Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Study: Unmet Needs of LGBTQ Youth in Central New York

Homelessness and Unmet Service Needs of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Youth in Central New York


Deb Coolhart, PhD, LMFT and Maria Teresa Brown, PhD, LMSW[1]

Syracuse University David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics[2]

Research indicates that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified (LGBTQ) youth are at greater risk of homelessness than their heterosexual peers, and are more likely to leave home as the result of physical abuse, often because of conflicts with parents about sexual orientation. Most of the research done on homeless LGBTQ youth has been done in large cities, providing little information about the unique experiences and needs of homeless LGBTQ youth in smaller cities and surrounding suburban and rural areas. In 2013, several community agencies contacted university researchers about the growing problem of homelessness among LGBTQ youth in the nine-county CNY area. In response to this outreach, the researchers have collaborated with these agencies to form a community working group and to design the current study to assess community needs surrounding homeless LGBTQ youth.

This study explored the following research questions:

  1. What are the experiences of LGBTQ youth who run away or experience periods of homelessness in the local area?
  2. How do service providers and educators in the area understand the social problem of homelessness among LGBTQ youth and young adults (YA)?
  3. What services exist for runaway and homeless LGBTQ youth/YA in the area and what additional services do they need?

This community needs assessment was a mixed-methods study based on grounded theory, collecting qualitative interview data and mixed-mode survey data from service providers and LGBTQ youth/YA with a history of homelessness.
Interview subjects were recruited through community working group partners. Electronic survey participants were recruited through community working group partners and social media. Additional LGBTQ youth/YA for the paper survey were recruited directly from social groups at a local community agency serving LGBTQ youth/YA.

  • Interviews were obtained from 7 LGBTQ youth and young adults with a history of unstable housing or homelessness, and from 9 adult key informants (shelter employees, LGBTQ youth service providers, school counselor).
  • 80 of 131 surveys completed (39% dropout rate).

Interview Results

The seven youths interviewed ranged in age from 14 to 21 (average age 17.5) and were racially diverse (1 African-American, 1 White, 5 Multiracial).  They were also diverse in their sexual orientations and gender identities (4 cisgender male, 1 cisgender female, 1 transmale, 1 transfemale; 3 gay, 1 lesbian, 1 straight, 2 bisexual).  However, it should be noted that we were unable to engage any young transwomen of color, a population shown to be at increased risk in other studies.  Five youths had experience being in a shelter.  Two youths were kicked out because of sexual orientation or gender identity, for three it was a contributing factor, and for two youths, sexual orientation or gender identity was unrelated to their homelessness.

Interviews with youths and providers resulted in rich information about the experiences of LGBTQ homeless youth.  Findings clusters around four major themes: general experiences of LGBTQ homeless youth, actual or expected negative experiences in shelters related to sexual orientation or gender identity, importance of the LGBTQ youth center, and community needs.  These four major themes further revealed several subthemes, discussed below.

Experiences of LGBTQ HomelessYouth

·         Safe Space not safe for LGBTQ youth (Shelters): Youths often described shelters as an unsafe place for LGBTQ youth.  Being homeless and often struggling with parents around their LGBTQ identity, these youths were in need of a safe place, but encountered further struggles when utilizing shelters.

·         Safe spaces not safe (LGBTQ spaces): Some youths and providers discussed how even LGBTQ spaces are sometimes not safe because they provide services for diverse youth who often struggle in relating to each other.

·         Exposure to or fear of violence: Youths who had spent time on the streets while homeless discussed witnessing or experiencing violence or being afraid that they would encounter violence while homeless.

·         Decisions about survival sex: Several youths discussed either engaging in or having to make decisions about survival sex in order to have a place to stay.

·         Mistreatment in Schools: Youths and providers talked about how mistreatment happens in schools, including bullying, verbal and physical abuse, and the use of homo/trans-phobic language.

·         Youths with extended family support not “homeless”: Youths who had extended family support had very different experiences during their unstable housing situations.  Because they had family members to stay with, their experiences were not “homeless” experiences.

·         Strength through struggle: Most youths articulated how they had gained strength through the various struggles they experienced during times of unstable housing.  In general, the resilience demonstrated by these youths was impressive.

