Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Youth: Case Studies of Runaway and Homeless Youth Program Grantees. A. Organizational Strategies


We explored agencies’ implementation of six main organizational strategies for serving LGBTQ RHY, focusing on recommendations frequently made in publications addressing service provision to these populations: (1) adopting policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment, (2) protecting the confidentiality of information about youth, (3) establishing a safe and affirming service environment, (4) developing staff cultural competency, (5) hiring staff with relevant expertise, and (6) partnering with other organizations serving LGBTQ youth (National Alliance to End Homelessness et al. 2009; Wilber et al. 2006; Ray 2006). Table IV.1 presents key examples of the implementation of each of these strategies in the case study sites.

Table IV.1. Organizational Strategies for Serving LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth

Strategy Examples from Study Sites Number of Sites Reportinga
Adopting Policies Prohibiting Discrimination and Harassment Maintaining a written nondiscrimination and nonharassment policy inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity 4
Communicating policies to youth in a formal client rights statement 1
Communicating that incidents of discrimination or harassment by youth can be a reason for restricting access to drop-in center services 1
Protecting Confidentiality of Information on Youth Adopting policies and procedures to ensure information in client files is treated as confidential 4
Not disclosing information (including sexual orientation or gender identity) outside the agency without client permission, unless required by law 4
Requiring staff to sign confidentiality agreements 1
Offering a procedure for client complaints about information protection 1
Establishing a Safe and Affirming Service Environment Offering safe sleeping and bathroom arrangements consistent with individual gender identity expression (including providing private rooms) 4
Displaying posters, symbols, and other materials (such as “Safe Zone” signs) to communicate that facilities are welcoming for LGBTQ youth 2
Promoting an inclusive organizational culture by communicating to staff and clients that the agency values diversity of all kinds 2
Identifying peer and staff role models for LGBTQ youth 2
Intervening to address instances of harassment or mediate conflicts 2
Establishing written policies on appropriate emergency shelter accommodations for transgender youth 1
Making reading materials on LGBTQ subjects available 1
Developing LGBTQ Cultural Competency Among Staff Providing regular (usually annual) staff trainings on LGBTQ cultural competency topics 2
Organizing ad hoc staff discussions in response to specific concerns or issues that arise related to serving LGBTQ youth 2
Occasionally participating in LGBTQ-related trainings offered at local universities or conferences 1
Involving Staff and Volunteers with Expertise Serving LGBTQ Youth Involving staff who openly identify as LGBTQ 4
Including people who openly identify as LGBTQ on boards of directors 2
Communicating during interviews with job candidates that the agency is supportive of LGBTQ youth and employs LGBTQ-identified staff 1
Prioritizing LGBTQ cultural competency in hiring for some positions 1
Partnering with Other Organizations Serving LGBTQ Youth Making referrals to non-LGBTQ organizations offering support or social groups for LGBTQ people 4
Connecting with LGBTQ organizations operating community centers and/or support groups 3
Partnering with providers of mental health services that target LGBTQ youth 1
Connecting youth to LGBTQ-affirming religious groups 1

Source: Discussions with agency staff during site visits conducted April–June 2013.

aNumber is based on staff responses to open-ended questions and may not include all agencies implementing each practice.

Adoption of nondiscrimination and nonharassment policies inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity. A clear and widely communicated statement that an agency does not discriminate or tolerate harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity is believed to establish an institutional framework for inclusion (National Alliance to End Homelessness et al. 2009). All case study agencies maintained written nondiscrimination and nonharassment policies that mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity. Agencies communicated these policies to staff through employee handbooks and other agency documents. Some agencies took additional steps to communicate and implement these policies. For example, one reported that the statement of client rights youth receive includes a pledge of services free of discrimination. Staff at another agency noted that they might restrict access to their drop-in center for youth who violate policies by harassing others based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Protection of confidential information. Practices to ensure the confidentiality of sensitive information can help protect LGBTQ youth from potential harm and address concerns that information they share will be disclosed to others without their permission. All agencies reported that their policies and procedures ensure the privacy of client information within guidelines established by federal, state, and local laws. No staff members indicated that their agencies had established specific policies or practices regarding the recording or disclosure of LGBTQ status information. Rather, information on sexual orientation and gender identity, when available, is generally handled in the same way as other private data, such as health information. Staff in one agency reported that they may disclose a youth’s LGBTQ status to partner organizations if the youth has provided consent.

