2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the US “war on poverty” started by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964; the LGBT demographic is only just beginning to be studied, but what little data is available shows that compared to the general population, the LGBT community has a notably higher rate of poverty—and homelessness.
Being a white male provides enough social privilege in some cases to bridge the divide, leading to the stereotype of the affluent gay couple, but for women, people of color, and transgender people, being gay, bisexual, or otherwise queer leads to lower pay and higher rates of unemployment.
According to a 2013 report by the Williams Institute, a research branch in LA’s University of California Law School specializing in LGBT issues, one surprising find was that bisexual men and women respectively had poverty rates of 25.9 percent and 29.4 percent—while gay men and lesbians actually had lower poverty rates, at 20.5 percent and 22.7 percent.
Less surprising was the finds made by a joint study between the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011, which showed consistently high rates of poverty and homelessness in every state’s transgender population.
A transgender man himself, the Task Force’s senior policy counsel and director of the Trans Civil Rights Project, Kylar Broadus, told the Washington Blade, “There’s double the national rate of unemployment. And once we’re employed 90 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment and discrimination on the job.
“Forty-seven percent said they experienced adverse outcomes such as being fired, not hired or denied promotions because of being transgender or gender non-conforming.”
Discrimination was also a direct cause of homelessness, with transgender people not being specifically protecting against housing discrimination in most states. 19 percent of study respondents said they had been turned down for renting a house or apartment due to their gender identity or expression, and 11 percent said they had been evicted for the same reason.
Additionally, Broadus said, “Nineteen percent experienced homelessness at some point in their lives because they were transgender or didn’t conform as well, and then 55 percent were denied access to shelters.”
In June 2013, the city of San Francisco conducted its biennial homeless count; according to the San Francisco Chronicle, that year was the first time it included a question asking homeless people questions about sexual identity—and 29 percent said they identified as LGBT.
The director of the San Francisco-based AIDS Housing Alliance, Brian Bassinger, said the finding is partly a reflection of San Francisco’s already high LGBT population, estimated at 15 percent, but added that he thinks the figure among homeless people is actually higher than 29 percent. “LGBT people in the shelter system here are regularly targeted for violence, harassment and hate crimes, which are very well documented,” he told the Blade. Because homeless demographic counts are taken at shelters, he considers it likely that many LGBT people are missed in such censuses; they tend to avoid shelters due to fear of being harassed or attacked.
He also expressed concern that San Francisco’s increasing gentrification, which is driving the city’s already expensive real estate prices up even higher, may push even more people into poverty and homelessness—especially LGBT elders.
One of the co-authors of the 2013 Williams Institute report, senior fellow and University of Massachusetts professor Lee Badgett, told the Blade, “The people that I know who worked with LGBT people in poverty talk about the reasons being very complex.”
The Washington Blade also quoted the study as saying, “Identifying the conditions under which individuals and families descend into and escape from poverty will aid service organizations and government agencies in designing interventions to address this significant social problem.”
According to the report “A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color,” released in November 2013, “the basic American bargain is that people who work hard and meet their responsibilities should be able to get ahead,” but for too many, especially LGBT workers of color, “this bargain is in tatters,” due to “a combination of barriers.”
The report concludes that “advocates, employers and lawmakers can take steps to correct and mitigate the structural and legal inequalities that exist…It is time to show these workers that they and their families matter, and to show that our nation and our economy are stronger when we treat all workers fairly.”
One seemingly unlikely ally in that fight is Republican former Idaho governor Phil Batt, who was honored with the Idaho Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. During his speech, the 86-year-old said, “A homosexual who can’t rent a room or get a job because of his orientation doesn’t make any sense to anybody.
“Why some of the politicians are not more sensitive than that—more sensible, I should say, than that—beats me.”