The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 25, 2016

For LGBTQ youth who trade sex to survive, turning 22 can be an unwanted milestone

February 25, 2016

In New York City, and in many other cities across the country, funding for runaway and homeless youth is often limited to those ages 16 to 21. This frequently leaves 22- to 24-year-olds without shelter beds, access to group sessions, job training, and medical care, even though they are still technically eligible for services through youth programs, which typically go up to age 24.

For young people in this group who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ), this means they lose access to a crucial source of safety and stability in difficult times. This echoes larger trends of LGBTQ youth having less access to appropriate social services than non-LGBTQ youth.

And while all youth face emotional, psychological, and social challenges during adolescence, LGBTQ youth face a disproportionate amount of additional stressors related to their sexual orientation and gender identity, including discrimination and increased victimization. LGBTQ youth need the very social services that they're not accessing.

In our newest report on LGTBQ youth engaged in survival sex, many of the roughly 300 youth we interviewed felt it was difficult to maintain legitimate employment and remain in school—reasons why they turned to survival sex in the first place—without services that provided basic necessities, such as housing or health care. Unfortunately, they knew that these services would be severely limited—or, in some cases, terminated—once they turned 22.

As one 21-year-old transgender woman we interviewed stated:

The thing about it is like with certain services like they have to cut you off at 21. You can't be in there if you are over 21… Because of the funding and some of the sponsors, when you are 21 to 24 they don't really, they don't feel like you are a youth, they feel like you are a grownup. (Respondent 272, 21 years old, black, bisexual, transgender female)

Staff at local service agencies, from health care to housing providers, also felt that their hands were tied when it came to assisting their clients ages 22 to 24. In our interviews with staff at 16 organizations, many providers said existing funding was inadequate to address the complex needs of their client base and the sheer size of their client population.

One provider who serves individuals over the age of 21 felt there was “not as much money dedicated to older clients,” despite the community’s recognition that a youth may not be fully independent at age 21.

If policymakers are serious about trying to find legitimate and sustainable pathways out of survival sex, then we must provide LGBTQ youth, young men who have sex with men (YMSM), and young women who have sex with women (YWSW) with the safety net, support, and tools that will allow them to reach a place in their lives where they can thrive on their own.

This includes increasing overall budgets for all runaway and homeless youth and, in particular, expanding services and beds for youth ages 22 to 24. Without access to safe and low-threshold services (including short- and long-term housing, affordable housing and shelter options, livable-wage employment opportunities, food security, and gender-affirming health care), young people will do whatever is necessary to survive on the streets. 

I wish they offered more services for runaway homeless teens because I see that a lot of budgets getting cut... Would you rather have a place [for us] to stay or [have us] sleep on the trains where we get locked up since we didn’t get a place to stay? When I was like really homeless, I couldn’t go back to no shelters. I was sleeping on the trains, I was getting locked up on purpose if I hadn’t something to eat and go somewhere to sleep. And I got tired of it. (Respondent 379, 21 years old, multiracial, heterosexual, male)

Across both the young people we talked to and the adults providing supportive services, the message was clear: LGBTQ, YMSM, and YWSW youth need continuous access to services so that they feel that there are legitimate and sustainable alternatives to trading sex for survival. This is particularly important for older youth, who are dangerously close to aging out of the services they depend on to keep jobs and pursue alternatives to survival sex.

Low-threshold emergency and long-term shelter beds, vocational and educational opportunities, mental health services, and hormone therapy and other health services are some of the keys to stability and support that can help them forge a way out of poverty and uncertainty.

Photo by Will Anderson

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