LGBTQ2 youth homelessness

by Dr. I Alex Abramovich

We have known about the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and two-Spirit (LGBTQ2) youth homelessness in Canada for over twenty years 1, but we have only recently started to have serious conversations about this problem nationally. This is an issue that has been neglected and left out of important dialogue on youth homelessness for far too long. As we welcome 2015, we need to make sure that we do not continue to have the same discussions, but that we begin to foster dialogue on strategies and solutions that will eliminate this critical social justice emergency.

It has been estimated that approximately 25 to 40 per cent of homeless youth in Canada identify as LGBTQ2 2. LGBTQ2 youth are overrepresented in the homeless youth population, but underrepresented in shelters, which is part of the reason that it is so difficult to scale the issue of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness. Additionally, shelters do not collect data on youths’ gender and sexual identities, making it even more difficult to measure the prevalence of queer and trans youth homelessness.

Barriers to homeless LGBTQ2 youth self-identifying

The latest round of the City of Toronto Street Needs Assessment (2013) included a question about LGBTQ2 identity, which was a result of a series of meetings that several others in the area of youth homelessness and myself had with city managers. For the very first time, their results confirmed that 21 per cent of youth in the shelter system identify as LGBTQ2, more than twice the rate for all age groups 3.

Although 21 per cent is high, we actually have reasons to believe that the prevalence of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Toronto is in fact higher. For example, many youth choose to not come out as queer or trans to volunteers conducting the survey, for a variety of reasons that often stem from issues regarding safety; and countless LGBTQ2 youth did not have a chance to complete the survey because they are part of Toronto’s hidden homeless population and do not access services, also due to issues regarding homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system and drop-in programs.

Transgender youth in the shelter system

Transgender youth, especially transgender women of colour, are often the most underrepresented group of people in the shelter system and the most discriminated against group of people because not only are they dealing with transphobia, but also racism, and oftentimes, homophobia as well. Intersectionality and the issue of intersecting oppressions is very real for this population of youth, because it is such a diverse community, and youth are often oppressed on different levels.

Even though shelters are supposed to be accessible to trans and two-Spirit residents, in their self-defined gender; unfortunately, this is not always the case. The floor that a person will be placed on in a shelter has more to do with the staff’s perception of a person’s sex and less to do with how an individual actually identifies, which of course, is highly problematic because not all individuals’ gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Although we know this, still there are no dedicated emergency shelters or transitional housing projects for LGBTQ2 youth in Canada.

Homeless LGBTQ2 youth and criminal victimization

We also know that LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness face increased risk of physical and sexual exploitation, mental health difficulties, substance use, suicide, and criminal victimization.

Homeless youth experience significantly higher rates of criminal victimization than housed youth 4. These rates are higher again for LGBTQ2 youth, who are frequently victimized, ridiculed, and beaten up on the streets and in the shelter system simply for their gender and/or sexual identity 5 6

However, the public discourse on crime and homelessness tends to revolve around homeless youth as perpetrators of crime, rather than victims of crime 7. Street life is dangerous and can be extremely harmful, particularly for youth. The stressful and difficult circumstances of street life create significant challenges to youths’ mental, emotional, and physical health 8.

My research on LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Canada

My work has looked closely at the phenomenon of LGBTQ2 youth homelessness in Canada for almost 10 years. My PhD study focused on the denial of home and safety to queer and trans youth. Over approximately two years, different groups of people came together to discuss what is holding up and sustaining the homophobia and transphobia in the shelter system, how homophobia and transphobia occurs and is managed in the shelter system, and how broader policy issues serve to create oppressive contexts for LGBTQ2 youth. I pursued this study because it is a missing element in Canadian research and it is an issue that I am very passionate about, and is both personal and political for me. In my study, I found that service providers offering support to homeless youth are not fully equipped or prepared to deal with situations of homophobia and transphobia 9.

