'Rejected solely because of your identity': Homeless LGBTQ youths face unique challenges

A transgender young person runs away from his family to avoid being sent to a conversion therapy camp abroad. 

Another kid is told they must camp in the backyard, use different utensils than their siblings and can't access TV or the internet after they come out as LGBTQ.

Family members sprinkle holy water and pray over their transgender daughter, hoping to change her identity.

All three were rejected by their parents because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, service providers say – the main reason LGBTQ young people become homeless.

About 40% of youths experiencing homelessness are LGBTQ, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, and service providers say they must address a broader set of needs to help queer young people get back on their feet.Without family support or any financial cushion, the lives of young queer people can quickly become full of danger and risk from violence on the streets and in shelter systems, providers say.

"When you are rejected solely because of your identity by the people who taught you how to love, there's something very broken. And the experience of homelessness is very different," said Alex Roque, president of New York's Ali Forney Center, one of the largest shelters for LGBTQ youths in the country.

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Majority of youths faced hostility at home or were thrown out

More than half of homeless LGBTQ youths say they have been forced onto the streets because of hostility or abuse from parents over their gender identity or sexual orientation, providers told USA TODAY.

"LGBTQ+ youth primarily experience homelessness due to family rejection. We know that that's the primary theme," said Josh Egeland, program manager of David’s Place, a drop-in center for homeless LGBTQ youths in Dayton, Ohio.

Even if parents don't literally kick their LGBTQ child to the curb, homophobic and transphobic treatment from parents is very traumatic and causes many young people to flee the only home they've ever known, said Lisa Phillips, head of youth services at the LA LGBT Center.

"We see young people where there is not one positive adult in their life that is willing to help them," she said.

Among all LGBTQ youths, 28% reported experiencing homelessness or housing instability at some point in their lives, the Trevor Project says. 

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Religious beliefs can influence rejection 

Clients often attribute their parents' homophobia or transphobia to religious beliefs, said Kate Barnhart, founder of New Alternatives, a grassroots drop-in for homeless queer youths in Manhattan.  

"If I have a young person in my office who's new and talking about being rejected by their family, I can say, 'Is your family very religious?' And they're almost always like, 'Yes,'" Barnhart said. 

She recalled one instance of a young trans man in New York who ran away from home after his parents threatened to send him to a conversion therapy camp in the Dominican Republic. After he ran away, while he was a student at a college in the city, his parents would drive onto campus and stalk him, she said.

"He was a smaller guy and he was always terrified they were just going to grab him and throw him in the car and take him away," Barnhart said.

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Kate Barnhart, left, is the founder and executive director of New Alternatives center in Manhattan, dedicated to helping LGBTQ youths transition from homelessness and shelters to stable, self-sufficient adult lives. Barnhart catches up with New Alternatvie outreach worker Dilo Cintroner, 38.

After family rejection caused one NYC youth to run away, he was homeless for 12 years

Kevin Schmidt-Johnson said he always felt supported by his parents until he came out as gay and later as transgender during his childhood. From then on, his parents never liked that he was "different."

"Being Catholic, I was made to believe that I was going to burn in hell because I was going against God and the Bible," Schmidt-Johnson, now 32, said.

His parents would make him wear dresses and berate him with questions asking why he couldn't be in relationships with men or why he couldn't be "normal."

Kevin Schmidt-Johnson is a security guard at New Alternatives, a nonprofit for homeless LGBTQ youth. Schmidt-Johnsonwas once homeless himself.

When it became too much for Schmidt-Johnson to bear, he fled at age 18 with only the T-shirt and pair of shorts he was wearing. 

He said his parents didn't try to contact him after that.

Off and on for the next 12 years, the native New Yorker spent his days sleeping beneath park benches, on the subway, or in Twin Donuts in Queens. When he did have housing, he was couch surfing or bouncing between volatile relationships. 

“I felt like I was abandoned by my parents and I was confused in a world where I had nothing and didn't know anything – I was still a baby," Kevin Schmidt-Johnson said.

“I felt like I was abandoned by my parents and I was confused in a world where I had nothing and didn't know anything – I was still a baby," Schmidt-Johnson said. "As strong as I was, I knew that I didn't know everything, so I was just feeling lost."

Schmidt-Johnson got his own apartment for the first time in 2021 and works providing security and creating TikTok videos for New Alternatives.

Homeless youths face exploitation, criminalization

In Reno, Nevada, about 20% of both LGBTQ and straight young people at the Eddy House youth shelter have experienced trafficking in some form, according to CEO Trevor Macaluso.

Often, no money is exchanged, Macaluso said. Rather, vulnerable young people are exploited in exchange for a much-needed shower, clothing, food, or a place to sleep.

Youths experiencing homelessness often must do whatever they can to secure shelter, even if it means engaging in sex for basic necessities, said Alisha Murray, the CEO of Daybreak, the youth social services organization that oversees David's Place in Dayton.

"If they're not able to get housing, they will go to great extremes to find shelter," Murray said, adding that youths she serves have often racked up trespassing charges while living on the streets.

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Breaking the cycle of homelessness starts with parents, providers say

LGBTQ youths who have experienced homelessness and housing insecurity are two to four times more likely to report depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts compared to those who have housing, according to the Trevor Project.

"The idea that we are not supporting these young people and instead we're rejecting them and telling them that something's wrong with them – we, the grownups, are creating health and mental health disparities," Phillips said.

Young LGBTQ people, like other youths, can become homeless for other reasons as well, Phillips said: Families are sometimes evicted, they couldn't access a Section 8 housing voucher or they exited the foster system without anywhere to go.

There's no easy solution to breaking the cycle of homophobia and transphobia in the home, but it must start somewhere, Roque said.

"There are no systems in place that proactively protect these young people," he said. “Homophobia and transphobia are child abuse. And we need to take a stand and make that a standard in our country. If our child protective systems would acknowledge that homophobia and transphobia is an issue, I think we would start to see a change.”

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