Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to count the people living on their streets. The date of the so-called "Point in Time" count, as it's called, varies from place to place, but usually happens at the end of January. The numbers determine funding levels for federal assistance programs. They also help officials decide what resources they need to allocate to the homeless.
On the evening of the count, volunteers and staff of social service agencies and nonprofits fan out across the nighttime landscape, trying to find the homeless. It's a notoriously difficult task, and not everyone is counted.
According to researchers at the Urban Institute, one subgroup in particular remains under-counted: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Young people in general are often missed by the traditional counts because they try to avoid drawing attention to themselves, fearing they'll end up in the custody of child protective services agencies.
LGBTQ youth are even harder to reach. "It's one of the big gaps," says Mary Cunningham, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "There are no reliable numbers on homeless youth or LGBTQ youth."
What little data has been gathered nationally suggests that LGBTQ kids make up a disproportionate number of homeless young people. According to one study, done in 2009 by the National Coalition for the Homeless, as many as 20 percent of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender. Cunningham says some estimates run as high as 40 percent.
"You can't really say whether homelessness among youth or gay or lesbian youth are going up and down," she says. "But there's pretty good research that they're discovering sexual orientation earlier, coming out earlier."
Family attitudes, however, may not have caught up with the changing times. And that can mean kids who come out end up on the street. "In general, it's a story of kids being rejected from their families," says Cunningham. "Getting turned out or running away."
These kids often face even greater struggles than their straight peers. Statistics suggest that queer youth are at higher risk for engaging in "survival sex" or being victims of sexual violence. Shelters with services geared specifically to their needs are rare, and regular municipal shelters can be unsafe environments due to the attitudes of residents and staff alike. Faith-based shelters may be outright intolerant of any suggestion of homosexuality or gender difference. Transgender kids can be forced into a shelter that doesn't conform to their identification.
"Not a lot of capacity exists out there for gender identity issues," says Cunningham. "It's pretty challenging once you get on the street."
In order to increase that capacity, Cunningham and her colleagues reasoned, it was important to assess the level of need. So in 2012, the Urban Institute launched a pilot study called Youth Count! [PDF] to get a better picture of how to quantify this vulnerable population - youth in general, and LGBTQ youth in particular.
"By getting much better data, we can understand the problem better and clarify how many resources need to be brought to the table," she says.
The nine communities participating in Youth Count!, including Boston, Cleveland, Houston, and Los Angeles, used a variety of tactics to improve their annual census of homeless kids. These included magnet events with free meals and activities; the use of social media; working closely with schools to identify and connect with kids who might be homeless but still attending class; and partnering with community organizations, including those that serve the larger LGBTQ population. One particularly effective approach was using young people as part of the outreach process. Not surprisingly, kids feel comfortable with other kids.
It's just a beginning, but the reports from participating cities say Youth Count! offers a pragmatic foundation for counting homeless kids. The Urban Institute is recommending that policy makers adopt the methods discussed in the report around the country.
Some are already experimenting. The city council of Washington, D.C., recently voted on legislation that would require shelters to provide dedicated beds for LGBTQ youth and to increase services for their specific needs. The bill, which won preliminary approval earlier this month, would also require the city to hold a census of LGBTQ kids every five years, an effort that could be informed by the Youth Count! pilot.
Cunningham hopes more cities take up the challenge of finding out how many homeless LGBTQ kids are on their streets. It's the first step to getting those youth the education, health, and housing they need. Part of that will entail better training of shelter workers and other providers. "Gay and transgender youth make up a large part of the homeless youth population," she says. "You need to make sure that you’re doing trainings around the issues they face, and providing services in a safe and affirming way."