LGBTQ Youth and Homelessness
Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning are at much greater risk of becoming homeless than their non-LGBTQ friends and classmates. In fact, a groundbreaking study of youth homelessness in the United States in 2017 by Chapin Hall of the University of Chicago says their risk is 120% higher than that of their peers. Another study (True Colors United) says that LGBTQ youth comprise 40% of all youth experiencing homelessness, while they are just 7% of the total youth population in the U.S.
Not only are LGBTQ youth at higher risk of homelessness, they also face, among all young people experiencing homelessness, greater risk of "high levels of hardship," according to a follow-up report by Chapin Hall in 2018. Hardship includes higher rates of assault, trauma, exchanging sex for basic needs, and early death, the report says. It notes that black youth who identify as LGBTQ, particularly young men, have the highest rates of homelessness.
In Canada, LGBTQ youth comprise nearly 30% of all young people facing homelessness. In the Latin American countries where Covenant House works, LGBTQ youth may experience everything from social pressure to legal discrimination to targeted violence. According to the "Human Rights Watch World Report 2019," violence against youth and adults who identify as LGBTQ in Honduras is so severe that it is a motivator of internal displacement and external migration in search of protection.
Safe Space for LGBTQ Youth Across the Covenant House Movement
When young people who identify as LGBTQ become homeless, most seek shelter and services from mainstream or non-LGBTQ-specific agencies. It’s critical, then, that Covenant House, the largest provider of services to youth facing homelessness in the Americas, ensure that our houses are welcoming, affirming, and safe for LGBTQ youth and all youth experiencing homelessness. Across the Covenant House federation, which encompasses sites in 31 cities in six countries, we have taken and continue to take determined steps to secure just that.
“This is not complicated: we are called to love unconditionally and with absolute respect all young people facing homelessness.”
Kevin Ryan, president and CEO, Covenant House International
United States and Canada
In 2014, Covenant House collaborated with True Colors United to roll out a pioneering resource, the True Colors Inclusion Assessment. The assessment was designed by True Colors United to help agencies implement best practices to welcome and serve LGBTQ youth. The tool measures the inclusivity of an agency’s policies, practices, physical space, and programs, using information gleaned from anonymous surveys of youth and staff. Based on the assessment’s outcome, the True Colors United team then guides the agency through the necessary steps to create a more LGBTQ-inclusive and -affirming program and environment. True Colors United applied the True Colors Inclusion Assessment at Covenant House sites across the United States and Canada.
Central America and Mexico
In Latin America, Casa Alianza, as Covenant House is known in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras, and La Alianza, as it is called in Guatemala, worked with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to implement a similar assessment process. The process yielded recommendations to strengthen our Casas’ capacity to welcome and encourage LGBTQ youth who seek refuge with us. In addition, a Hilton Prize Coalition fellow worked with our Casa personnel to develop a curriculum for inclusivity training that contemplated modules designed to enhance staff’s understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation and how to prevent and manage bullying. Casa Alianza Nicaragua (CAN) already runs a robust program in gender equality that is well known and valued by local and international NGOs. CAN is one of the few NGOs in Nicaragua that serve LGBTQ children and youth, who experience high levels of exploitation, discrimination, and exclusion.
The implementation of the SIPA recommendations and the inclusivity training are underway across our Casas. This important work helps to ensure all our houses are welcoming, affirming, and safe for LGBTQ youth and for all youth facing homelessness who come to us for shelter and to claim their future.
Trauma-informed, Resilience-focused Approach to LGBTQ Homelessness
Youth who make their way to a Covenant House program do so bearing complex histories of trauma, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and violence in the home or on the streets. LGBTQ youth are further traumatized by rejection they may have experienced in their families, schools, and communities due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. Rejection by family and society put LGBTQ youth at greater risk of exploitation, trafficking, survival sex, physical violence, and suicide.
Covenant House relates to homeless youth aware both of the trauma the youth have experienced and the capacity they possess to thrive. In partnership with Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg — specialist in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and medical director at Covenant House Pennsylvania — Covenant House is developing a trauma-informed, resilience-focused approach to supporting and engaging the youth in our houses. Our approach, informed by the Reaching Teens model, trains our staff in core competencies such as understanding trauma, stress management and coping, restoring a young person’s sense of control, and reducing shame and stigma, among others.
This approach, together with the awareness we have raised among staff to ensure a welcoming, affirming, and safe space for LGBTQ youth, distinguishes Covenant House as a provider of shelter that addresses the whole person, with all of that young person's experience and potential.
LGBTQ Homelessness and Diversity: All Are Welcome Here
As noted above, most LGBTQ youth access services from non-LGBTQ-specific agencies, according to True Colors United and The Williams Institute, a UCLA think tank. At Covenant House, we pride ourselves on the diversity that characterizes the youth in our homes and the staff who welcome and serve them. We are not a niche shelter that welcomes only youth of one gender or one orientation, one race or one class. All are welcome here and all are received with absolute respect and unconditional love.
"I’m a human, someone with feelings and goals. [At Covenant House] they want to help me reach those goals."
Je’Brial Lee, resident Covenant House Georgia, as published in “Life with Gracie,” Atlanta Journal Constitution
At Covenant House diversity and inclusion don't end at intake. Our youth share dormitories, dining tables, and classrooms. They share in the same opportunities for entertainment, self-improvement, worship, exercise, group counseling, field trips, creative workshops, and all other activities.
Diversity can be challenging, but we strive to build understanding among each other at Covenant House, where our residents are, indeed, a microcosm of the surrounding society. We hope that as our youth progress toward their goal of independent living they will take with them a deepened understanding and respect for one another into the rest of their lives.
"Youth Homelessness in America: National Estimates," Voices of Youth Count, Chapin Hall, University of Chicago, 2017; "LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in America," 2018; "Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey," 2016; "Human Rights Watch World Report 2019"