How to Be an Ally for LGBTQ+ Experiencing Homelessness
While homelessness affects individuals from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances, LGBTQ+ people are much more likely to struggle with home and basic needs insecurity. In fact, even though LGBTQ+ people only comprise about 5-10% of the general population, research shows that they make up a startling 20-40% of the overall homeless population.
It’s clear there’s much work to be done to support the homeless LGBTQ+ community. This guide discusses the issue of LGBTQ+ homelessness, explores why LGBTQ+ youth are especially vulnerable, and gives examples of what people in various positions can do to make a difference.
Although the term “homeless” has often referred to people living out on the streets, today’s expanded view among advocacy organizations, government agencies, and experts includes many additional indicators of housing instability, such as:
In addition, terms like “housing instability,” “basic need insecurity,” and “unstably housed” can all indicate a homeless situation.
Homelessness can arise from exposure to many factors, like poverty, substance use and abuse, mental health conditions, sexual abuse, foster care or other unstable upbringing, racism, and systemic inequality. Homelessness is a real risk for the LGBTQ+ community, whose members often also face discrimination, rejection from family members, and social stigma.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 43% of clients at drop-in centers identify as LGBT, while 30% of clients at street outreach sites and 30% of those utilizing housing programs identify as LGBT.
In a study of sexual and gender minority adults, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that over 8% of transgender adults and nearly 3% of cisgender sexual minorities report recent experiences with homelessness—compared to just 1% in the cisgender straight population. When asked about lifetime homelessness, 17% of sexual minority adults say they’ve been homeless at some time in their lives, compared to 6% among cisgender straight people. Most (71%) sexual minority adults say they first experienced homelessness as adults, although it’s becoming increasingly common in LGBTQ+ youth.
Why Are So Many LGBTQ+ Youth Homeless?
The most common reason for homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth is rejection from family over their gender identity or sexual orientation, which often leads to being forced out of the home or running away. Family conflict, poverty, aging out of the foster system, and abuse also contribute to homelessness—with 68% of homeless LGBTQ youth identifying family rejection as a reason for homelessness and 54% identifying abuse as the primary reason.
In a study of Latino LGBT youth in New York City, the three main pathways that led to homelessness were:
- Being placed in state systems of care that disrupted social support systems
- Extreme family conflict
- Long-term family disintegration
Just as homelessness disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ adults, LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness at much greater rates than the general population.
Consequences of Housing Insecurity
No matter the age, LGBTQ+ homelessness can have devastating consequences. Not only is it often harder for LGBTQ+ individuals to find shelters that accept them, but they are at a higher risk of experiencing abuse, violence, and physical and sexual exploitation (including human trafficking) than their non-LGBTQ+ homeless peers.
Transgender people especially have difficulty finding supportive shelters and resources and are often placed in rooms or beds based on their assigned gender at birth, not their gender identity. This puts them at a higher risk for both physical and sexual abuse.
What’s more, many LGBTQ+ youth fall victim to drug and alcohol dependency while homeless, which puts them in a cycle of continued homelessness. And, in a study of youth homelessness in America, researchers found that LGBTQ youth have more than twice the rate of early death than non-LGBTQ homeless youth.
Homelessness is also the greatest predictor of involvement with the juvenile justice system as LGBTQ+ youth in crisis turn to survival sex, theft, or drug sales to survive when homeless. A staggering 20% of youth in the juvenile justice system identify as LGBTQ+.
Fortunately, the tides are beginning to change. In April 2021, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) withdrew a proposed rule that weakened the 2016 Equal Access Rule, which required any recipients of HUD’s CPD funding (including shelters and facilities for the homeless) to provide equal access in accordance with clients’ gender identity. This withdrawal should help give vulnerable members of the homeless LGBTQ+ community equal access to housing, shelters, and services.
LGBTQ+ and Homeless: How You Can Help
While some of the most impactful help for LGBTQ+ homeless people must come from organizations providing shelter and services, everyone can help in their own unique ways. No matter your profession, you can find a way to use your skills and experience to make a difference. In particular, we dive into how individuals working in the following service, vocational, or wellness professions can lend a helping hand.
People living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter (or couch to couch!) focus on day-to-day survival—and self-care often takes a back seat to staying safe, warm, and fed. But there’s something to be said about the uplifting benefits of feeling proud of how you look, especially for homeless LGBTQ+ youth and adults who may have been shamed or rejected for how they want to present themselves to the world.
