Prizm News / March 1, 2019 / By Bob Vitale

LGBTQ youth are more at risk to become homeless and suffer from all the dangers that brings. More groups in Ohio are stepping up to do something about it, though.

By Bob Vitale

Three days a week, LGBTQ kids as young as 11 can drop by the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland to play video games, watch TV, do crafts and hang out.

At the Harvey House in Toledo, there are clothes in the closet for teens who want to change into something more comfortably aligned with their gender identity.

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In Dayton, the young men of the Mu Crew gather for monthly game nights, shopping trips, and the occasional dinner and a movie.

As trans, genderqueer, gender-nonconforming and questioning kids get to know each other at twice-weekly gatherings within the clubhouse-like Kaleidoscope Youth Center in Columbus, their parents gather to support each other as well.

In this era of queer proms and drag-queen story hours and gay-straight alliances, it seems in many ways that life has never been better for LGBTQ youth.

But that big, wide, welcoming world out there doesn’t mean much when the people inside your own home don’t want you there. We celebrate movies like “Love, Simon,” but reality for a sizable portion of our youngest generation has a much darker plot.

LGBTQ youth are 2.2 times more likely to find themselves without a home—sleeping outdoors, in a shelter or couch-surfing among friends—than their straight and cisgender peers, according to a 2017 study by the University of Chicago.

Executive Director Erin Upchurch and Housing Program Manager Heather Wise of Kaleidoscope Youth Center. (Prizm photo by Staley Munroe)

True Colors United, a national group cofounded by Cyndi Lauper, estimates that while 7 percent of all youth identify as part of the LGBTQ community, 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ.

“We know that queer youth are over-represented in homelessness,” says Erin Upchurch, executive director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, which is expanding into housing programs for its young participants.

For both trans youth and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bi or queer, family poverty is the least likely reason to be cited; most were kicked out of their homes or ran away from families that made homelife unbearable.

And once they’re out of their homes, Upchurch says, LGBTQ youth are less likely to seek help. “A lot of our young people don’t feel safe using the system. You have to be visibly affirming. Young people look for that.”

Melissa Meyer
Rebecca Callahan

Ohio gets middling marks on efforts to tackle the issue of youth homelessness. It has a plan, which in itself was worth enough points to put the state just about in the middle of a 2018 state-by-state assessment from True Colors United.

But Ohio doesn’t do much to address the unique circumstances of LGBTQ youth who are homeless, the report found. There’s nothing in the state’s plan that recognizes LGBTQ youth as having special fears or needs, and the state doesn’t require people working with homeless youth to undergo any type of training to boost LGBTQ cultural competency.

That doesn’t mean homeless LGBTQ youth are completely on their own, though. Across Ohio, community groups are creating their own programs, often with the help of state or federal funding.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County are part of an LGBTQ youth homelessness prevention pilot project begun by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama. It includes everything from educating families and service providers to building a network of volunteers who will take young adults into their homes as they get on their feet.

“It’s going to really overhaul the system of how we address youth homelessness in Cincinnati,” says Melissa Meyer, director of the initiative called Safe and Supported, which is run by Lighthouse Youth & Family Services. “No matter where a young person interacts with the system, they’re going to have a positive experience. They’re going to find that one supportive adult.”

Love Boldly, a Cincinnati-area group that works to break down stereotypes and divisions between the LGBTQ and conservative Christian communities, is part of an effort that helps families discuss issues that are at the heart of family divisions.

“Rejection is often based on religious beliefs, and this is for families who are really struggling,” Meyer says. “It’s not for families who would go to PFLAG meetings. We create a safe space where they can lay out on the table what they need to lay out on the table.”

The goal there is to keep young people safe at home with their families. But another segment of the homeless population of LGBTQ youth is those who reach adulthood without support from their families and lose eligibility for government assistance programs.

Lighthouse also coordinates a program of volunteers who will open their homes—“and hearts,” the agency says—to LGBTQ 18- to 24-year-olds who otherwise might be on the streets. Hosts provide shelter and food for up to a year, but another goal of the program is to create ties to the community for young adults just getting on their feet.

Hosts undergo training before they begin hosting; issues covered include conflict resolution, youth development, establishing boundaries and mentoring.

With help from the Columbus Foundation’s LGBTQ-focused Legacy Fund, Kaleidoscope Youth Center also is starting a Host Home Network this month in Central Ohio with an informational session for prospective volunteers. (Look for details at the end of this article.)

According to Upchurch, volunteers might house their guests from one night to several months. The 18- to 24-year-olds will get support services while they look for a permanent place to stay or work to reconcile with their families.

“This is the age group that’s most underserved,” Upchurch says. The benefit of staying in a host home, she says, is simple: “It’s community. It’s familial. It’s a home.”

A grant of more than $100,000 last year from the office of then-Attorney General Mike DeWine will help Kaleidoscope start another program designed to keep members of the same age group from becoming homeless. It will help them find a home, pay move-in costs or help with initial rent payments.

Participants—the effort will begin with the capacity to help five people—will get a case worker to help them become self-sufficient, says Heather Wise, who joined the agency in January as its new housing program manager.

Kaleidoscope raised $40,000 in just two months last fall to renovate and furnish a carriage house behind its Downtown Columbus center that will become housing for four young people by early 2020. The supportive co-housing program also will include case managers and educational services such as life skills and financial literacy.

In Akron, the LGBTQ community group called CANAPI addresses housing issues for LGBTQ youth and for people living with HIV.

In addition to paying for the first month’s rent for its clients who must be younger than age 25, the program for people in Summit and Portage counties pays for items such as bus passes, essentials and groceries.

It also helps young people make a budget.

“Everyone needs a safe haven, a safe space to call your own,” says CANAPI Executive Director Rebecca Callahan.

An estimated 171,000 homeless people in the United States are 24 years old or younger, which means more than 68,000 identify as LGBTQ if the 40 percent estimate is true.

Big percentages, according to research compiled by the National Coalition for LGBT Health, will abuse alcohol or other substances. More will experience depression and consider suicide. More will engage in “survival sex” to get food, shelter or money. More will contract HIV. More will be assaulted, attacked, raped or become victims of hate crimes.

“There are no silver bullets,” University of Chicago researchers concluded in their 2017 study of the issue. “But the efforts and investments to end youth homelessness are worth it.”

If you have a story you’d like to suggest for Prizm, contact Editor Bob Vitale at


Visit to read the University of Chicago’s research on youth homelessness in the United States.

Visit to read the organization’s research, analysis and assessment of Ohio’s efforts to address LGBTQ youth homelessness.

Cincinnati-based Lighthouse Youth & Family Services is celebrating 50 years in 2019. Visit for more about the organization or for information specifically about its Safe and Supported program for LGBTQ youth.

If you’re interested in being a volunteer in Kaleidoscope Youth Center’s new Host Home Network, attend an info session on Saturday, March 9 from noon-2 p.m. at the Martin Luther King Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, 1467 E. Long St., Columbus, 43203. Visit for more.

Bob Vitale
A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, Bob has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.