LGBT Youth Face High Rates of Homelessness and Incarceration

Trigger Warning for discussions/descriptions of homophobic and transphobic violence, including but not limited to sexual violence.

Yesterday, two really important stories were released about LGBT youth in the U.S. — one in the Nation about incarceration, one from the Center for American Progress about homelessness. The fact that LGBT youth face much higher risks of both as compared to straight and cis youth is no surprise, nor is the fact that they are at greater risk for violence and other abuse once incarcerated or homeless. But the extent to which these things are true is something that is often obscured for those who don’t live it everyday — and they are definitely issues that don’t get nearly enough attention.

The Nation article is really fabulous, from my view, and it’s extremely difficult to pick individual quotes. Do go read the whole thing, but here’s a brief intro:

Across the United States, the brutal and dysfunctional juvenile justice system sends queer youth to prison in disproportionate numbers, fails to protect them from violence and discrimination while they’re inside and to this day condones attempts to turn them straight. Antigay policies aren’t just a problem in the Deep South or rural regions. According to Jody Marksamer of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of co-authors of a recent report on LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, “These things happen in every state.”

The road to incarceration begins in pretrial detention, before the youth even meets a judge. Laws and professional standards state that it’s appropriate to detain a child before trial only if she might run away or harm someone. Yet for queer youth, these standards are frequently ignored. According to UC Santa Cruz researcher Dr. Angela Irvine, LGBT youth are two times more likely than straight youth to land in a prison cell before adjudication for nonviolent offenses like truancy, running away and prostitution. According to Ilona Picou, executive director of Juvenile Regional Services, Inc., in Louisiana, 50 percent of the gay youth picked up for nonviolent offenses in Louisiana in 2009 were sent to jail to await trial, while less than 10 percent of straight kids were. “Once a child is detained, the judge assumes there’s a reason you can’t go home,” says Dr. Marty Beyer, a juvenile justice specialist. “A kid coming into court wearing handcuffs and shackles versus a kid coming in with his parents — it makes a very different impression.”

And the issue that Dr. Beyer references is where the Nation article and Center for American Progress (CAP) report tie together. While I call this method of determining who is and is not detained very far from acceptable — and as the article states, blatantly against official standards — it is true that a lot of LGBT youth have nowhere safe to go. Homelessness and incarceration are intricately linked, with high rates of imprisonment among homeless people and a dramatically increased risk of becoming homeless after one has been incarcerated. And for LGBT youth, both problems tend to start with homophobic and/or transphobic rejection and abuse from loved ones.

One CAP document on LGBT homelessness notes:

1.6 million to 2.8 million: The estimated number of homeless youth in the United States.

20 to 40 percent: The portion of the homeless youth population who are gay or transgender, compared to only 5 to 10 percent of the overall youth population.

320,000 to 400,000: A conservative estimate of the number of gay and transgender youth facing homelessness each year.

14.4: The average age that lesbian and gay youth in New York become homeless.

13.5: The average age that transgender youth in New York become homeless.

And once LGBT youth are homeless, abuse levels are staggering, even when compared against the general homeless population:

58 percent: The portion of homeless gay and transgender youth who have been sexually assaulted, compared to 33 percent of homeless heterosexual [or cisgender/cissexual] youth.

44 percent: The portion of homeless gay and transgender youth who reported being asked by someone on the street to exchange sex for money, food, drugs, shelter, or clothes, compared to 26 percent of straight [or cisgender/cissexual] homeless youth.

Back to the Nation article, which features the story of a young trans woman named Krystal who was locked up in juvenile hall for boys at a young age, LGBT youth are at extremely high risk for sexual violence behind bars:

LGBT kids are often targeted for sexual assault. A 2009 Department of Justice report shows that across the country, LGBT youth are twelve times more likely than straight youth to report being sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate. In Louisiana alone, 10 percent of all youth — gay and straight — reported abuse by a staff member. Krystal reports that she was propositioned twice by guards when she was 14. When she refused, she was verbally abused and called a “bitch.”