As a cosmetologist, you have many skills at your disposal to help homeless people feel more like themselves, which may be just the boost they need to get through another day and keep pushing forward toward a new lease on life.
Are you a skilled makeup artist? You could work with a local service organization to teach transgender individuals how to cover up facial hair or define their cheekbones. Is hairstyling or barbering your passion? A fresh haircut or beard trim can make all the difference in having the confidence to apply for jobs or navigate services.
Or maybe you’ve pursued additional training in hair braiding. Not only are braids stylish and beautiful, but they’re also practical—making hair care much easier when there’s no access to showers or other facilities. Even cosmetology students can help the LGBTQ+ homeless community by giving free haircuts as part of their school’s volunteer program.
Look for salons or organizations in your area that already provide the types of volunteer services you’d like to offer and ask if they could use some more help. From driving a mobile barbershop around to shelters and homeless communities to walking the streets with a backpack full of cutting and styling tools, compassionate cosmetologists are making a difference all over the country. Don’t see anything yet in your community? Get creative and start your own!
Everyone has experienced the aches and pains from a couple of nights sleeping in a tent or staying in a hotel with an uncomfortable bed. Now imagine the toll housing insecurity, combined with the stress and safety concerns homeless LGBTQ+ people face every day, take on the body.
As a massage therapist, you can help ease the physical pain of homelessness and the emotional effects of family rejection, discrimination, and PTSD from abusive and exploitive situations. Massage therapy has been shown to improve anxiety, depression, and well-being.
Volunteering your services with a homeless shelter or outreach program can help you reach those in need. Or, look for a massage organization in your local area that partners with your city or town to provide much-needed services.
Research shows that LGBT patients already experience discrimination at the dentist and may not go as often as they should. When they’re homeless, finding affordable, quality, and non-judgmental dental care can present a major barrier to oral health and lead to all sorts of dental issues.
Fortunately, dental hygienists can help show LGBTQ+ individuals that visiting an LGBTQ-affirming dentist and dental team is a safe experience and a healthy way to support their overall health. Most major cities have nonprofit organizations and clinics that work with low-income and homeless patients.
Finding safe, welcoming places to live or stay is a significant issue for LGBTQ+ adults and youth alike. For example, even if they have the funds to rent, research indicates that landlords discriminate against gay men and transgender people—withholding housing options and quoting higher rental prices. When staying in shelters, they may be subject to horrible treatment and non-acknowledgment of their gender identity.
Because of their knowledge of and expertise in building, construction workers can help the LGBTQ+ homeless community by donating their time and skills. Whether it’s volunteering to renovate derelict properties into safe spaces for homeless youth, working with an organization to build tiny homes and shelters for transgender people, or partnering with Habitat for Humanity on a Rainbow Build week, helping to provide shelter is one of the most valuable gifts you can give LGBTQ+ people facing housing insecurity.
Legal Assistants or Paralegals
The homeless have many of the same legal issues as non-homeless people but with far fewer resources to handle them. Nearly every large city in the United States has a legal aid organization that helps low-income and homeless people resolve minor criminal matters. Legal services can help those dealing with housing insecurity clear up issues with driver’s licenses and work through social security and disability matters—all of which can prevent them from getting work or housing if not dealt with.
Look to volunteer with organizations like Project H.E.L.P. (Homeless Experience Legal Protection), which has local chapters in 18 cities in the U.S. Unlike many traditional legal aid organizations, Project H.E.L.P. brings legal services directly to shelters and service organizations, making it easier for people to access help.
In some cities, you may be able to find a nonprofit that works specifically with the LGBTQ+ population to provide legal services, like the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Vehicles can be an absolute lifeline for people facing housing insecurity. Not only are cars transportation to and from shelters, jobs, and other support services, but they may be the only place to sleep for LGBTQ+ homeless individuals who can’t find a safe shelter or place to stay.
Auto mechanics are uniquely positioned to provide free or very low-cost car repairs to homeless LGBTQ+ people who depend heavily on their vehicles. If you already work at an auto repair shop, consider asking your manager if you can do some after-hours pro bono work utilizing the shop’s tools and space and then work with local shelters to advertise your services.
