The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 25, 2011

Why Are So Many Gay Teens Homeless?

July 25, 2011

A recent study featured in the American Journal of Public Health finds that approximately 25 percent of gay teens in Massachusetts public high schools are homeless, compared to only 3 percent of heterosexual students. The study, which brings to light once again the link between sexual orientation and teen homelessness, is one of the first to examine the magnitude of the problem.

A closer look at the study’s methodology suggests that it has some limitations that may overestimate and underestimate the proportion of gay teens that are homeless. The study may underestimate the prevalence of gay teens who are homeless because it surveys only those who are currently enrolled in high school. Some homeless gay teens may have dropped out or are living on the street and not attending school; the study does not include them.

The study may overestimate the number of gay teens by how it defines homelessness: those who are not “at home with my parents or guardians” in a stable residential setting. These young people lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and are living (with or without parents or guardians) in a shelter, hotel, motel, car, park, campground, or other public place or at a friend’s or relative’s house. The problem with the definition is that many teens living at a friend’s or relative’s house may be living in a permanent and completely safe housing situation, while others may be couch surfing temporarily or doubling up because of economic reasons. It’s hard to tell without probing further if this living situation is positive or negative.

These limitations do not bring into question the fact that gay teens are disproportionally at risk of homelessness or undermine the findings of the study. They just demonstrate that, like most data on homelessness, pinpointing the exact share is extremely difficult. They also show that we need more data on people (children, teens, and adults) who are “doubling up” and the reasons (both negative and positive) for their living situation before we can adequately understand how many people need help accessing stable and affordable housing.

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, but the most important question is why are so many gay teens homeless?  I’ll explore that topic in my next blog post.

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