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Faculty Profile: Dr. Maurice Gattis on LGBTQ Youth Homelessness

November 29, 2023

Upward of 4.2 million youth and young adults struggle with homelessness each year in the United States, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These unhoused young people often experience discrimination and stigma, abuse and barriers to accessing necessities such as food, safety, sanitation and health care. 

For youth who also experience oppression or marginalization in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, experiencing housing instability and homelessness can be especially dangerous. 

Dr. Maurice N. Gattis, associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) School of Social Work, has made it his mission to support LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness by leveraging academic resources.

He explains that in the past decade, academics and advocates have made great strides in not only studying and understanding youth homelessness but also taking action to combat it. 

“We’ve shifted from examining the problem and thinking about outcomes,” Gattis says. “Now we have actual interventions. We are going to test them and see what the outcomes are.” 

What factors contribute to youth homelessness, and how are professionals like Gattis supporting vulnerable young people and promoting systemic changes to make stable housing a reality for everyone?

How Gattis Wove a Meaningful Career Addressing LGBTQ Youth Homelessness 

Gattis’ professional journey to his role as an academic researcher and social advocate has been a winding road—from a college student interested in social work to a two-time Fulbright scholar and co-founder of multiple organizations aimed at ending youth homelessness. 

Undergraduate Dreams to First-Job Blues

Gattis began his studies as a sociology major at Emory University and was originally dissuaded from pursuing social work by a trusted professor. “ ‘You’re going to be overworked and underpaid,’ ” he recalls one of his mentors warning him during senior year. 

In response, Gattis took a more lucrative job post-graduation in public relations at a renowned PR firm, Ruder Finn, in New York City. During his two-year tenure, Gattis found professional success but not deep fulfillment. 

“I was promoted and I was on a career track, but I would leave the office every day very concerned about people in New York City who I saw didn’t have places to live,” Gattis says. During this time, he became interested in workplace policies around race and racial equity—a thread that would interweave with his future academic work. 

Graduate Student to Fulbright Awardee             

Sparked by a calling to do something about the homelessness he confronted on a daily basis, Gattis enrolled in a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program at Columbia University. In an advocacy course, students created an intervention for a specific population. Gattis chose unsheltered LGBTQ youth. 

Gattis continued researching homelessness among LGBTQ youth—a chronically understudied area—at Washington University in St. Louis, where his dissertation was funded by a Fulbright scholarship to Canada. It was the beginning of an academic career rooted in praxis—applying theoretical lenses to urgent real-world issues.

Academic to Advocate               

Since then, Gattis has published and co-authored over 20 articles related to various subjects: 

  • Youth homelessness
  • Unique challenges experienced by Black and LGBTQ individuals, survivors of sex trafficking and members of other minority groups who become homeless
  • Health disparities
  • How discrimination and other contextual factors produce negative outcomes, such as substance misuse
  • Adolescent risk behaviors in the U.S., Canada and South Africa
  • Intervention programs that seek to support unsheltered youth

Beyond an impressive body of scholarly work, Gattis devotes his time to practical, on-the-ground advocacy initiatives. He co-founded Sweet Evening Breeze, an LGBTQ+-affirming nonprofit combatting youth homelessness, and the Center for Youth-Engaged Research to Prevent and End Youth Homelessness at the VCU School of Social Work. 

He also lends his academic and public relations skills to creative endeavors, such as his clothing line, Fort Mosé 1738, inspired by the first free Black settlement legally sanctioned in what would become the United States of America. 

Studying Youth Homelessness: Statistics and Categories of Homelessness

As prevalent as it is, homelessness among young people is a largely misunderstood phenomenon. Precise statistics on the number of youth and young adults who experience homelessness in the U.S. are hard to come by. “We don’t have great national, generalizable data,” Gattis explains. 

One reason for the dearth of data is that housing instability tends to be cyclical. A teenager may be kicked out of their house and live on the street for a few nights, sleep on a friend’s couch for a month, and then find themselves back on the street the next month, for example. 

Another issue is protecting youth privacy. Whereas many states require adults to supply their demographic information before receiving housing security services, youth under the age of 18 are often exempt from this requirement. Furthermore, youth who have become homeless due to domestic violence, homophobia or transphobia may hesitate to participate in a voluntary youth count out of fear for their safety. 

