A Hidden Crisis: The Pipeline from Foster Care to Homelessness for LGBTQ Youth

There are more than 400,000 youth in the American foster care system today, roughly that of the population of Sacramento, California. Foster care, created to protect the welfare of children, is a broken system, hobbled by an outdated bureaucracy, underfunded agencies, and overburdened workers frequently resulting in dire outcomes. Research shows that children placed in foster care are more likely to develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder than veterans of war. In some states, youth are just as likely to be abused in foster care as they are in the home from which they were removed. Foster care has also become a gateway into homelessness. Nearly half of the youth experiencing homelessness today have had at least one placement in a foster home, or group home.

LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) youth in particular face significant prejudice and discrimination in foster care. Many queer identified young people, who are disproportionately represented in the system, report intolerance, physical and emotional mistreatment, or neglect by caregivers or peers. LGBTQ youth are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be placed in group homes. An overwhelming majority of those youth in group homes have been victims of violence.

The Opening Doors project – an organization that provides tools and resources for the legal and child welfare community – highlights the following statistics: 70 percent of LGBTQ youth in group homes reported violence based on LGBTQ status; 100 percent reported verbal harassment; and 78 percent of youth were removed or ran away from placement due to hostility toward their LGBTQ status. These pervasive negative experiences can have a significant impact on mental health and emotional growth. Until recent years, governing child welfare agencies neglected to provide accurate policy, best practices training, and guidance for workers or foster parents serving LGBTQ youth. Without cultural competency training around LGBTQ issues, the result has been re-traumatization, continued abuse, and prolonged rejection for many young people.

Another pressing and consistent theme in foster care research is the overrepresentation of people of color. Race and class bias within the system leads to youth of color being removed from their homes at much higher rates. Studies have shown that African American youth are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school or labeled “aggressive” than their white counterparts. African American youth are more likely to be prescribed psychiatric medications for aggressive behaviors, or to be labeled with a mental illness, and sent to locked down facilities, when white youth with the same violent behavior are more likely to be treated as an outpatient at a medical clinic.

The disparities are everywhere, from how doctors describe identical physical injuries–African American youth experience greater numbers of “abuse,” while their white counterparts experience “accidents”–to how black people are arrested nearly four times as much as white people for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. Such actions prompt calls to Child Protective Services. As a result, many youth of color find their entry point into the school-to-prison pipeline through foster care.

The traumas of life in foster care can be compounded for young LGBTQ people of color as they struggle to reconcile their racial and sexual identities. As they “age out” of the system – a term used to describe a youth leaving a formal system of care due to age limits – and into independence, they face an indifferent world. Across the country, inequalities in housing, health, educational achievement, and rates of incarceration are staggering. Transgender women – individuals who identify as female but were assigned a male identity at birth – are at a particularly high risk of homelessness. When encountering familial neglect rates of transgender or gender nonconforming people of color experiencing suicidal ideation doubled, as did sex work, while their rates of homelessness tripled. These issues persist and will continue to persist until we wake up – locally, nationally, and morally – and give a hard, steady look at what is causing them, and act on how we can change them.

The data points for LGBTQ youth points out a litany of troubling risk behaviors. LGBTQ youth are more likely to use and abuse substances, and experience sexual abuse, violence, and clinical depression at greater rates than the general population. Research indicates that LGBTQ youth are more than as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. Risk-taking is typical in adolescence. Couple that with the isolation and rejection many LGBTQ youth face, and self-destruction becomes the modus operandi. Leaning on unhealthy ways to cope with trauma can become habitual, and youth with self-destructive tendencies are more likely to become adults with self-destructive addictions.

While the LGBTQ movement has made incredible strides in recent years, the neglect of LGBTQ youth issues is astounding. The mainstreaming of queer culture and the fight for marriage equality currently serves as the wheelhouse for the gay rights movement. Mainstreaming, some would argue, leads to greater understanding and empathy. Same sex marriage affords equal rights under the law. This may all be good and true but the preoccupation of gay rights advocates to blend in with the status quo, and focus so narrowly on marriage equality has resulted in the neglect of other pressing issues.

