The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 25, 2015

Surviving the streets of New York

February 25, 2015

Our release today of the first-ever study on LGBTQ youth who trade sex in order to meet basic survival needs coincides with one of the coldest winters on record.

Although the winter of 2012 wasn't as brutal as this one, it was still cold enough to chill you to the bone in places like New York City. I spent that winter working with a team of youth researchers conducting interviews with close to 300 young people to get a better understanding of why they engage in survival sex and what types of services and support they needed in order to stop. One of the most common drivers we found was homelessness.

On one particularly cold day, the project’s lead youth researcher came to me after completing an interview with a young woman. Several weeks earlier, the young woman had been kicked out of her home after coming out to her mother as a lesbian. She spent the first couple of weeks staying on friends' couches or with various men she would meet and then exchange sex for a warm bed. She eventually found a shelter that had an available bed, but after a couple of days, she was asked to leave for reasons unknown to her. That same day, she came to us, through the urging of a friend, to be interviewed for our study. After her interview, she disclosed that she had nowhere to sleep that night.

For over an hour, we called various youth shelters across the city to see if they had any available beds. Given how cold it was outside, all of the shelters we spoke to had at least a one-week waiting list. The young woman eventually left in tears, stating that she would just have to do what she had to do to find a warm bed that night. Her walking out of that room in tears is an image that will remain with me always.

New York City provides approximately 350 shelter beds designated for youth. But a 2007 study estimated that there are at least 4,000 homeless youth in the city at any given time. Of the youth we interviewed, 31 percent stated that they had engaged in survival sex for shelter. Many of the 95 percent who exchanged sex for money would use that money to pay for a hotel room for a night or two, or pay a friend for letting them crash on their couch. Twenty-nine percent stated that without a stable place to call their own, they didn't foresee being able to stop trading sex for money, shelter, or food.

“At first I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to stay in the streets and it was cold so I just did it… like I regret it, but it took me out from the streets for the weekend.” –19 years old, Latino, bisexual, male

Although there is an urgent need for emergency short-term shelter beds where young people can stay up to 30 or 60 days, there is an even greater need for long-term transitional beds. It was difficult for many of the young people to imagine applying for a job or going back to school without having a permanent address to put on the application. They felt that their only option was to engage in survival sex to have their basic needs met.

"I was working three jobs when I was homeless and going to school and… I started going to the shelters and shelters started not to give me late passes and stay for work. So I lost all jobs.” –19 years old, Puerto Rican and black, bisexual, female

Our study is just a snapshot of one city, but we know that similar stories surely play out across the country. What can be done to prevent young people from having to trade sex for shelter and other basic needs? The first step toward stability is improved housing options that are responsive to the needs of LGBTQ youth, including adding more beds to what is currently available.

“I just need my own apartment and stuff, I need my own apartment, a stable job… like, not even a stable job, I will take, you know, should I work at Burger King if it meant like it could pay my rent, and pay my little expenses… I would do that. I’m not very like, a complex person, I’m very content with my life.” - 21 years old, black, gay, male

Photo: Used with permission from Will Anderson

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