UA Little Rock researchers explore challenges faced by homeless LGBTQ adults in Arkansas

UALR sign at the entrance on S. University Dr near University Plaza on January 28, 2016.

Criminal justice researchers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock are investigating the unique challenges and barriers faced by homeless LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) adults in Arkansas.

LGBTQ adults experience a number of negative obstacles in life, such as discrimination, stigmatization, and victimization, that make the population especially vulnerable to experiencing homelessness. Compared to heterosexual adults, LGBTQ individuals are more likely to become homeless either through voluntarily leaving or being kicked out of their home.

The purpose of the study is to examine the experiences of homeless LGBTQ adults throughout Arkansas and to understand the ability of this population to obtain resources, experiences with agencies and shelters, instances of victimization, and self-identity changes while homeless.

“It’s an area that is under-researched in our region,” said Dr. Tusty ten Bensel, director of the School of Criminal Justice. “Because of the recent political climate, it’s very important and relevant that we understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ adults and give a voice to marginalized groups in our community and find ways to support them.”

The study started out as a thesis research project for Trye Price, a doctoral student in criminal justice at UA Little Rock who interviewed nine people for his study.

“Victimology is my main area of research. LGBTQ people are often impacted by many issues, and homelessness is an issue that pops up often,” Price said. “I engaged in the homeless literature and found some gaps that I knew I could explore in my thesis. A lot of literature focuses on youth and young adults. I wanted to follow up on this research in the South as some Southern states are known to have more religious ideologies and conservative ideas that fuel legislative agendas. I wanted to see how being in a Southern state affected LGBTQ homeless adults.”

Members of the LGBTQ+ community who are homeless are more likely to face discrimination, stigmatization, and victimization than their heterosexual counterparts. Research shows that between 5-30 percent of LGBTQ+ adults are homeless, and they are four to 13 times more likely to become homeless than heterosexual individuals.

A common factor that often leads to homelessness for LGBTQ adults is a rejection by family members. Participants stated that they experienced verbal and physical abuse after telling family members about their sexual orientation/gender identity, and they were either kicked out of their homes or chose to leave to escape the abuse.

“One of the consistent themes you find for LGBTQ individuals is that they are likely to experience familial rejection,” Price said. “They are often affected by instances of homophobia or transphobia and physical, verbal, or sexual victimization. Poor families often have a greater chance of familial rejection. With these experiences, they are forcefully removed from their home and have to go out on their own. They are tired of their living arrangement and leave voluntarily and enter the streets.”

The study found that the obstacles that LGBTQ face in exiting homelessness are employment issues, housing, and emotional difficulties. Gaining stable employment as a homeless person can be difficult without a permanent address, social security card, and birth certificate. Homeless LGBTQ adults may have a difficult time gaining access to these documents if they were kicked out of their home by a family member and probably do not have the funds needed to purchase copies of important documents. Once they become homeless, LBGTQ adults are especially prone to problems that make it difficult to exit homelessness.

“Let’s say a kid leaves home. Generally, they have social capital or ties to relatives and friends to give them resources,” Price said. “With homelessness, those ties are weakened. With LGBTQ homeless adults, they are going into the streets with little or nothing. They have poor experiences with family and friends. They have nowhere to go and no one to rely on for food, shelter, and medicine. Other populations often target them. Even here in Little Rock, our participants talked about being targeted by other homeless people and being harassed for being LGBTQ.”

In the study, the majority of the participants experienced verbal and physical abuse from other homeless people in Little Rock.

“While walking around, they would talk about how other homeless people would target them and yell out homophobic remarks,” Price said. “They talked about how they would have to take protective measures, like carrying a knife or pepper spray, and change their routines, like walking different routes, to protect themselves from other homeless people.”

Participants also described how difficult it can be for LGBTQ adults to find resources in the state. Arkansas has only a few agencies that focus on assisting LGBTQ people, such as Lucie’s Place. Because the agency does not have steady federal funding and is supported by donations and fundraisers, the agency is limited in the ability to provide resources. Homeless LGBTQ adults often need additional resources or services such as counseling, separate living quarters, and hormone therapy referrals.

If a person is able to escape homelessness, Price noted LGBTQ adults are likely to face multiple episodes of homelessness.

“They were able to find ways to escape homeless through distant family members or romantic relationships, but they eventually came back out on the streets,” Price said. “They are not able to obtain enough social capital, wealth, or employment to avoid homelessness. This shows how prevalent the issue is for LGBTQ people.”

Price and ten Bensel plan to conduct an expanded study to further explore these results. The coronavirus delayed the start of the new study, but Price and ten Bensel plan to begin interviewing participants for an expanded study later this year.

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