There are more unhoused youth in the U.S. than ever before

Afro-american boy hiding in ruined building, escaped from dysfunctional family
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

This is part three of a three-part series on unhoused LGBTQ+ individuals.

There is a housing crisis in the U.S. Last month, The Atlantic addressed the issue in a story titled “Why Isn’t the Government Doing More About the Housing Crisis?” and said succinctly, “The Department of Housing and Urban Development should consider doing some housing and urban development.”

As PGN has been reporting over the past few weeks, the number of unhoused people in the U.S. has risen a stunning 12% in the last year, as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) detailed in a 117-page Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR) at year’s end.

Certain populations have been hardest hit by the crisis, notably those over 55 and those 13 to 29 — Gen Y and Gen Z. Each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness in the U.S., 700,000 of whom are unaccompanied minors — meaning they are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. Research has shown that those who identify as LGBTQ+ have a 120% higher risk of experiencing some form of homelessness.

As the National Council of State Legislatures reported in 2023, annually, one in 10 young adults ages 18-25 and one in 30 youth ages 13-17 experience some form of homelessness. The report notes that this is likely an undercount due to varying definitions of homelessness and challenges with contacting unhoused people, particularly unhoused youth.

Homelessness is often hidden among youth and young adults since many are not in shelters and may transition between temporary sleeping arrangements with friends or acquaintances. National survey data indicates that homelessness affects youth living in rural, suburban and urban communities at similar rates.

While the housing crisis impacts everyone in this 13 to 29 age group disproportionate to Millennials and Gen Xers, for LGBTQ+ people under 30, the crisis is much more severe. Most often, LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness as a result of familial conflicts due to their sexual orientation or their gender identity or expression.

Youth advocates like those at Covenant House assert that “once homeless, LGBTQ youth face further challenges.” Covenant House has worked with youth experiencing homelessness and trafficking since 1972.

Caz Stein was 16 when she left home after she said conflicts with her parents reached “Molotov cocktail level. I just couldn’t get through to them and I guess they felt the same. If you could have a breakup with your family, that’s what happened to us.”

Stein, who identifies as a “queer lesbian butch,” spoke to PGN via Zoom from the house of a friend who is trying to help her secure “temporary permanent housing” through Project HOME. Project HOME provides LGBTQ-friendly permanent housing and support services for young adults at risk of homelessness as a foundation to achieve their long-term goals for housing, education and employment and is particularly attentive to those who identify as LGBTQ+.

Project HOME Residential Director Carolyn Crouch-Robinson states on the organization’s website, “If you interrupt young adult homelessness at a pivotal moment, you can change a person’s trajectory, forever.”

Stein has been staying with a series of friends from her high school where she is now a senior and nearly 18. Stein said staying in school while moving from couch-to-couch and occasionally staying in shelters “has been so exhausting. So grim. And I know I’m lucky because I’m not on drugs, not doing sex work, not sick, not bipolar. But I’m also not living anywhere and it’s really wearing me down. Plus I have a job after school so I can pay for stuff and I’m really tired all the time.”

Stein said rapprochement with her family was “not on the table” and “I don’t want to talk about it.” She’s applying for benefits that she hopes will make things easier and fast track her for housing.

Stein’s arduous and lonely predicament is not anomalous. In the 2020–2021 school year, 1.1 million public school students were identified as experiencing homelessness. Of these students, 76.8% lived temporarily with others due to loss of their own housing, (known as “doubled-up”); 10.9% lived in shelters and 7.8% lived in hotels or motels.

LGBTQ+ individuals experience housing instability and inequitable housing access at higher rates than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. The unstable housing conditions that LGBTQ+ youth like Stein face are manifold and can readily devolve into homelessness. LGBTQ+ youth — those aged 18-25 — face 2.2 times greater risk of homelessness than non-LGBTQ+ youth. The Trevor Project states that 28% of LGBTQ youth report they have experienced homelessness or housing instability.

Additionally, youth like Stein who are in search of emergency housing options face many barriers to accessing safe and stable housing, such as lack of financial stability, lack of rental history, or the ability to sign a lease without parental consent. Nearly 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and family rejection was a major factor of homelessness for 68% of those cases.

Mental health experts and healthcare professionals say that homelessness is a devastating experience that has a significant negative impact on an individual’s physical and mental health, well-being, functioning, human development and life trajectory. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, people who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population. “Simply being without a home is a dangerous health condition. While health care providers do all they can to mitigate the effects of the streets, no amount of health care can substitute for stable housing.”

A full 20% of unhoused people are HIV+ with no access to PrEP and 49% suffer from depression. More than half have substance abuse issues.

LGBTQ+ youth who run away and experience homelessness are at high risk for certain negative experiences and outcomes. LGBTQ+ youth are significantly over-represented in homeless populations compared with the general population. Additionally, youth who are Black or multi-racial LGBTQ+ youth reported the highest rates of homelessness, compared with their white LGBTQ+ peers.

LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness at higher rates than non-LGBTQ+ youth for a range of reasons. A study on of more than 350 runaway and homeless providers throughout the U. S. identified four top causes for homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth: family rejection resulting from sexual orientation or gender identity; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; aging out of the foster care system; and financial and emotional neglect.

Another study that interviewed LGBTQ+ youth who experienced homelessness found that the path to homelessness was “described as a gradual escalation of the parent-child conflict over time, or a growing sense of rejection in the home…” This finding shows there may be more opportunity to intervene before an LGBTQ+ youth becomes homeless.

Being homeless at any age is traumatic, as PGN has reported. But for youth experiencing homelessness with no life skills as a fall-back support, it can be especially devastating.

The National Network for Youth states, “Experiences of psychological trauma — abuse, neglect, violence, or sexual victimization — are often a common reality for youth who have experienced homelessness. In addition, once they become homeless, many youths become re-traumatized. Research has found that approximately 83% of youth experiencing homelessness report exposure to at least one form of victimization while homeless, including sexual assault, robbery, physical beating and assault with a weapon.”

This makes getting trauma-informed care for homeless youth an essential part of situating those people back in a normative life — which teens like Stein have had no access to for the length of their homelessness. For her, that’s been more than a year and a half.

She told PGN, “Do I feel traumatized? Oh yeah. I feel low-key upset all the time. I have panic attacks — not all the time, but they always come on without warning.”

Stein says once it happened during class and she had to go to the nurse’s office. “I told my teacher — I was in chem class — that I felt lightheaded. But not gonna lie — I really felt like I was going to die. I was lucky the nurse knew what was happening and was really cool with me. I was crying — I was really a mess. She taught me how to breathe my way out of it. But it’s a lot. It’s a lot all the time.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Care that is not trauma-informed risks inadvertent re-traumatization of vulnerable youth. A trauma-informed approach focuses on physical, psychological, and emotional safety. Many youth who are homeless have experienced chaotic and violent environments. Youth can more easily heal when they feel safe.”

Stein said she feels like she’s “getting closer” to finding housing and “getting my life in the normal lane instead of all this chaos. I don’t want to wear out my friends, who have been great. But what I know is that we need to do better for folks like me. We just do.”

If you are experiencing homelessness and need help in Philadelphia:

Philadelphia Homeless Outreach Hotline: 215-232–1984

Project HOME:

Pride Host Homes Program: 215-574-9194 / 

Ark Of Safety Emergency Housing Line: 215-315-9056

Attic Youth Center (ages 14 to 23): 215-545-4331 /

Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386 /

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