Self-quarantine and social distancing practices continue nationwide following President Trump’s announcement to extend federal guidelines to the end of April. Remaining home, however, is not a luxury afforded to 40 percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBT, half of whom listed family rejection of sexual identity as one of the top five reasons for their homelessness.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s reversal of anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people is still in place. This allows Department of Health and Human Services grant programs to deny people services based on “conflicts with religious beliefs,” reported NBC. Homeless LGBT youth are more vulnerable than ever, without stable access to food, hygiene facilities, healthcare and a residence to practice social distancing. While the plight of homeless LGBT youth is nothing new, the COVID-19 crisis adds urgency for the government to do better immediately.
While trying to keep residents distant from each other, homeless shelters that are already at capacity are scrambling to find new places to house people. Some have had to suspend new admissions and turn people away. Without shelters, the homeless have severely limited access to basic needs and something as simple as hand-washing is not possible. Those who have been homeless long term are more likely to experience tri-morbidity, which is the concurrence of mental health, physical health and substance abuse problems.
The homeless already have lower functioning immune systems from living conditions on the streets. They are more susceptible to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and have higher prevalence of hepatitis B and C, HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis, respiratory infections, skin infections and STDs. Their unstable and stigmatized lifestyles lead to higher levels of stress, leading to mental disorders and substance abuse. With the closure of many shelters, the homeless lack what limited social support they had, which is vital for recovery and treatment entry for drug-addicted individuals.
Homeless LGBT youth fare even worse. Up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth do not complete high school. Those who engage in survival sex — the exchange of sex for drugs, food, shelter or money — are at higher risk for HIV and STIs. Without supportive adult relationships, homeless youth can experience neurocognitive deficits, achieve less academically and have a difficult time navigating the healthcare system. The University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall found that LGBT youth who experience homelessness report twice the rate of early death than non-LGBT youth.
The majority of homeless LGBT youth cite family rejection as top reasons why they are homeless. Nearly half said they were homeless because their family rejected their sexual identity, 43 percent because they were forced out by parents and 32 percent because of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Staying “home” was not even an option.
Experts have identified lack of funding as the biggest obstacle to improving services for this population. One concrete solution is to push the federal government to reauthorize the bipartisan Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (RHYTPA) of 2018, which appropriates funds for youth programs and mandates research on homeless youth. The act should also be amended to explicitly include anti-discrimination clauses, adding a layer of protection for LGBT youth.
In the same way that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the task of helping the homeless needed to be shared during this pandemic, the same applies to homeless populations at particular risk. The responsibility to help homeless LGBT youth should be shared by all levels of government.
It shouldn’t take a worldwide pandemic for us to realize how underserved our homeless LGBT youth are. But now that we are here, it’s time for the government to do right by them. As Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
LAUREN KIM ’20 is a Master of Public Health candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .