Our findings from this representative study of Massachusetts high school students provide strong evidence that adolescents with a minority sexual orientation are at far greater risk for homelessness than are their heterosexual peers. Approximately 25% of lesbian and gay adolescents and 15% of bisexuals reported homelessness compared with just 3% of the exclusively heterosexual adolescents. More than one third of the students who were homeless reported a minority sexual orientation or were unsure of their sexual orientation. Nearly 20% of the homeless youths in this study identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Clearly, these youths were grossly overrepresented among the homeless, because less than 5% of the sample identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. We also found that the positive associations between minority sexual orientation and homelessness were primarily because of sexual-minority youths’ greater odds of being homeless and not living with parents. This finding suggests that disparities in sexual orientation in adolescent homelessness may be driven by factors situated within family relationships, such as sexual-minority youths’ greater likelihood of running away or being thrown out of their homes, and not because these youths are more likely to be members of a homeless family.
Rejection and victimization within the family related to minority sexual orientation status likely contribute to a greater risk of homelessness among sexual minority youths. Among a sample of 428 homeless adolescents between the ages of 16 and 19 years recruited from 8 Midwestern cities, participants who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were more likely than were heterosexuals to report that they had been kicked out of the house or had left home because of conflict about their sexuality or sexual behaviors.31
In another study of 425 homeless youths aged between 16 and 20 years, 73% of gay and lesbian and 26% of bisexual participants indicated that they were homeless because their parents disapproved of their sexual orientation.32
In addition, sexual abuse by parents was more frequently cited as a reason for leaving home among gay and lesbian (21%) participants than it was among heterosexual (10%) participants. In yet another study of 84 sexual-minority and 84 age- and gender-matched heterosexual homeless youths in Seattle (aged 13–21 years), sexual-minority youths left home more frequently and were more likely to leave home because of physical abuse than were heterosexual youths.33
A deeper understanding of the mechanisms causing sexual-minority adolescents to be at much higher risk of living separately from their families should be a key area of future research.
After becoming homeless, youths with a minority sexual orientation appear to have greater risks and poorer outcomes than do their heterosexual counterparts.34
Studies suggest that homeless lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths experience more physical and sexual victimization and mental health problems such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicidality than do homeless heterosexual youths.31,33,35,36
Lesbian and bisexual females who are homeless appear to be at especially elevated risk for substance use and abuse compared with homeless heterosexual females.31,36
Sexual risk behaviors also appear to disproportionately impact sexual-minority homeless adolescents. Studies have reported higher numbers of lifetime sexual partners, younger ages of sexual initiation, and higher rates of unprotected intercourse, survival sex, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among sexual-minority homeless adolescents.31–33,37
However, not all studies have reported sexual-orientation differences in risky sexual behaviors among homeless youths.32
Whether the elevated health risks of homeless sexual minorities are related to a general pattern of sexual-orientation disparities or are because homelessness interacts with sexual-minority status to magnify vulnerability remains unclear. Unfortunately, low statistical power prevented us from examining this question.
The findings of the current study may not be directly comparable to previous studies of homelessness in sexual-minority youths because of differences in the sampling strategy (i.e., school-based) and the definition of homelessness (McKinney–Vento is broad and includes youths sleeping at a friend’s or relative’s home). Homeless youths participating in the MAYRBS may differ in important ways from homeless youths identified through street- and shelter-based studies. Nonetheless, a report based on the 2005 MAYRBS data showed that students classified as homeless on the basis of the McKinney–Vento definition had greater health risks such as substance use, depression, victimization, suicidality, and risky sexual behaviors than did their housed peers.38
Despite their school attendance, the homeless youths identified in this study clearly constitute a vulnerable population.
Some study limitations should be noted. Because we used a sample of high school students, our study likely underestimated the prevalence of homelessness among high school–aged youths. To participate, students needed to attend school on the day the survey was administered. Youths who are homeless may be more likely to be absent from school or to have dropped out of high school. In addition, generalizability was constrained by the fact that the data came exclusively from Massachusetts. Although we combined data from 2 data collection waves, the small sample size of the homeless group and of the sexual-minority youths did not allow for a more detailed examination of the factors that might mediate or moderate relationships between sexual orientation and homeless status. Furthermore, it is possible that uncontrolled confounding (for example, socioeconomic status was not assessed in the MAYRBS) could have biased the relationships between sexual orientation and homelessness. Finally, the cross-sectional nature of the data did not allow us to determine the causal direction of the association between sexual orientation and homeless status.
Massachusetts has been at the forefront of implementing policies and programs to improve the social climate and to extend civil rights to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. In 1993 the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education established the Safe Schools Program, which helps schools comply with antidiscrimination laws and encourages them to provide school-based counseling for family members of gay and lesbian students; establish school-based support groups such as Gay-Straight Alliances; develop school policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination; and provide training to school personnel in crisis and suicide intervention.39
Despite these important efforts, more needs to be done to reduce homelessness and to enhance support among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths and their families residing in Massachusetts and across the United States.
Professionals working with adolescents should be aware that minority sexual orientation status is linked to a greater vulnerability of being homeless. Relationships with family and risk for homelessness should be assessed among youths identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and among youths who identify themselves as heterosexual but report same-sex sexual partners. Future research should focus on developing a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms contributing to the higher risk of homelessness in this population. Likewise, it will be essential to identify factors that protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths from becoming homeless. This information would aid in the design of programs and policies to reduce sexual-orientation disparities in youth homelessness.