Actual of Expected Negative Experiences in Shelters Related to Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity

  • Problems with Gender Segregation: Youths and providers described practices in shelters where LGBTQ youths are separated from heterosexual cisgender youths with regard to bedrooms and sometimes even at other times during the day (meal and social times).  As a result youths described feeling
  • Mistreatment by Staff, Often Overtly Based on Religious Beliefs: Youths described being mistreated by staff based on religious beliefs including being told they would go to hell because of sexual orientation and refusal to use chosen name and pronouns for trans youths.
  • Mistreatment by Youth: Youth and providers discussed how other youths at shelters mistreated LGBTQ youth.  Youths’ perceptions of these events seemed less negative when staff responded in LGBTQ-affirmative ways, addressing the problem with the heterosexual cisgender youth.
  • Violence in adult shelter: Youths and providers talked about the adult shelters as a physically unsafe place, citing experiences of sexual and physical assault.
  • Shelter staff unaware or unresponsive to negative experiences: Youths and providers discussed how shelter staff are unresponsive to mistreatment, not practicing what they are taught in LGBTQ-affirmative trainings.  Also, shelter staff sometimes did not report negative experiences in the interview in the same shelters where youths described negative experiences.

Importance of LGBTQ Youth Center

·         Source of support: Almost all interviews discussed the LGBTQ youth center as the primary source of support for LGBTQ youth in Central New York.  Some interviews indicated problems with accessibility to these services due to transportation, not being supported by parents to attend, and being located in rural areas where there is not LGBTQ youth center.

·         Bridge to accessing shelter services: Several youths and providers discussed how LGBTQ youths who were experiencing unstable housing gained access to shelter services by first attending the youth center.

Community Needs

  • More LGBTQ youth-specific services
    • LGBTQ mentors/staff
    • Training for youth workers (especially about trans) and enforcement of LGBTQ-affirmative practices
    • LGBTQ-specific and/or LGBTQ-affirmative shelter space
  • Increased Access
  • Transportation
  • LGBTQ youth centers in non-urban areas
  • Wider dissemination of information about available resources

Survey Results

The majority of survey participants (88%) believe that LGBTQ youth/YA are more or much more likely to experience homelessness or unstable housing

Service providers and other adults and LGBTQ youth/YA have a similar perception of the more important problems faced by LGTBQ youth/YA in the local community - in both groups, the majority identify bullying, acceptance of family, having to leave home or being thrown out, and self-acceptance among the most important problems faced by this population. They differ in their perception of the importance of issues like access to safe and appropriate medical care (62% of LGBTQ youth/YA) and alcohol and drug use (63% of adults).

Table 1. Important Problems Facing LGBTQ Youth and Young Adults*


% Youth/YA

% Adults 25+




Acceptance of family



Having to leave or being thrown out of family home



Accepting themselves



Access to safe and appropriate medical care



Alcohol and/or drug use



*Ranked in order of perceived importance by LGBTQ youth and young adults

When asked about other problems faced by LGBTQ youth/YA, LGBTQ youth and young adults identify lack of support, mental health issues, stereotypes, need for trans* supportive school administrators, access to employment opportunities, transportation, religious discrimination, and non-safe homeless shelters.

Table 2. Issues That Often, Very Often, or Always put LGBTQ youth/YA at Risk of Homelessness or Unstable Housing



Physical or emotional abuse from family because of LGBTQ identity


Being forced by family to leave home because of LGBTQ identity


Self-abuse of drugs or alcohol


Parental abuse of drugs or alcohol OR Physical or emotional abuse from family

not related to LGBTQ identity


Table 3. Issues Often, Very Often, or Always Affecting Homeless LGBTQ Youth/YA in the Local Community



Personal safety or exposure to violence


Trouble finding safe and appropriate housing


Trouble finding stable or permanent housing OR alcohol or drug use or abuse


Exposure to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS)


Identified Themes in the Survey:


“We know that a high percentage of our homeless trans* youth, in particular trans* females of color, are engaging in sex work in the city. In recent months, two of these youth have tested positive for HIV, but are not accessing health care due to barriers associated with being a minor. We are concerned that we will see more of these young people end up contracting HIV and feel strongly that prevention efforts need to include meeting the basic needs of homeless LGBTQ young people (food, shelter, clothing, and emotional support).”

