UW News

May 30, 2002

Homeless sexual minorities at greater risk for physical and sexual violence, mental illness, substance abuse

Homeless youths who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender have a perilous existence on the street. Compared to heterosexual homeless youth, they experience more physical and sexual violence, use more drugs and abuse them more frequently, have more sexual partners and have higher rates of mental illness, according to a new University of Washington study.

The study appears in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded the research.

“A lot of people believe homeless adolescents are on the street by their own choice. That usually isn’t the case,” said Bryan Cochran, lead author of the study and a UW doctoral student in psychology.

“Their lives are something of a revolving door. These youth grow up in horrendous family environments. At home there can be frequent physical and sexual abuse, and their parents often abuse alcohol and drugs. Life on the streets presents them with new challenges. But neither place is very hospitable.”

The subjects in the study — 84 sexual minorities and 84 straight youth, all homeless — were recruited as part of a larger Seattle Homeless Adolescent Research and Education Project. Subjects were 13 to 21 years old when interviewed.

The researchers found that sexual minorities reported being physically or sexually victimized on average by seven more people than did heterosexual homeless youth. Boys were more likely to have been abused in the past three months, but girls reported more incidents of abuse while they were homeless. Sexual minorities reported leaving home an average of 12 times compared to seven times for straight homeless youth.

The study showed sexual minorities had nearly twice as many sexual partners in their lives than did heterosexual homeless youth, 24 vs. 13. Both groups reported having unprotected sex about half the time. However, Cochran said, the important factor is who street youth are having sex with and sexual minorities may be more likely to be having sex with partners who have HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Many street youth are frequent drug users, but sexual minorities reported using 11 of 12 substances more frequently during the previous six months. Marijuana was the only substance that heterosexuals used more frequently, but it was the most widely used by both groups.

When it comes to mental health issues, Cochran said the “profile differences are striking” for homeless sexual minority youth. They are uniformly at greater risk than other homeless adolescents for psychological conditions that may require treatment, such as anxiety, stress, depression and delinquency. In addition, Cochran said their heavy substance abuse will exacerbate future psychological problems and they have a more difficult time dealing with their sexual identity than do heterosexual homeless youth.

“People tend to think homeless are an homogenous group. We are trying to show this isn’t true,” said co-author Ana Marie Cauce, a UW psychology professor. “There are different characteristics and pathways onto the street and what happens to groups when they are on the street. It is striking how vulnerable this group (sexual minorities) is.

“Street kids are not cute and cuddly. However, we sometimes lose sight of what a tough time adolescence can be. In the past we used to have the Army or the ability to “go west” for youth who were having a hard time making it in more traditional settings. But we don’t have these any more and I worry about these kids in the long term,” she said.

Cochran and Cauce said sexual minority street youth require intensified services, and that agencies and groups need to be aware of potential prejudice because this population has been exposed to so much rejection based on their sexual identity.

The study was multi-ethnic, with 53 percent of the subjects identifying themselves as white, 19 percent as American Indian or Alaskan native, 18 percent as black, 7 percent as Hispanic and 3 percent as Asian or Pacific Islander. Fifty-five percent were male. The overwhelming majority, 71 of 84, identified themselves as bisexual. Four females and eight males identified themselves as lesbian or gay, respectively, and one youth identified as transgender.

Nationally, the estimated number of homeless street youth ranges from 600,000 to 1.5 million. The number of sexual minorities among this population is unknown, although several studies estimate it at between 6 percent and 35 percent.

Other members of the research team were Angela Stewart, a UW doctoral student in psychology, and Joshua Ginzler, a research coordinator with the UW’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
For more information, contact Cochran at (206) 616-8548 or cochranb@u.washington.edu or Cauce at (206) 221-6130 or cauce@u.washington.edu