Understanding the number and characteristics of homeless youth is important for policy and planning at the provider, local, and national levels. Reliable data on who experiences homelessness can help researchers identify population groups that are at higher risk. Providers can consider information on the size and characteristics of the local homeless youth population to assess whether service capacity and offerings align with the number and circumstances of homeless youth in their communities. Data on the homeless youth population can also help raise awareness of this problem and help local and national stakeholders allocate resources for responding to it. Funders, including the RHY Program, require providers to collect and report information so the funders will know who benefits from programs they support.
Yet barriers exist to collecting accurate information on the characteristics of homeless youth, especially their sexual orientation and gender identity. As a vulnerable population, homeless youth can be difficult to locate or hesitant to share information about themselves with service providers or researchers. Questions on sexual orientation and gender identity are likely to be particularly sensitive for young people, who may fear harassment by peers and others, or have concerns that information will be disclosed to their families. Such fears or concerns may result in inaccurate responses to questions or refusals to answer. Adolescents also may have trouble responding to questions on these topics because they are in the midst of sexual and gender identity development (Sexual Minority Assessment Research Team 2009; Austin et al. 2007; Saewyc et al. 2004).
In addition, the multifaceted nature of sexual orientation and gender identity creates challenges to gathering this information through standardized forms or surveys (Sexual Minority Assessment Research Team 2009). Sexual orientation may refer to a person’s self-identification, sexual behavior, or sexual attraction. Gender identity—a person’s innate sense of being male, female, or transgender—includes a range of experiences, from expressing gender in a manner that may or may not conform to societal expectations to medical interventions to change one’s sex. These complexities require attention to question wording, response options, and modality, so that respondents interpret questions consistently and provide accurate information.
In this chapter, we review the experiences of case study sites in collecting and using demographic data, especially sexual orientation and gender identity, on the homeless youth they serve. Our study found the following:
- Two of the four agencies collect information on sexual orientation through questions on intake or assessment forms completed by staff or youth, and all agencies sometimes gather this information when youth share it during less structured interactions. In three agencies, intake or assessment forms include questions on gender identity that feature response options for transgender status.
- Staff at all agencies reported using information on youths’ sexual orientation and gender identity when planning individual services, but no agencies examine program-level service delivery or outcome data by any demographic characteristics (including sexual orientation and gender identity, race/ethnicity, or others).
- Factors that appear to affect complete or accurate collection of sexual orientation and gender identity data include youths’ reticence in answering questions, concerns among staff members about recording these characteristics in agency records, and the absence in some agencies of standardized protocols for gathering sexual orientation or gender identity information.