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One in Four Lesbian and Gay Teens are Homeless


Roughly 1 in 4 lesbian or gay teens and 15% of bisexual teens are homeless. This is a stark comparison to the 3% of exclusively heterosexual teens.

These numbers come from a Children's Hospital Boston (CHB) study published online July 21 by the American Journal of Public Health.

Heather Corliss, PhD, MPH, of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at CHB, and colleagues analyzed data from the 2005 and 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) to conduct the first study to quantify the risk of homelessness among teens of different sexual orientations with population-based data.

"Prior studies in homeless street youth have found that sexual minorities occur in much higher numbers than we'd expect based on their numbers in the community in general," says Corliss, the study's first author. "This study looked at the magnitude of the difference for the first time."

The YRBS, conducted every other year in most U.S. states, draws a representative sample of students in grades 9 through 12. In 2005, Massachusetts was the first state to add a multiple-choice question assessing homeless status, asking "What is your primary nighttime residence?" or "Where do you typically sleep at night?" Homelessness was defined as lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, as per the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, the primary federal legislation dealing with the education of homeless children and youth in U.S. public schools.

The researchers narrowed the initial sample of 6,653 students to 6,317 who gave full information on their sexual orientation and homelessness status. Less than 5% of students overall identified themselves as GLB, yet they accounted for 19% of those who identified themselves as homeless.

Analysis of the data found the rates of homelessness to be 3.2% among exclusively heterosexual students, 12.5% among heterosexuals reporting same-sex partners, 15% among bisexuals, 25% among lesbian/gay students, and 20% among students who said they were unsure of their sexual orientation.

Corliss and colleagues also found the youth who were homeless and not exclusively heterosexual were more likely to be living away from their families. Among boys identifying as gay, 15% were homeless but unaccompanied by parents/guardians, and 8% were homeless but living with parents. Among lesbian girls, 22.5%were homeless and unaccompanied, while just 3.8% were homeless but with their parents. The same pattern held among bisexual students, among heterosexuals with same-sex partners, and among males unsure of their sexual orientation.

"Teens with a sexual minority orientation are more likely than heterosexual teens to be unaccompanied and homeless rather than part of a homeless family," says Corliss. "This suggests that they may be more likely to be mistreated or rejected by their families and more likely to leave home."

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The researchers hope their findings will raise awareness of the vulnerability of GLB youth to homelessness, particularly among school administrators and other professionals working with adolescents. Homeless people are well documented as being at increased risk for victimization, physical and sexual abuse, mental health problems, substance use problems and sexual risk behaviors. These risks are even greater for teens who lack their families' supervision and support.

"The high risk of homelessness among sexual minority teens is a serious problem requiring immediate attention," says Corliss. "These teens face enormous risks and all types of obstacles to succeeding in school and are in need of a great deal of assistance."

The study has limitations in being done only in Massachusetts, where attitudes toward homosexuality tend to be more favorable, so it possibly underestimates the proportion of GLB youth that are homeless nationally. It also included only students who were at school on the day the survey was administered, so may have missed more homeless youths, who are more likely to be absent from school. Finally, because it was based on the YRBS, it wasn't able to assess family relationships or whether teens were "out" about their sexuality.

Resources for GLB teens

The Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, whose goal is to improve the health and safety of sexual minority youth, provides information on available resources and makes annual recommendations to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for addressing the health needs of this population, including the problem of homelessness.

Support and assistance are available from the youth-led Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered Youth and through drop-in-centers run by the Boston-based Justice Resource Institute (Boston GLASS) and the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts (Youth on Fire).

Health services for homeless youth are available at the Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center.

A list of national resources for teens and youth can be found on the websites of the Center for Young Women's Health and the Center for Young Men's Health. Special services for homeless teens are available through the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act.

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by Ramona Bates, MD) from materials provided by Children's Hospital Boston.

Heather L. Corliss, Carol S. Goodenow, Lauren Nichols, and S. Bryn Austin; High Burden of Homelessness Among Sexual-Minority Adolescents: Findings From a Representative Massachusetts High School Sample; Am J Public Health, Jul 2011; doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300155