Audre Lorde taught us, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” LGBTQ youth struggles are intrinsically tied to healthcare, housing, public safety, prison, immigration, employment, poverty, and homelessness. On any given night in the U.S. there are nearly 2 million youth experiencing homelessness. Up to 40% of them identify as LGBTQ, and there are less than 20,000 youth-specific shelter beds in the entire country. The scarce funds and resources available to provide those beds are in jeopardy due to budget cuts and political pandering. On a whole, the mainstream LGBTQ movement does a poor job addressing the issues that face the most visible of LGBTQ youth (white, middle class), and often times completely ignores the least visible (youth of color, poor, or transgender youth).

Sexual and gender identity statistics are not universally collected for national homeless research. Most data comes from state and local studies conducted by service providers. Typically staff estimates are used in collecting information. Given that many youth may not be willing to self-identify as LGBTQ when talking to service providers, staff relies on their own assumptions of youths’ identities. This imperfect measurement method leads many researchers to believe that the numbers may actually underestimate the percentage of LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness.

What would it take to build on the small successes workers make with LGBTQ youth? The system would need to look through a different lens, and acknowledge the intersections of systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, and poverty. LGBTQ foster kids need access to services that affirm their identities. Service providers need to be trained to see the youth from a trauma-informed perspective – a treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of all kinds of trauma – rather than doling out oppositional defiant diagnoses to anyone who is argumentative and unruly. In order to help young people in care build their coping mechanisms we need to treat not only symptoms, but also help them heal from the underlying cause of their behavior. Instead of shipping young people from placement-to-placement, allow them to build attachments with consistent, caring adults. Maybe then they could have the opportunity for greater success, inching towards reducing harm in their lives instead of battling the dehumanizing ways the system treats them for being different. All youth deserve a safe place to live yet queer affirming foster homes can be challenging to find. This is not for a lack of trying. There are over 2 million LGBTQ adults in the United States willing to foster or adopt, yet 60% of foster care agencies report never having placed a youth with LGBTQ couples, and 40% of agencies said they would not even accept applications from LGBTQ individuals or couples.

What can be done to ensure LGBTQ youth transitioning out of foster care don’t end up homeless? We need to deepen the conversation about homelessness and take action. Family rejection is a large part of the LGBTQ homeless youth narrative. A lot of ignorance and injustice needs to be uncovered and put right. But we can’t limit our discussion to an easily digestible sound bite. Simplifying the story to narrowly focus on rejection demonizes families, and repairs little. Parents may need in-house guidance early on when they are struggling with a youth’s identity. We can maintain young LGBTQ people in their homes by providing preventative services and education to the parents. In addition to the family rejection narrative we need to discuss institutional failures. Youth homelessness, in part, is the end product of the failure of other systems. We need to acknowledge how racial disparity–with its collateral consequences–interconnects with other predictors of homelessness. A social awareness needs to build where folks who flourish from the system begin to realize that that very system is oppressive and harmful to others.

More beds in shelters are a temporary solution, a bandage for a gushing wound. More needs to be done in the way of prevention so our young people won’t need those beds to begin with. But in order for that to happen we need to fully acknowledge how our systems often fail LGBTQ youth of color, and how institutionalized oppression makes it incredibly difficult for a young person to find stable, affordable housing, to get a job with a livable wage, and to have an equal shot at the future they deserve.

On a whole, there is much more work to be done to disrupt the pipeline into homelessness. The U.S. government spends more than $5 billion annually on homeless assistance programs, yet roughly five percent is allocated to serve homeless youth and children. There are steps the federal government can take towards minimizing the likelihood of LGBTQ youth leaving foster care will become homeless. Federal funding for essential services for LGBTQ youth remains frozen. Congress needs to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which would fund three major programs that provide critical services and support to our nation’s homeless youth: Street Outreach; Basic Center (shelters); and Transitional Living Programs, demanding LGBTQ-specific protections barring discrimination; establish principles to guard LGBTQ youth from bullying and harassment in schools; support preventative services that strengthen families with LGBTQ children, and promote acceptance, education and understanding; dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline; and initiate efforts for homeless youth research protocols that take into account and track LGBTQ youth demographic data including sexual orientation and gender identity.

These federal efforts, in conjunction with state, city, and community efforts, could be the steps needed to ensure our youth have a chance at a brighter future.

Adapted from No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions.


Ryan Berg is the author of No House to Call My Home: Love, Family, and Other Transgressions and the program manager of the ConneQT Host Home Program of Avenues for Homeless Youth.

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