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'We Don't Know Where They Are': Youth, LGBTQ Teens At Risk Of Homelessness During Pandemic

Eric Ward

In Hamilton County, the pandemic has hit teens experiencing homelessness hard. LGBTQ teens are particularly likely to face life on the street.

Lighthouse Youth & Family Services is an organization that specifically focuses on youth and families experiencing homelessness. Before the pandemic, its staff had a steady stream of referrals and knew the hangout spots for teens without homes. Schools often referred students in need, and public places, like the downtown Cincinnati library, often gave them a free place to spend their time. But since the pandemic started, vice president of Lighthouse's homeless youth services, Bonita Campbell, says the teen population the organization works with have been elusive.

"They're not there. So, we don't know where they are," she says. "We don't know that they're safe. We don't know what activities they may be involved in that is making them more vulnerable to unsafe practices and criminal practices. We just don't know."

Kevin Finn, president and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, a multitude of Hamilton County homeless agencies served 6,151 people in 2020. About 36% of people without homes are under the age of 24 and are still considered youth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of those, about 16% in the county identify as LGBTQ.

"People make all sorts of assumptions about things that are inaccurate, about who is homeless," he says. "They don't think that there are young people that are homeless, when in fact, more than half of our homeless population is under the age of 35."

Lighthouse Youth and Family Services works with about 800-900 youth a year. While it focuses on all youth and families, it also tries to build bridges with LGBTQ teens, who face unique sets of hardships and are historically distrustful of shelters.

"The difficult part about that is most young people who live on the streets unsheltered usually require about seven to nine contacts before they actually engage in case management services and may be willing to come into shelter," Campbell of Homeless Youth Services says. "So it takes building the rapport and contact and finding them multiple times."

That disproportionately affects LGBTQ youth, she says, because they're more likely to live on the street than their peers, having been kicked out by their families because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And while they may be able to couch surf with friends for a while, Campbell says those opportunities aren't permanent.

While Lighthouse is accepting of all people, not all the teens it serves are, despite staff working to make sure people at their shelters respect each other's identities.

A few years ago, Campbell said Lighthouse received federal funding for a program aimed at streamlining LGBTQ youth into housing. It helped them understand their experiences and needs.

"And so, what those young people told us was, they had lived on the streets a lot; they had lived with multiple people in multiple places; many of them engaging in vulnerable work. A lot of it's sex work; a lot of it's different activities that they knew were was dangerous, in order to survive," she says. "So, they're really vulnerable to criminal acts by other people because it's all they know to do to survive ... Particularly vulnerable populations are the transgender men and women because they're taken advantage of."

Despite the additional hardships teens without homes face, the federal government has higher expectations of them when it comes to financial independence.

The Financial Struggle To Help Youth

During the peak of the pandemic, for instance,52% of young adults lived with at least one parent, according to the Pew Research Center. According to a 2019 Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey, 7 in 10 adults aged 18-34 receive some kind of financial support from their parents.

But in the realm of shelter and resource providers, like Lighthouse, when people 24 years old or younger go back to them for help, it impacts funding. HUD essentially financially dings them for helping the same people more than once.

"To penalize a program such as ours, because an 18- or 19-year-old comes back into the system doesn't make sense," Campbell says. "Because they're not going to be totally OK and not come back to us for help."

The restrictions mean some agencies find ways to not serve populations with repeated needs, like youth. That's especially unfair to young people, she says, because their brains aren't fully developed, and they may still be managing trauma from being neglected by parents and caregivers.

"Because what ultimately happens is, programs figure out a way to keep them out," Campbell says. "We won't because we're a youth serving organization, but other programs will because it becomes a numbers and a money game. But we're committed to this population."

Campbell and others are meeting with public officials at a conference later this month to advocate alternatives to the current system. Meanwhile, Lighthouse remains open and offering services.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.