Many LGBT homeless youth sell sex to survive on the streets, report says

Many homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youth are likely to engage in 'survival sex' in order to pay for food or shelter, according to a new federally funded study by the Urban Institute.

Will Anderson/AP
People sit in Hudson River Park in New York. A new study offers a detailed look at the lives of gay, lesbian and transgender youth who cope with homelessness and poverty by engaging in "survival sex." Researchers say this is one of the sites where their study participants met clients.

Many homeless youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are likely to engage in “survival sex” in order to stay alive on the streets or in homeless shelters, according to a new study.

The federally funded study by the Urban Institute, which was conducted over three years, included in-depth interviews with 283 young people in New York City, most of them 15 to 21 years old.

“The information they shared paints a vivid picture of how they survive in the face of adversity, often dealing with issues rooted in poverty, homophobia, transphobia, racism, child abuse, and criminalization,” the report states.

For many, selling sex to survive comes at a time of alienation when questions of sexual orientation and gender identity are still being resolved – questions that much of society finds difficult, if not impossible, to relate to.

Among the key findings:

  • Such youth are likely to have experienced family rejection, physical or sexual abuse, and other causes of mental and emotional trauma.
  • Young people might be recruited by an exploiter, but then eventually trade sex independently for money in order to pay such basic needs as food and shelter.
  • They experience frequent arrest for various misdemeanor crimes, creating further instability and perpetuating a reliance on survival sex.
  • Many of those interviewed report disappointing or frustrating experiences with social service systems and providers, which often fail to meet their need for safe housing, reliable income, and adequate mental and physical health care.

Some of the young people interviewed by the Urban Institute “experience violence at the hands of staff and clients at social service organizations and other locations that are intended to be safe.”

Still, researchers found, such youth are “extremely resilient” in the face of external challenges as well as sexual and gender identity issues.

"They find ways to survive, often relying on their informal networks, street savvy, and quick learning abilities to share resources and skills and to adapt to difficult and often dangerous situations," the report states. For some, that means carrying weapons, including knives and Mace.

“These are kids in very desperate situations who will do what they need to do to be able to survive,” Meredith Dank, the report's lead author, told the Associated Press.

Given that much of this activity is in the shadows of urban life, hard figures can be elusive.

But a study by Boston Children’s Hospital, published online by the American Journal of Public Health, finds that 1 in 4 gay and lesbian high school students are homeless, compared with 3 percent of heterosexual teens. Another study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law finds that 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBT.

Meanwhile, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the percentage of young runaways who likely became victims of sex trafficking has been edging up – from one in seven in 2013 to one in six in 2014 – and 68 percent of these likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social service agencies or foster care when they ran.

The NCMEC cites estimates showing that 30 percent of shelter youth and 70 percent of street youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

In New York City earlier this month, city officials and youth advocates gathered to protest what they said was a two-thirds cut in youth homeless shelters since 2008.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman noted over 5,000 instances in 2012 where teenagers were turned away from shelters due to a lack of beds, a large increase over the 573 that were turned away in 2008, the Gothamist city blog reported.

"It's unconscionable that thousands of kids struggle each year to find a safe place to sleep," Senator Hoylman said.

Founded in 1968, the Urban Institute is a social and economic policy research organization in Washington funded by government contracts, foundations and private donors. The new study on LGBT youth engaging in “survival sex” was funded by the US Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

If you or someone you know have been a victim of sex trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to BeFree (233733).

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