Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Gay, homeless teens at greater risk, study finds

Once they become homeless, young people are more likely to abuse substances, be the victims of physical abuse, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, experience mental health problems and engage in survival sex.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) youths are at even greater risk than their homeless heterosexual peers, according to research by Eugene Walls, an assistant professor at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work.

Walls collaborated with Pam Hancock (MSW ‘06) and Hope Wisneski (MSW ‘00) on the study — “Differentiating the Social Service Needs of Homeless Sexual Minority Youth from those of Non-homeless Sexual Minority Youth.” The article recently was published in the Journal of Children and Poverty.

Using survey results from 187 young people, the researchers found that homeless GBLT youth experience higher rates of harassment for their race, ethnicity and sexual orientation; perpetual fear at school; physical abuse by a partner; and physical or emotional abuse by a family member. 

The homeless young people had increased feelings of hopelessness and were more likely to engage in cutting behavior or attempt suicide. They also were more likely to carry weapons and miss school because they feel unsafe, had higher rates of previous arrest and were more likely to engage in unsafe sex.

The only area where homeless and non-homeless same-sex oriented teens had similar results was the use of vomiting or laxatives to lose weight.

“When you treat all youth the same, you don’t understand the different subsets,” says Wisneski, deputy executive director of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado. “We had a huge missing link.”

With data in hand, Wisneski now has staff going to schools to help encourage gay-straight alliances in the hope of warding off some of the additional risks GLBT teens face. The center also is partnering with organizations on homelessness and HIV prevention.

“Eugene [Walls] has shown us that gay-straight alliances are a protective safety factor,” she says.

Walls and Wisneski are already at work on a new study — examining tobacco use among sexual-minority youth — funded by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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