The U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on homelessness either. Instead, Gattis explains, the nation relies on data collected piecemeal by local and state social service providers and volunteers via emergency shelters, transitional housing units, safe havens and out-of-doors locations. 

How Many Youth and Young Adults Experience Homelessness?

Getting an accurate count of the percentage of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness has become challenging since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, the most comprehensive national survey studying youth homelessness, the Voices of Youth Count, found that from 2016 through 2017, more than 3 percent of teenagers ages 13 to 17 and 10 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 experienced homelessness. 

Youth (Ages 13 to 17) Experiencing Homelessness

Most homeless youths felt unsafe during the year they experienced some form of homelessness, according to the Voices of Youth Count. Around 72 percent of youth who slept on the streets or in shelters also couch-surfed at friends’ houses, neighbors’ apartments and distant family’s residences—suggesting inadequate social support networks to keep youth housed safely and consistently. 

Tragically, around 33 percent of homeless youths experienced the death of a caregiver or parent the year they experienced homelessness, according to the survey. 

Young Adults (Ages 18 to 25) Experiencing Homelessness

The Voices of Youth Count found similar rates of homelessness among young adults living in rural and urban counties. 

Among these, 29 percent of young adults facing homelessness were enrolled in college or educational programs that same year—suggesting that professors and higher education administrators can be the first line of support for young adults at risk for homelessness.

Homelessness Experienced by LGBTQ Youth

Around 28 percent of LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness or housing instability at some point, according to the 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health report by the Trevor Project.

The details of the report are sobering and illustrate why LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among young people experiencing housing instability in the U.S. LGBTQ youth responding to the survey reported above-average experiences of housing instability over the course of their lives compared with their straight and/or cisgender peers:

  • 14 out of 100 LGBTQ youth have been abandoned or kicked out by their parents or caregivers at some point in their lives, causing them to sleep away from their guardians; 40 percent reported that their housing instability was due to a parent or caregiver’s rejection of their LGBTQ identity. 
  • 16 out of 100 LGBTQ youth have run away from home, with 55 percent reporting that they feared mistreatment due to their LGBTQ identity.
  • Transgender youth experience even higher rates of homelessness and housing instability. The report found that 23 out of every 100 cisgender LGBTQ youth faced some form of homelessness or housing instability compared with:
    • 38 out of every 100 transgender girls/women
    • 39 out of every 100 transgender boys/men
    • 35 out of every 100 nonbinary youth
  • Interlocking oppression on the basis of race and sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression significantly increases the risk of housing insecurity or homelessness for LGBTQ youth. The percentages of youth who have experienced housing instability or homelessness at some point were as follows:
    • 44 percent of Native/Indigenous LGBTQ youth 
    • 36 percent of multiracial LGBTQ youth 
    • 27 percent of Latino LGBTQ youth
    • 27 percent of white LGBTQ youth
    • 26 percent of Black LGBTQ youth
    • 16 percent of Asian American/Pacific Islander LGBTQ youth

Homophobia and Transphobia as Barriers to Safe Housing Globally

While there are methodological challenges to accounting for the exact numbers of LGBTQ youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in the U.S., Gattis says discrimination and oppression are all-too-common issues that LGBTQ individuals face across the country—and they pose unique stressors to LGBTQ young people attempting to break out of the housing instability cycle.

Gattis also finds that discrimination, harassment and oppression on the basis of gender identity, expression and sexual orientation are not unique to the U.S.; his work in Canada and South Africa corroborates that this is a global issue. 

Four Categories of Homelessness 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) distinguishes between four types of homelessness:

1. Literally Homeless People

Literally homeless people lack stable and adequate nighttime residence. These individuals and families fall into one of three subcategories:

  • Those whose primary nighttime residence is not designed for human habitation (such as a park bench)
  • Those who are living in a temporary living arrangement such as a homeless shelter, congregate shelter, transitional housing unit, or hotel/motel room paid for by a public organization or private charitable organization
  • Those who are exiting a site where they have resided for no more than 90 days and previously resided in a place that was unfit for human habitation or an emergency shelter

2. Imminent Risk of Homelessness

People at imminent risk of homelessness include individuals and families who are within 14 days of losing their housing (whether rented, owned, shared, or lived in without rent or mortgage payments). 

