On a given night in the United States, around 41,000 young people are experiencing homelessness. LGBTQ youth are 120 percent more likely than their heterosexual or cisgender peers to be homeless.
Homelessness is also a major problem for transgender Americans: one in five transgender people have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.
Homelessness is the most extreme way LGBTQ Americans endure housing instability. In the case of LGBT youth, “The evidence shows that breakdown in young people’s families is the main driver of homelessness,” explained Laura Durso, vice president of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Durso and other experts spoke at a panel discussion on LGBTQ housing issues hosted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development last week.
“There are other factors that explain LGBT youth homelessness,” Durso continued. “Substance use, child abuse, and economic instability can all play a role. As a culture and as a matter of public policy, we need to grapple with these issues.”
Discrimination contributes to housing instability
Discrimination also makes finding stable and safe housing more difficult for LGBTQ Americans. Diane Levy, principal research associate at the Urban Institute, discussed a 2017 study of housing discrimination against lesbian and gay couples and transgender people.
The study matched potential housing applicants, or testers, with people similar in every way except for sexual orientation or gender identity. The testers then made the same inquiries about available rental units and expressed the same qualifications and housing needs.
“The study found that landlords treated lesbian couples comparably with straight couples, but housing providers were less likely to show gay men available units and quoted them higher prices,” explained Levy.
Levy continued, “Through 200 exploratory tests in the Washington, DC, area, we found that housing agents were less likely to tell transgender testers that units were available, told them about fewer units than cisgender testers, and, when agents did tell the testers about available units, invited the testers to inspect fewer units.”
Focus groups of transgender people conducted as part of the study revealed the negative experiences that many have faced. “Some recounted seeing advertisements that stated, ‘no transgenders’ and being denied housing outright,” said Levy. “Some participants ran into landlords who think all transgender women were sex workers. Others said they faced serious problems after they moved in.”
Durso has also studied discrimination against transgender adults but in the context of homeless shelters. “We found that only 30 percent of the time were transgender women finding appropriate access to shelter, including states that have antidiscrimination statutes on the books,” she said.
What needs to change?
Jorge Andres Soto, director of public policy for the National Fair Housing Alliance, argued that taking certain steps would help ensure LGBTQ Americans can find safe and stable housing:
- Protect against discrimination. Only 22 states have laws that prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Soto noted that the EQUALITY Act, which has been passed by the House of Representatives, would modify the Civil Rights Act by adding gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes.
- Increase resources for equitable housing. “We need more housing across the board,” said Soto, also noting that the need is acute for LGBTQ seniors, who need housing that is accessible and close to their sources of medical care. Soto added, “Without housing, people rely on emergency services, which ends up costing taxpayers more money.”
- Ensure LGBTQ Americans are counted. Soto said that counting sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2020 Census would help “illuminate where these communities are and what their needs are.” The 2020 Census will count same-sex couples, but census officials declined to include questions about sexual orientation.
- Add more knowledge. New and innovative methodologies can help researchers continue to study the housing challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. These studies are rare, partly because they are difficult to execute, but they provide us with critical information. As Soto put it, “We need to understand the housing challenges facing LGBT Americans, including those that arise after people gain access to housing.”
When we can better guarantee that LGBTQ Americans have access to safe and affordable housing, everyone benefits. “We know that the lack of affordable, decent, and safe housing can ripple through lives and communities in many ways,” said Levy.