One in four lesbian or gay teens and 15 percent of bisexual teens are homeless in Massachusetts compared to just 3 percent of exclusively heterosexual teens, a new study from Children’s Hospital Boston has found.
The study, published online July 21 on the American Journal of Public Health website, surveyed data provided by more than 6,300 public high school students. It is the first study of its kind to use population-based data to assess the risk of homelessness among teens of different sexual orientations.
The study also found that of those homeless youth questioned it was teens that identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual that were consistently more likely to be on their own, without a parent or guardian.
“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,” Heather Corliss, PhD, MPH, of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s, is quoted as saying. “This study looked at the magnitude of the difference for the first time.”
For the purposes of the study, the data used defined homelessness as lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, a definition also found in federal legislation such as the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act.
Researchers used data from the 2005 and 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) which allows for a representative sample of students in grades 9 through 12.
Among the researcher findings were the following:
- Overall, less than 5 percent of students identified as GLB, yet they made up 19 percent of those identifying as homeless.
- Homelessness among heterosexual students came in at 3.2 percent. This rate increased to 15 percent among bisexual students, and 25 percent among lesbian/gay students.
- Homelessness among those unsure of their sexual orientation was also disproportionately high at 20 percent.
- Fifteen percent of male teens identifying as gay were unaccompanied by parents/guardians, while just 8 percent were homeless but living with a parent.
- Among girls identifying as lesbian, 22.5 percent were homeless without parental or guardian supervision. Similar trends were found for bisexuals and those unsure of their sexual orientation.
Researchers hope their findings will highlight the vulnerability of GLB and questioning youth where homelessness is concerned, and in particular it is hoped that school administrators and others working with adolescents will take on board these findings. The study also stresses the associated risks with increased prevalence of homelessness such as physical and sexual mistreatment, mental health deterioration, substance abuse and a greater likelihood of high-risk sexual behaviors.
“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’s chief limitation, as recognized by researchers, is that it only assessed figures from Massachusetts, a state that has been a leader on gay rights and therefore would be more likely to have a more tolerant population. As such, researchers caution that this study will likely underestimate the national problem of homeless sexual minority youth.
Also not assessed in the study is the problem of trans youth homelessness. Existing studies have found that trans adults across the nation are at an even greater risk of homelessness than sexual orientation minorities, a trend that has been demonstrated among trans-identifying teenagers as well.