The article also details at length — again, please go read the whole thing — other forms of violence employed against LGBT inmates both by guards and other prisoners, as well verbal harassment, and isolation:

Guards are often bullies themselves. Krystal reports that staff called her “a disgrace to mankind,” a “punk” or “fucking faggot” on a daily basis and threatened her, saying, “I’ll beat your fucking ass.” When staff called Krystal “faggot” or other names, sometimes she talked back. “Sometimes I would even say, I’m proud to be that,” Krystal says. She would receive more tickets for talking back.

There are even reports of staff members sending youths to attack other kids. “When it happened, it was something all the youth knew,” Krystal says. “Basically, someone would be left out there in the open.” This is not unique to Louisiana. A 16-year-old gay man in Los Angeles interviewed in 2008 reported that staff members used other youth to intimidate him. Another child in the California system reported that “a female staff member set up a bisexual youth and let straight guys into his room to beat him up. I woke up and saw blood on the walls and on the ground.”

And, as is virtually always the case, the more sites of oppression that a vulnerable person lives at, the more at risk sie is. From the same New York study that determined the average age that LGBT youth became homeless, the full CAP report (pdf) indicates:

That research also suggests that homeless gay and transgender youth are disproportionally youth of color. Among the homeless youth who identified as gay, 44 percent were black and 26 percent were Hispanic. The transgender homeless youth were even more likely to be people of color. Sixty-two percent were black, and 20 percent were Hispanic.

Personal safety nets and support systems are, of course, extremely important. But the way that access to such systems tend to fall along lines of privilege and oppression cannot go ignored in any such discussion. It’s unlikely that we’re just talking about a simple issue of parents of color being more homophobic and/or transphobic — a racist assumption — rather than one of youth of color having more risk factors and far fewer resources and options, on average, than their white counterparts when their parents reject them.

And that’s where we as a society fail vulnerable youth a second time, by not providing them with a safe backup plan. The CAP report points out:

78 percent: The portion of gay and transgender youth who were either removed from or ran away from their New York foster care placements due to conflict and discrimination related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

88 percent: The portion of professional staff in out-of-home placements who say that gay and transgender youth were not safe in group-home environments.

$53,665: The estimated cost to maintain a youth in the criminal justice system for one year, while it only costs $5,887 to permanently move a homeless youth off the streets and prevent them from reentering the criminal justice system.

$195 million: The portion of the federal government’s $4.2 billion budget for homeless-assistance programs that is targeted toward homeless youth.

And the Nation article argues:

Courts and law enforcement officials often fail to recognize the factors that drive LGBT youth into the system. Of a 16-year-old client who was a runaway, Picou says, “Everybody refused to allow him to be in a group home or foster care home. He was in super-custody like he’s a terrorist. Nobody asked him why he ran away or whether he was prostituting to stay alive.” And while a toxic home life leads LGBT youth to live on the street, an unwelcoming school system leads many to avoid school altogether, leading to truancy.

We’re talking here, in other words, not just about social systems of prejudice and oppression, but also about institutionalized violence and oppression. We’re failing kids and subjecting them to violence not only because of small-minded hate, but also through deliberate neglect and the conscious decision to direct funding towards prisons instead of, say, housing.

I don’t want to say too much more. As someone who is both straight and cis and does not have direct knowledge of the needs of incarcerated and homeless LGBT youth, I don’t feel it’s my place to impose my ideas about what solutions should look like. I want to let these numbers and stories speak for themselves, with a simple note that none of these horrifying figures would be a reality in a society where people of all sexual orientations and gender identities mattered and were seen as equally human. And I want to encourage those of you who are not already very familiar with these issues to take the time to click the links and start reading.

0 thoughts on “LGBT Youth Face High Rates of Homelessness and Incarceration

  1. Natalie

    Although this country has made some progress towards encouraging openness and tolerance for the LGBT community, we obviously still have a long way to go. Not only with LGBT youth in the juvenile justice system, but the entire juvenile system as the focus should be rehabilitation and not retribution.

  2. Pingback: LGBT Youth Face High Rates of Homelessness and Incarceration | Strike-The-Root: A Journal Of Liberty

  3. Pingback: Thinking Through Gay Suicides | A Much Needed Intervention

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