Or you can volunteer with a nonprofit organization like The Lift Garage that charges clients just $15/hour plus the cost of parts to keep cars safe and on the road for those in poverty.
According to research, food insecurity—defined as a lack of access to enough food for every person in a household—impacts 27% of LGBT adults, compared to just 17% for non-LGBT adults. And during the pandemic, the LGBT community has been almost twice as likely to experience food insecurity than their non-LGBT peers.
While not everyone dealing with food insecurity is homeless, it’s safe to assume that most homeless people are dealing with some type of food insecurity. This is where chefs can use their expertise and skills to help make sure LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness have access to healthy meals.
If you’ve cooked in a restaurant, you likely know how to prepare food for large groups of people and get the most out of your ingredients, which is ideal for a shelter environment. Check with local homeless shelters and LGBTQ+ service organizations to see where you can help provide meals. If you have a food truck, you could even set up a weekly lunch service when you provide meals from your truck free of charge at a local nonprofit.
Organizations Providing Support to LGBTQ+ Homeless
Although numerous organizations dedicate themselves to helping the homeless, there are relatively few focusing solely on LGBTQ+ individuals experiencing housing insecurity, especially considering that this population makes up such a large portion of the homeless community overall.
However, some organizations have committed to advocating for LGBTQ+ youth and adults struggling with homelessness. If you’re looking for an organization to stand behind, this list is a good place to start.
True Colors United
Utilizing programs that focus on training and education, advocacy, youth collaboration, and technical assistance, True Colors United is focused on finding innovative solutions to LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. Founded by pop star Cyndi Lauper, True Colors believes in creating “a world where every LGBTQ young person, wherever they live, is celebrated for being their authentic selves.”
As a national legal organization founded in 1973, Lambda Legal fights for recognizing the civil rights of all LGBT people via education, impact litigation, and public policy work. Lambda Legal also addresses issues of LGBT youth homelessness.
Homeless LGBTQ+ youth consider suicide at twice the rate and attempt suicide at three times the rate of non-LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project provides crisis services, peer support, research, public education, and advocacy in its mission to end the epidemic of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. If you’re considering harming yourself, you can get immediate help at The Trevor Project 24/7, 365 days a year via chat, phone, or text.
Covenant House is the largest provider of services for homeless youth in the Americas, and they’ve partnered with True Colors United to ensure that they’re providing a welcoming, affirming, safe environment for all LGBTQ+ youth. Homeless LGBTQ+ youth can search by location on the Covenant House site to find the nearest shelter.
As a collaboration between the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Houston, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the 3/40 Blueprint aims to identify the needs of LGBTQ+ homeless youth and help transitional living programs develop solutions.
Resources for LGBTQ+ Individuals Experiencing Homelessness
As awareness around the issue of LGBTQ+ homelessness grows, so too does the number of resources available for those looking for help. If you’re struggling with housing insecurity, check out these resources:
CenterLink LGBTQ Community Center Member Directory
Founded in 1994, CenterLink is a member-based coalition that supports the development of LGBTQ community centers. The member directory lets you search by location to find centers and resources in your area.
Trans Legal Services Network Directory
The National Center for Transgender Equality compiled a state-by-state listing of organizations providing free and low-cost legal services for transgender people.
National Runaway Safeline (NRS)
The mission of NRS is to “keep America’s runaway, homeless and at-risk youth safe and off the streets.” LGBTQ+ youth in crisis can contact NRS by phone, chat, or email to talk with a compassionate person who will help them create a plan.
Los Angeles LGBT Center
The Center provides various services for homeless LGBT youth (ages 12-24), including temporary housing, housing referrals, meals, showers, laundry, a computer lab, and support groups.
As a national youth outreach and prevention program, Safe Place provides a searchable list of sites where LGBTQ+ youth under age 18 can go when they need immediate help and safety. Safe Place has 139 programs available in 37 states.
HUD Find Shelter
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Find Shelter page lets you search by location and keyword “LGBTQ” to find supportive shelters and services near you.
SAGE National LGBT Elder Hotline
LGBT elders or caregivers can use this hotline for crisis response, support, and to receive information on community resources.
LGBT National Help Center
For 25 years, the center has offered peer support and local resources to the LGBTQ+ community. Youth and senior hotlines and chat rooms are available.
Resources for LGBTQ Youth By State
Lambda Legal provides this state-by-state listing of resource organizations for LGBTQ+ youth.