If you work in a school, it is vital that you provide an affirming and supportive environment for the LGBTQ youth who attend your school. Your LGBTQ students experience unique vulnerabilities and risks that their peers do not. According to a recent report by Chapin Hall at The University of Chicago, Missed Opportunities: LGBTQ Youth Homelessness in America, LGBTQ youth aged 18-25 are more than two times at increased risk of experiencing homelessness than compared to non-LGBTQ youth. The report also found that LGBTQ youth experience much higher rates of assault while being homeless than non-LGBTQ youth as well.
Due to the realities of homelessness and the limited access to affirming youth services, these youth need extra support. The risk does not stop after high school either. LGBTQ youth are at high risk of not finishing high school and that will put them at high risk of homelessness after high school— 34% of LGBTQ youth have less than a high school diploma, compared to 11% of the general population (Chapin Hall). An earlier report by Chapin Hall, Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America, showed that youth with less than a high school diploma or GED were more than four times (346%) at increased risk of being homeless than compared to youth who completed high school.
You can help support the LGBTQ students who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness in your school so that they feel affirmed in your community and have an adult ally. Here are some ways you can support your students.
1. Trans and Gender Nonconforming (TGNC) youth may not be able to afford the items, treatments or legal services needed to present as the gender they identify as. This should not stop school staff from affirming their gender and allowing them to use facilities or participate in events that affirm their gender identity. Allow youth to self-identify, express themselves how they choose, and allow for that to change and evolve on their personal timeline.
2. Survival sex unfortunately is a real reality for some youth experiencing homelessness, in order to survive and get their needs met. 27% of LGBTQ and especially TGNC youth have traded sex for money, food, places to stay, compared to 9% of non-LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness (Chapin Hall). If you are supporting a student who has engaged in survival sex, use a harm reduction approach. They are getting a need met to survive, do not shame or blame them. Listen to them and help them connect to resources for food, shelter, gender affirming medical care/clothing or what else they need. If you meet them with shame, blame or punishment; they will still need to survive and they will not find the school environment safe for them anymore.
3. Students may have a hard time focusing in class, check in with them and ask them when the last time they ate or had water was. If they are showing up they want to be there, support them in being able to be present.
4. Like number 3, check in to see if they have slept the night before. As we all know this will definitely affect someone’s mood and attention. If a student falls asleep in class, do not jump right to consequences. Instead, have a conversation with them, ask them how you or the school could create a plan to support their ability to learn.
5. LGBTQ youth who experience high rejection from their families are more than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, compared to LGBTQ youth who experience little to no rejection by their families (Family Acceptance Project). This risk is something school staff deal with across all student identities but when it comes to youth experiencing homelessness it is important to have an understanding as to why this group uses more substances, and may be using them to cope with trauma and the stress of homelessness. Of course, keep your space safe for all students but it is proven to have better results and less dropout rates if the approach is harm reduction and is supportive instead of just punitive.
6. Hygiene can be an issue with homeless youth. This is due to a few factors; they may not have access to a change of clothes/laundry, or they may need support on life skills. They may not be showering as a response to trauma or they may be experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis or other serious mental health issues. These factors may cause the youth to be bullied in school so be aware of how they are interacting with their peers, and how it affects their mental health. School staff can support them by providing them with toiletries, and clean clothes or resources for those items. Assisting them with extra access to locker room showers is also very useful and will help them feel like themselves. Connect students to the school social worker if it becomes an ongoing issue to explore with the student where the behavior is coming from.
7. Homelessness is chaotic. This makes it really difficult for youth to be able to show up on time and regularly to school, work, or appointments. LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have limited to no access to public transportation or cars, especially in suburban or rural areas. Work with students on making up assignments and assistance with travel.
8. The traumas of homelessness, family rejection and abuse can make people feel hopeless. It is a horrible reality that LGBTQ youth who experience high levels of rejection from their families are more than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide than compared to LGBTQ youth who experience little to no rejection by their families (Family Acceptance Project). It is so vital that youth are connected to the school social worker or counselor and has school staff that they trust and affirm them. Make sure your staff are trained on how to assess for suicide. When youth are affirmed for who they are and have their basic needs met that risk is greatly diminished.
9. LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness have experienced immense amounts of trauma. Violence and homelessness is interconnected. Violence makes people at risk for homelessness, and homelessness makes people at risk for violence. You can support youth by using a trauma-informed approach to managing the space and supporting young people. When youth “act out”, are hyper-vigilant, or have quick reactions of self-defense, take a step back and support the student by understanding where that reaction came from in order to figure out the plan to support them, instead of only punitive measures. Often the reaction is a trauma response that would need support from the school counselor or social worker.
10. Last but not least, it is crucial to have social workers on staff who have real understanding of LGBTQ youth, gender and sexuality. They do not need to identify with the community themselves but it is so very important that they understand and affirm the youth. The risks are too high, and LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness need extra support and if the staff do not understand and empathize with them, they will not go to them for support. The repercussions of that are too high. Youth are consistently doing the work to be their best selves, and we must do the work to show up and affirm them.
Nadia Swanson, LMSW, is the Coordinator of Training and Advocacy for the Ali Forney Center. This blog is part of a GLSEN partnership with the Ali Forney Center to learn more about what school-based resources and actions can be done to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.