Establishing a safe and welcoming service environment. Providing a space that is free of bullying and harassment, and that positively supports homeless youths’ LGBTQ identity, can be a key factor in facilitating service access (National Alliance to End Homelessness et al. 2009). To achieve this goal, all agencies we visited take steps to provide youth safe and appropriate accommodations in shelters or transitional living arrangements. These steps include (1) arranging for some youth to sleep in a private area if they do not feel comfortable in a male or female dormitory, (2) offering private rooms to all youth, and (3) establishing a written agency policy specifying that youth are to be assigned to dormitories based on their gender identification or offered the option of a private room if safety is a concern.

Other steps signal that agencies offer a space welcoming to LGBTQ youth. For example, some agencies display posters featuring images of LGBTQ youth or “Safe Zone” signs communicating that staff are open to discussing issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Staff at one agency created a reading corner featuring books and other materials on LGBTQ-related subjects. Staff who identify as LGBTQ may also promote a welcoming environment by serving as role models and helping to create a sense of community for LGBTQ youth. Finally, staff in two agencies reported that they quickly intervene to address any instances of harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity observed in their facilities.

Developing LGBTQ cultural competency. Staff members’ LGBTQ cultural competency—their ability to understand the perspectives of LGBTQ people and communicate effectively with them—is likely to influence the quality of their interactions with LGBTQ RHY and youths’ willingness to use agency services (National Alliance to End Homelessness et al. 2009; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, n.d.). Agencies reported that they attempt to improve cultural competency through staff trainings on LGBTQ issues. Training methods and frequency varied among sites. Staff in one agency indicated that they occasionally access LGBTQ cultural competency training through local universities or conferences for RHY providers. Two other agencies offer an annual in-house training that addresses topics relevant to serving LGBTQ youth, including nonharassment and antidiscrimination policies, appropriate use of language (such as identifying youth with the name or gender pronouns they prefer), and strategies for creating a safe and inclusive environment for youth. In addition, individual staff members sometimes served as experts on LGBTQ issues within an agency, providing training or informal consultation to their colleagues.

Involving staff with expertise serving LGBTQ youth. Agencies can use hiring processes to identify job candidates with expertise on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity or screen candidates for their openness to working with LGBTQ youth. Sites do not intentionally recruit LGBTQ employees, but all the sites currently have staff who identify as LGBTQ. One manager reported that her agency communicates its nondiscrimination policy to job candidates, and interviews include questions to assess applicants’ experiences with LGBTQ people. Another indicated that knowledge of LGBTQ issues could be considered an important qualification for some agency positions. According to staff in two agencies, board members familiar with the LGBTQ community can also be an important resource for information and organizational partnerships that will improve service delivery to sexual minority and transgender youth.

Partnering with organizations serving LGBTQ people. Partnerships with other organizations working with LGBTQ people can help RHY providers link youth to appropriate services and sources of social support. All study sites pursue such relationships. Some partnerships enable referrals to professional organizations that target a broad population but are competent in providing such services as health care and employment assistance to LGBTQ youth. (We describe partnerships to help youth access specific types of services later in this chapter.) These links sometimes feature sharing of information about individual clients through case management contacts, which was perceived to strengthen relationships between agencies and support effective service provision. Staff in three sites refer youth to LGBTQ-specific organizations for social or support groups. For example, staff in one agency reported that they work with a local LGBTQ community center to facilitate the participation of LGBTQ RHY in PrideFest events and youth activities.

Some organizational strategies, especially creating a safe and welcoming environment and developing cultural competency among staff, seemed to require relatively more effort for agencies to implement. Staff in two agencies emphasized that offering a hospitable environment for LGBTQ youth depends on establishing an overall agency culture or philosophy promoting respect for diversity and inclusion. Agency managers must embrace this philosophy, and it must be constantly reinforced among employees and youth to foster consistently welcoming and respectful spaces. Staff in another agency noted that opportunities and resources for participating in LGBTQ cultural competency training locally were limited. In addition, one staff member believed that cultural competency skills are difficult to maintain if agency workers have infrequent interactions with LGBTQ-identified youth.

In addition, the limited availability of LGBTQ-specific resources in a community might constrain sites’ ability to connect youth with organizations offering LGBTQ-related services. Staff from two agencies noted a dearth of groups that focus on the LGBTQ community in their service areas. Although both these organizations identified partners able to address the mental health or employment needs of LGBTQ youth, it was more difficult for them to connect youth with supportive, in-person social groups outside the RHY agency. The other two agencies were able to cultivate partnerships to access services offered by multiple LGBTQ organizations in their cities, such as a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth, transgender-specific health care, and resources to prevent sexual exploitation or human trafficking among LGBTQ youth.

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