Factors such as institutional erasure, homophobic and transphobic violence that is rarely dealt with, and discrimination make it difficult for LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness to access the shelter system, therefore, queer and trans youth often feel safer on the streets than in shelters and support services. This study has suggested that it is both the excessive bureaucratic regulation and the lack of necessary bureaucratic regulation in highly significant areas, that play a key role in creating the disjunctures that occur for queer and trans youth in the shelter system.

Looking ahead

This research study made it possible for the voices of LGBTQ2 homeless youth to be heard in the context of a serious public health problem. It also successfully engaged the community and situated homeless youth as knowledge makers and creators, who are the experts of their own experiences. This work has offered evidence that has been used to implement changes to existing services and policies so that the appropriate support can be made available to LGBTQ2 youth experiencing homelessness.

The Government of Alberta has recognized that ending youth homelessness will require targeted responses for specific subpopulations, which will include critical attention on meeting the needs of LGBTQ2 youth. Over the next 6 months, I will work closely with Alberta Human Services and stakeholders across Alberta to create strategies that can be adopted by youth support services and shelters across the province of Alberta. It is my hope that other provinces across the country will follow Alberta’s lead and begin prioritizing this population of young people, whom have been neglected for much too long.

It has taken many years of advocacy and activism for this issue to gain any recognition. It has taken a lot of hard work to convince decision makers that LGBTQ2 youth homelessness is a serious issue that must be prioritized.

In 2015, let’s change the way that we approach this issue in Ontario, and let’s work towards strategies that will lead to solutions, so that all young people can receive the support that they require.

Dr. I Alex Abramovich has been working in the area of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and queer (LGBTQ) youth homelessness for almost 10 years. Alex is a nationally recognized leader in the area of LGBTQ youth homelessness and is one of few Canadian researchers studying the phenomenon of queer and trans youth homelessness.

Alex currently works at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in the Community Based Research Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, where he is leading a study that focuses on LGBTQ2 youth homelessness and access to mental health services.


  1. O’Brien, C. A., Travers, R., & Bell, L.  (1993).  No safe bed: Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in residential services.  Toronto, ON:  Central Toronto Youth Services.
  2. Josephson, G. & Wright, A.  (2000).  Ottawa GLBT wellness project: Literature review and survey instruments. Retrieved from http://www.homelesshub.ca/Library/Literature-Review-and-Survey-Instruments-54233.aspx
  3. City of Toronto.  (2013).  Interim report: 2013 Street Needs Assessment.  Retrieved from http://www.toronto.ca/housing/SNA2013interim_report.htm
  4. Abramovich, I.A. (2013). No Fixed Address: Young, Queer, and Restless. In. Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Buccieri, K., Karabanow, J., & Marsolais, A. (Eds.), Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.
  5. Dunne, G. A., Prendergast, S., & Telford, D.  (2002).  Young, gay, homeless and invisible: A growing population?  Culture, Health & Sexuality, Dunne, G. A., Prendergast, S., & Telford, D.  (2002).  Young, gay, homeless and invisible: A growing population?  Culture, Health & Sexuality,  4(1), 103-115
  6. Van Leeuwen, J. M., Boyle, S., Salomonsen-Sautel, S., Baker, N., Garcia, J. T., Hoffman, A., & Hopfer, C. J.  (2006).  Lesbian, gay, and bisexual homeless youth: An eight-city public health perspective.  Child Welfare, 85(2), 151-170. 
  7. Gaetz, S.  (2004).  Safe streets for whom? Homeless youth, social exclusion, and criminal victimization.  Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 46(6), pp. 423-455
  8. Kelly, K., & Caputo, T. C.  (2007).  Health and street/homeless youth.  Journal of Health Psychology, 12(5), 726-736.
  9. Abramovich, I.A. (2013). No Fixed Address: Young, Queer, and Restless. In. Gaetz, S., O’Grady, B., Buccieri, K., Karabanow, J., & Marsolais, A. (Eds.), Youth Homelessness in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice. Toronto: Canadian Homelessness Research Network Press.