Creating Transgender-Affirming Homeless Service Agencies and Systems for Youth

“When you center the experience of the most marginalized, you create a system that better serves all.” – Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund

Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. This number is astonishingly high considering that the rate is only about 7% in the general youth population. Adequately serving LGBTQ homeless youth is an imperative, as is preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place. However, not all subgroups of the LGBTQ community have the same needs and face the same challenges.

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth on creating transgender-affirming systems for homeless youth. The webinar was presented by Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director of the True Colors Fund, and provided a wealth of information relevant to homeless-specific and other services.

Transgender can be used as an umbrella term that captures multiple experiences of having one’s self-identity not conform to traditional male/female gender labels (including gender-queer, gender non-conforming, and gender expansive identities). Transgender youth commonly become homeless or runaway as a result of conflict in the home, often related to their gender identity or gender expression. Transgender youth tend to be homeless longer than other youth and commonly experience: a lack of social support; significant mental and physical health problems; barriers to accessing housing and employment; and barriers to accessing gender transition supports and services.

Some key priorities for organizations looking to become more transgender affirming are to:

  • Develop inclusive policies, procedures, paperwork, and spaces, even if you have yet to serve a client that openly identifies as transgender;
  • Develop clear inclusion statements that include gender and apply to staff and clients;
  • Create programs that provide transgender clients with respite from an often unaccepting world; and
  • Think through timelines and program requirements when working with transgender clients to consider if they are appropriate.

In addition to these broad ideas, Jama discussed some of the challenges faced by transgender homeless youth, followed by suggested solutions for organizations to implement. I’ve summarized some of these below.


  • Not wanting to access services or shelter due to fear of being singled out, victimized, etc.
  • Service providers and programs that are uninformed and/or insensitive to transgender youths’ needs and experiences.
  • Staff/peers deliberately using incorrect names or pronouns.
  • Lack of access to appropriate restrooms and facilities.
  • Having to conform to dress codes that differ by gender.
  • Confidentiality concerns, such as being “outed” without consent.
  • Lack of appropriate role models.


  • Educate and train staff about the needs and experiences of transgender youth, and provide them with skills to effectively work with transgender clients, including consent and confidentiality processes.
  • Identify and familiarize staff about local community-based supports for transgender youth.
  • Include gender when thinking about organization/program staff diversity.
  • Record and use youth’s preferred name and correct pronouns.
  • Create all-gender communal bathrooms or gender-neutral single bathrooms.
  • Allow youth to dress in a way that matches their gender identity.
  • Offer gender-neutral clothing and avoid organizing clothing donations by gender.
  • Offer/identify transgender-specific support groups.

The True Colors Fund conducts community organizing, public awareness, policy advocacy, training, and research activities all aimed at the prevention and reduction of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. They also coordinate the Forty to None Network, a free online support community available to anyone who supports this mission.

Thank you to the New York Coalition for Homeless Youth for hosting this informative webinar. The Coalition is a statewide network of organizations that serve homeless and runaway youth, and this webinar is an example of the type of training providers are able to receive through their membership in the coalition. If you or your organization work with homeless or runaway youth in New York State, please consider joining the coalition.

Blog Post Author: Amanda Aykanian, Research and Project Lead at the National Center

University of Houston: Creating the Blueprint to Reduce LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

Alan Dettlaff, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, in partnership with the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, leads a new project to reduce homelessness among LGBTQ youth.file6171245785775

Of the estimated 1.6 to 1.7 million youth (ages 12 to 17) who experience homelessness each year, up to 40% identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or questioning (LGBTQ). These youth are also disproportionately youth of color. Practices have begun to emerge that have shown promise in responding to the needs of LGBTQ homeless youth. However, information on these practices has not been systematically collected, and no unifying practice models have emerged. To facilitate positive outcomes for LGBTQ homeless youth, additional information is needed on these emerging practices, as well as information on culturally responsive screening and assessment tools, training models for runaway and homeless youth (RHY) providers, and examples of policies and programs that facilitate LGBTQ homeless youth feeling safe, respected, and affirmed.

The 3/40 BLUEPRINT project will respond to these needs by developing a blueprint to reduce the 40% of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. This blueprint will build the capacity of Transitional Living Programs to serve LGBTQ homeless youth by strengthening their efforts to better understand and address the needs of this population. Specifically, the proposed project will conduct:

  • a systematic review of existing literature;
  • a comprehensive needs assessment; and
  • a systematic identification and analysis of screening and assessment tools, existing and emerging practices, and trainings available for RHY providers.

The project will be guided by the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Intervention Model and an Implementation Science framework to identify the core intervention components and core implementation drivers that are necessary to implement and sustain evidence-informed practices with LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. The project will also have a particular emphasis on identifying the unique needs of LGBTQ homeless youth of color and the promising strategies that respond to those needs.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, the University of Illinois at Chicago Jane Addams College of Social Work, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. A Technical Expert Group, consisting of leading experts in the RHY and LGBTQ fields, will provide ongoing consultation and input on all tasks. All efforts will also be coordinated with the Runaway and Homeless Youth Networks of Support, including the Runaway and Homeless Youth Training and Technical Assistance Center, the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, and the National Runaway Safeline.

Blog Post Author: Alan Dettlaff, PhD, Dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work