to graduate programs in the same field. She is in the process of becoming a Provisional CFLE. [email protected]

Mackenzie Kent, B.S., graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. She is currently employed at Kids Kottage as a Youth Technician, working with foster children who had been abused and neglected. She is currently applying to graduate programs for Occupational Therapy.

Libby Rianda, B.S., is a recent graduate from the University of Nevada, Reno. Rianda currently works as a Site Coordinator for Communities in Schools, a nonprofit dropout prevention program that supports students by providing interventions and inviting/partnering with community organizations.

Bridget A. Walsh, Ph.D., CFLE, is an associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. She teaches the undergraduate research course. [email protected]

Sarah Mitchell, Ph.D., CFLE-P, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno in Human Development and Family Studies. Her research focuses on family structure and process; her primary areas of interest include LGBTQ+ individuals, identity formation processes, sexual orientation disclosure decisions, perceptions of familial support, gender, ethnicity, and the impact of intersecting identities (particular minority statuses) within the context of family.