Individuals at imminent risk of homelessness lack the resources—including income or savings and social support networks—to obtain permanent housing after their change in residence. 

3. Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes

Unaccompanied youth (individuals not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian) under the age of 25 with special needs and barriers to persistent housing instability may also be classified as homeless by federal statutes. 

Families with youth under 25 facing the same challenges may also fall under this category. 

4. Fleeing Domestic Violence

A person or group who lacks resources to obtain permanent housing and who has no safe primary nighttime residence free from threats of domestic violence is also classified as homeless, according to the HUD Continuum of Care (CoC) program. 

Understanding Youth Homelessness: Risk Factors, Housing Insecurity and the Cycle of Homelessness

Numerous risk factors contribute to housing insecurity among vulnerable youth and young adults, complicating the response to this crisis. Understanding these risk factors is crucial to breaking the cycle of homelessness among young people.

Risk Factors and Adverse Childhood Experiences 

Youth and young adults who experience homelessness tend to face hardships and/or tragic circumstances prior to becoming homeless. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as potentially traumatic events that occur during childhood (0-17 years)—are common. Factors that correlate with a higher risk of youth homelessness include:

  • Poor parental mental health
  • Addiction and substance misuse (in the youth or in a close family member)
  • Domestic violence
  • Trauma
  • Grief and personal loss (such as the death of a parent or caregiver)
  • Incomplete or fragmented secondary education (inability to graduate high school or earn a GED certificate)
  • Raising a child as an unmarried youth parent
  • Financial instability
  • Experiencing homophobia or transphobia
  • Experiencing racism and/or oppression based on ethnicity or colorism
  • Experiencing xenophobia and/or oppression or discrimination based on the language spoken at home

Homelessness Among Minority Youth

The National Alliance to End Homelessness, citing HUD’s “Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress” published in 2020, reported that among adults (including young adults) who experienced homelessness:

  • More than 40 percent are Black, despite Black people making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Native Hawaiians, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Pacific Islanders and people who identify as two or more races also experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate compared with the general population. 
  • Hispanic people also are overrepresented among the homeless population relative to the general population. 
  • According to estimates of the number of people experiencing homelessness per 10,000 people in a population, the number of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders experiencing homelessness is the highest (over 159 people per 10,000), followed by American Indian/Alaska Native (over 66 people per 10,000 people) and then Black (55 per 10,000), compared with the white population (over 11 per 10,000). 

Providing LGBTQ Youth with Stable Housing 

LGBTQ youth face disproportionate risks of housing insecurity and homelessness. Social work leaders, including Gattis, are working to establish guardrails to prevent LGBTQ homelessness and provide services to support LGBTQ youth who experience housing instability and homelessness, with the ultimate goal of getting them back into secure, stable housing. 

Support Prevention

LGBTQ youth are at a greater risk for homelessness when they become disconnected from school and community. Strong anti-bullying policies in schools, trauma-informed teacher training and LGBTQ-affirming health services all play a part in creating social safety nets for youth at risk for experiencing homelessness. 

Mediation programs and family counseling may also help LGBTQ youth navigate conversations around gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation with their families of origin, caregivers and foster parents. 

For LGBTQ youth in foster care, skillful case management and exit planning for youth exiting foster care may also be crucial for keeping LGBTQ youth housed. 

Anti-discrimination policies in the workplace can help establish a safe space for LGBTQ young people to earn a living wage and develop marketable skills to help them weather financial obstacles that could lead to insecure housing or homelessness.

Advance Anti-Poverty Policies

Economic instability is not the cause of all homelessness, but LGBTQ youth are undoubtedly affected by the financial contexts of their families and communities. Economic pressure exertedfoisted on low-income households can cause undue, unhealthy stress and strain relationships between family members and friends struggling to meet their basic needs. 

Policies at the local, state and federal levels to reduce and prevent poverty can improve LGBTQ youth’s access to safe, secure housing. 

Expand Shelter Services, Housing Facilities and Holistic Service Delivery 

A key way to support people experiencing homelessness is to provide what they need—a home. 

Organizations across the nation—including nonprofits, local governments and university-funded outreach programs—have the tools and resources to design and implement creative housing solutions that end homelessness. 

