There is no publicly available source of data on the number of homeless youth in Atlanta. For that reason, it is impossible to estimate what percentage may identify as LGBT, concluded a national 2007
“There haven’t been many studies done on this segment of the homeless population so it’s hard to tell exactly how many are out there,” says Kathy Colbenson*, a longtime Atlanta-area advocate for LGBT youth rights. “Some estimates in New York City and California estimate that 25 to 50 percent of homeless youth identify themselves as LGBT.”
In January, Georgia marked a milestone with its first-ever attempt at counting a representative sample of homeless youth statewide. The results are expected to be released later this year. Funded by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the “Homeless Youth Count Project,” was part of a bi-annual census of homeless people of all ages as mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Questionnaires distributed in the city of Atlanta, DeKalb, Fulton and several other Georgia counties for the first time requested information specifically about homeless young people 24 and younger.
Homeless youth-focused non-profits CHRIS Kids and Covenant House advocated to get an LGBT question on the form, “but the state had a different opinion,” contends Colbenson. “We missed an opportunity to get some critical data for Georgia. On the forms we did get to ask if they were male, female or transgender.”
Nationally, LGBT youth are estimated to account for 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth in the United States, while only about 5 to 10 percent of the general youth population is LGBT, according to a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress, an LGBT advocacy organization. The report also attributes the high number of homeless LGBT youth to families shunning their gay and transgender children as they come out at younger ages. In New York, the report finds, 14.4 years old is the average age that a gay or lesbian youth becomes homeless.
In May, U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced legislation aimed at reducing youth homelessness — and, specifically, preventing homelessness among gay teens. The Reconnecting Youth to Prevent Homelessness Act would help develop programs to improve family relationships and decrease homelessness for LGBT youth. The measure pushes for improvements in training, educational opportunities and permanency planning for older foster youth, along with strengthening programs to reduce poverty and keep families together.
According to a 2009 national report by the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH):
- 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Comparatively, only 10 percent is LGBT in the general youth population.
- While homeless youth typically report severe family conflict as the primary reason for their homelessness, LGBT youth are twice as likely to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 12.
- Once homeless, LGBT youth are at higher risk for victimization, mental health problems and unsafe sexual practices; 58.7 percent of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4 percent of heterosexual homeless youth.
- LGBT youth are roughly 7.4 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homeless youth.
- LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates, 62 percent; compared to 29 percent for heterosexual homeless youth.
The NGLTF report cited the Georgia Department of Human Resources (DHR) Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) along with YouthPride and the CHRIS (Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity, Safety) Kids Rainbow Program as the chief public agencies and organizations working with LGBT youth in metro Atlanta. Colbenson, who serves as executive director of CHRIS Kids, says Covenant House also helps house displaced teens and young adults, including those who are LGBT.
“There are a couple of organizations doing a lot for the young LGBTQ community [in metro Atlanta] but not nearly enough,” says Covenant House Executive Director Allison Ashe. “Resources for homeless kids in general are scarce here. At Covenant House we have an open intake process at our crisis shelter. We have 15 beds and can overflow to 20 and we’re full every night.”
*Kathy Colbenson is the wife of Pete Colbenson, a JJIE.org contract employee.