Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Youth: Case Studies of Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Grantees. A. Data Gaps and Research Needs


We asked staff in case study agencies to identify the kinds of information and research that might help them understand the characteristics and experiences of LGBTQ RHY more completely and provide effective services to this population. Staff recommended future research in six general areas: (1) the size of the LGBTQ RHY population in local areas, (2) characteristics of subpopulations of LGBTQ RHY youth, (3) risk and protective factors among LGBTQ RHY, (4) factors contributing to LGBTQ youth homelessness, (5) experiences of LGBTQ youth involved in multiple systems, and (6) service models that focus on LGBTQ RHY.

Size of the LGBTQ RHY population in local areas. According to agency staff, community-level data on the number of RHY who identify as LGBTQ would help agencies understand whether they are reaching this population successfully. These data also may help them gauge whether current services align with the characteristics of the local RHY population. New efforts to enumerate the homeless population may provide some of this information. For example, HUD requires that communities receiving funding conduct annual point-in-time counts of the number of homeless people in shelters and transitional housing and, every other year, of people who are unsheltered. In 2013, these counts will be reported by age categories, including under age 18 and ages 18 to 24, for the first time. In addition, the federal Youth Count! initiative, which is testing strategies for developing accurate counts of unaccompanied homeless youth, may eventually provide the resources to help communities and agencies to gather accurate data. The Youth Count! initiative includes a focus on highly vulnerable subpopulations and has provided guidance to participating cities on asking youth questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Characteristics of subpopulations of LGBTQ youth. Agency staff members expressed an interest in better understanding the characteristics, experiences, and needs of transgender youth (including transgender youth of color) and LGBTQ RHY of color in general. Although staff perceived these subpopulations to be at particularly high risk of poor outcomes, little is known about the proportion of the RHY population these youth comprise, the specific risk factors prevalent among them, or their outcomes. Researchers studying these subpopulations often encounter challenges related to limited sample sizes, but qualitative studies with relatively small numbers of participants may still shed light on potentially distinct circumstances or needs among transgender RHY and racial or ethnic minority LGBTQ RHY. In addition, staff suggested that research would be helpful on the particular challenges that LGBTQ RHY in rural areas face. Understanding how these youth navigate such barriers as a lack of transportation and few nearby LGBTQ organizations may help providers better reach and serve them.

Risk and protective factors among LGBTQ RHY. Staff members pointed to three risk factors that appear to be prevalent among LGBTQ RHY and could be better understood. First, agency staff indicated a need for additional information on the types and severity of mental health disorders among LGBTQ RHY and appropriate services for addressing them in the context of RHY programs. Second, LGBTQ RHY may be at higher risk than non-LGBTQ youth for human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Staff suggested that more research is needed to understand the prevalence of these problems, which youth are most at risk, and why youth enter into relationships that are considered exploitative. This information might help practitioners and researchers identify strategies to prevent youth from being exploited. Third, staff noted that additional information is needed on the prevalence of relationship violence among LGBTQ RHY. Research exploring factors that put LGBTQ youth at risk for intimate partner violence, level of conflict management skills among LGBTQ RHY, and strategies to promote violence prevention would be helpful. In addition, research on promoting resilience among LGBTQ RHY would support efforts to enhance protective factors among these youth.

Factors contributing to LGBTQ youth homelessness. Studies of youth who have run away from home suggest that family stability or lack of parental support, disengagement from school, depression, and substance abuse are among the factors that directly or indirectly increase youths’ risk of running away. (Tucker et al. 2011; Tyler et al. 2011). However, it is not known how family, environmental, and individual factors might affect the likelihood of running way for LGBTQ youth specifically. Although family rejection due to sexual orientation or gender identity is believed to contribute to homelessness among LGBTQ youth, a few staff members at case study agencies noted that is not always the case in their experience. These staff shared anecdotes of LGBTQ RHY who remained connected to their families, who did not reject them based on sexuality or gender identity, but simply could not provide for them. Additional research on the reasons LGBTQ youth become homeless would help providers identify and address the potentially varied and distinct factors contributing to this problem.

Experiences of LGBTQ youth involved in multiple systems. Homeless youth may be involved in several public systems, especially the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Staff in case study agencies indicated a need for information on the frequency of involvement in more than one system among LGBTQ RHY and youths’ experiences in these programs. For example, it may be useful to understand whether LGBTQ youth perceive some systems to be more safe and welcoming, or how youths’ interactions with staff in one system—such as developing a supportive relationship with a case manager—may influence their outcomes in another. It may also be helpful to learn more about any linking of efforts across systems to serve LGBTQ RHY. For example, research could explore whether aligning training for LGBTQ cultural competency across systems addresses concerns among RHY staff that other agencies may not be welcoming of LGBTQ youth.

Service models and administrative strategies that focus on LGBTQ RHY. Agency staff frequently expressed a need for intervention models targeting LGBTQ RHY and information on the effectiveness of these interventions in various service contexts (for example, urban or rural areas). Staff mentioned a particular interest in models for promoting family engagement and reunification and positive youth development among LGBTQ youth. In addition, staff noted that it would be helpful to identify models that ameliorate risks and enhance protective factors among transgender RHY and LGBTQ RHY of color. With respect to administrative strategies, some staff members noted that additional information on LGBTQ cultural competency training for RHY providers would be helpful. According to these staff members, it would be useful to identify how frequently such training should be delivered and strategies for helping staff retain cultural competency skills after training.

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