Gattis and Dr. M. Alex Wagaman, a fellow associate professor for the VCU School of Social Work, are currently leading an intervention through a Virginia Housing Trust Fund grant to implement a shared housing model with 20 youth and young adults, including people who identify as LGBTQ and those who are pregnant or parenting. 

Gattis said this project explores important questions. “What does it mean to follow 20 young people over a year and pay their rent, pay their utilities, provide support, provide mental health care, provide payments for arrears, provide legal support, provide doula services, [and] provide peer navigation? How does that actually impact the young people who are experiencing homelessness?”

The hope is that, if successful, Gattis’ and Wagaman’s shared housing model can be replicated across the state of Virginia, and perhaps elsewhere. 

Provide Trauma-Informed Services for Youth and Young Adults Experiencing Homelessness

Gattis and his colleagues recently studied the responses of 119 youth experiencing homelessness, ages 12 to 25, living in southern Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky. Published in 2022 by the Journal of Human Trafficking, their study found that 100 percent of the respondents reported experiencing at least one adverse childhood experienceACE, and around 52 percent had experienced five or more ACEs. 

Significantly, 70 percent of all youth who were survivors of human trafficking reported having experienced five or more ACEs, with the childhood experiences most strongly correlating to sex trafficking being:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect

Gattis and his colleagues concluded that social service workers must undergo trauma-informed training to understand and support homeless youth who may be at risk for sex trafficking or who are currently being trafficked, including LGBTQ youth. 

Do Your Part to End Youth Homelessness and Create Stability for Vulnerable Groups

LGBTQ youth face unique, compounding stressors that put them at greater risk for homelessness and make it more difficult to secure stable housing once they’re trapped in the homelessness cycle. 

Transphobia, homophobia, sexism and other forms of discrimination and oppression on the basis of gender identity, gender expression and sexuality all contribute to a context of unsafety for LGBTQ youth navigating the housing system. Risks of homelessness are worse for people who also experience racism, xenophobia, and other forms of race or ethnicity-based discrimination and harassment. 

Associate social work professor Maurice N. Gattis leads by example, showing students in the Master of Social Work Program at Virginia Commonwealth University the many ways they can support LGBTQ youth through research and advocacy. 

Center for American Progress, “The Trump Administration’s Latest Attack on Transgender People Facing Homelessness”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences”

Children & Schools, “The Role of Schools in Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness: Perceptions of School Staff”

Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, “Suicidal Ideation and Behavior Among Youth Victims of Sex Trafficking in Kentuckiana”

HUD Exchange, Four Categories of the Homeless Definition

Journal of Clinical Psychology, “The Minority Strengths Model”

Journal of Human Trafficking, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Homelessness”

Journal of Human Trafficking, “LGBTQ+ Homeless Young Adults and Sex Trafficking Vulnerability”

Journal of Negro Education, “Paying It Forward: The Role of Senior Black Faculty in Preparing Junior Faculty and Black Doctoral Students for Career Success”

The Journal of Sex Research, “Health, Homelessness Severity, and Substance Use Among Sexual Minority Youth Experiencing Homelessness”

National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Racial Inequalities in Homelessness, by the Numbers”

NBC News, “Coronavirus Pandemic a Perfect Storm for LGBTQ Homeless Youth”

Social Work Research, “Perceived Microaggressions and Mental Health in a Sample of Black Youths Experiencing Homelessness”

SWHelper, “The Causes, Risks, and Solutions for LGBTQ+ Youth Homelessness”

Time, “The Ballroom Scene Has Long Offered Radical Freedoms for Black and Brown Queer People. Today, That Matters More Than Ever”

The Trevor Project, “Homelessness and Housing Instability Among LGBTQ Youth”

True Colors United, Racial Equity Toolkit

True Colors United, Youth Action Toolkit

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress

VCU iCubed, “Intersections in the Lives of LGBTQIA+ Communities”

VCU News, “VCU-led Project to Reduce Homelessness Among LGBTQ+ Youth, Pregnant and Parenting Youth Receives Major Grant”

Voices of Youth Count, Evidence Summary: Individual Counseling and Related Interventions for Youth Homelessness

Voices of Youth Count, Evidence Summary: Interventions to Prevent Youth Homelessness

Voices of Youth Count, Evidence Summary: Outreach Interventions for Youth Homelessness

Voices of Youth Count, Evidence Summary: Shelter and Housing Interventions for Youth Homelessness