“Trans* youth who have no home and no way to fund their transition will turn to sex work to raise the money.”


“I believe the unique thing about our agency is that we serve all clients the same who are homeless regardless of their sexual orientation. I believe LGBTQ clients are no different than any other youth who is homeless and seeking housing. The only change I would make is to have private bedrooms for those who feel unsafe.”


“The studies done of this community and the work done by service organizations fail miserably when it comes to reaching young trans* women of color who are most at risk for homelessness, violence & HIV. There is a way to reach them but it isn't thru schools, internet or service organizations.”


Most providers identified things they would change about their organization to better provide for this population, although a few did not think this question applied to them. Providers of homeless services were generally interested in more funding for private bedrooms for LGBTQ clients, or did not feel they were lacking in appropriate services for this population. This differs from what many LGBTQ youth report about their experiences with these providers.


“More funding to be able to provide individual room settings for all youth of all gender and gender identity. Current funding typically forces youth to share a room with members of their biological gender. There is not enough funding to create housing programs where every youth might have their own private bedroom or living space.”


“I work with teens and tweens so the main barrier is transportation and support from their parents and guardians. Many families go through denial and students must get support through school counseling or go through it alone. They appreciate the Q center if they are able to get to it.”


Multiple respondents identified concerns for this population that were not identified specifically by our working group, or they offered a deeper understanding of how they felt these concerns impacted LGBTQ youth and young adults:

§  “Lack of mental health services, and of social supports, and how the only real social scene for LGBTQ youth and young adults are gay bars that tend to promote drinking, drug use, and promiscuity.”

§  “Sometimes the force that chases LGBTQ youth away from a stable home environment is the desire to keep their sexual identity a secret. They chose to be out on their own even if it puts them at risk rather than admit they are LGBTQ. Sexual identity is a very personal thing and youth believe they are on their own with these sometimes new and confusing feelings.”

§  “Suburban areas have fewer resources and higher rent. Case-management and other support services are hard for students to follow through with due to transportation.”

§  “Lack of emotional support, which can lead to engaging in unsafe or unhealthy activities to get emotional support or to deal with the lack of it (i.e., unsafe sexual practices, sex work, criminal activity, self-harm, abusive relationships).”

§  “Agencies’ unwillingness to be open and culturally competent when it comes to LGBTQ issues.”


“Would like to have a foundation for ongoing support and not have to worry about patch-working funds together; more health programs; a home specifically for LGBTQ youth with an affirming staff, emergency housing, and an onsite health clinic.”

Survey Results Summary

The primary findings from the electronic survey are:

·         The most important issues affecting LGBTQ youth/YA are bullying, family acceptance, self-acceptance, and having to leave home.

·         The two issues believed to most likely put LGBTQ youth at risk of homelessness are parental physical or emotional abuse because of LGBTQ identity and being forced to leave home because of LGBTQ identity.

·         Service providers believe LGBTQ youth would benefit from case management services, particularly rural and suburban youth.

·         Both LGBTQ youth and service providers mentioned the need for LGBTQ-specific shelters or safe and stable housing beyond shelters.


Both interview and survey data revealed similar themes with regard to the experiences of LGBTQ homeless youth in Central New York.  Ultimately, these youths are experiencing homelessness, often as a result of their families’ rejection of LGBTQ identity.  The currently available services are not meeting their needs in a way that keeps them psychologically and physically safe.  Youths, community members, and providers consistently expressed a need for increased services for LGBTQ youth, specifically LGBTQ-specific and/or LGBTQ-affirmative shelter spaces.

[1] For further information contact Deb Coolhart,, 315-443-1232, or Maria T. Brown,, 315-443-4685.

[2] This study was funded by a research seed grant from the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics

Chris Bolt, Ed.D. has proudly been covering the Central New York community and mentoring students for more than 30 years. His career in public media started as a student volunteer, then as a reporter/producer. He has been the news director for WAER since 1995. Dedicated to keeping local news coverage alive, Chris also has a passion for education, having trained, mentored and provided a platform for growth to more than a thousand students. Career highlights include having work appear on NPR, CBS, ABC and other news networks, winning numerous local and state journalism awards.