Data can play an important role in addressing disparities and social problems. This is uniquely true in the area of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) youth and their economic vulnerabilities, including homelessness. At the least, research highlighting the demographic composition and experiences of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness can highlight LGBTQ subpopulations and counter claims that they are not among the youth who need services. At its best, research and data provide systematic information in order to better understand how sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression matter in the pathways to entering homelessness and barriers to exiting homelessness permanently. Such information can then accurately inform public policies and service delivery.
When we talk about “Data Sources” in the field of LGBTQ youth homelessness and human services, there are three main spheres of data that we should keep in mind:
Organizational and Provider Administrative Data
A primary source of data in the field of youth homelessness is the information collected by the human services agencies that provide direct services to these communities. This information, which includes data collected through intake forms or derived from case management notes, can be used to describe the populations of youth, including LGBTQ youth, who access services. A potential limitation is that it may not be possible to correctly account for youth who access services multiple times if the data are de-identified.  Despite the potential for administrative data collection, according to a study conducted in 2014 of runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) program grantees, not all RHY grantees collected data on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and among those who did, data collection was not standardized . With this correction, the RHY repository could be the most comprehensive and integrated data collection of homeless youth, including gender and sexual minority youth. Integrating data collection on these variables, particularly if done so in a standardized format that is endorsed and required through the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS), is likely to be useful for informing local programming and national policy decisions.
Government-endorsed Homelessness Census
In contrast to data collected only from or about those who access services, data are also collected as part of the Point-in-time (PIT) counts implemented by Continuum of Care (COC) Homeless Assistance programs through the U.S. Department of Housing and Development. The PIT counts provide a national estimate of the entire population of people experiencing homelessness but have been criticized for using a narrow definition of homelessness, particularly for missing youth who often want to remain hidden, are couch surfing, or trading sex for a place to sleep. [3, 4]
To address these issues, a federal interagency working group established the Youth Count! Initiative in 2012. Nine pilot sites throughout the U.S. used a variety of data collection strategies aimed at doing a better job of counting homeless youth in conjunction with COC’s annual PIT count. LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness were identified as a priority subgroup for the Youth Count! Initiative. Six pilot sites collected data on sexual orientation and gender identity. Overall, a total 19% of the counted youth identified as LGB, but site-specific estimates ranged from 10% to 43%.  Some of this variation may be due to the fact that each site used a different data collection approach and different items to measure sexual orientation and gender identity. 
Original Data Collection for Research Purposes
Research conducted by social or medical scientists on the demographics and experiences of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness is another source of data. The primary distinctions between empirical research and other forms of data collection are the aims and sampling strategies. Empirical research tends to focus on describing a population or an issue in the interest of furthering scientific knowledge and general understanding. Sampling strategies (i.e., identifying the population from which participants are sampled or selected) are chosen based on the ability to make claims about the study’s application to general theory or to other individuals not in the study (i.e., generalizability). These approaches often include selecting a broad range of participants including examples of “negative cases” whose experiences are contrary to common advocacy claims in order to provide a balanced or complete picture of the population or issue. Many scholars have been doing work focused, at least in part, on the experiences of homeless LGBTQ youth, including Drs. Mary Rotheram-Borus, Margaret Rosario, and H. Daniel Castellanos.
The Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law, is dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy. The Williams Institute has published several reports on LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness from organizational perspectives, including Serving Our Youth (2015; 2012) and Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Homeless Youth (2014) reports, as well as multiple reports on data collection among LGBTQ youth in other systems (e.g., child welfare, schools, social services). The Institute also edited and co-authored the Gender Identity in U.S. Surveillance (GenIUSS) Group and Sexual Minority Assessment Research Team (SMART) summarizing best practices for collecting sexual orientation and gender identity measures from adults and adolescents on surveys.
Bianca D.M. Wilson, Rabbi Barbara Zacky Senior Scholar of Public Policy , Williams Institute
Soon Kyu Choi, Policy Analyst, Wiliams Institute
Sonali Patel, Policy Fellow, Chapin Hall
- Sampling and measurement matters – how we select and recruit participants, and the items (questions) we use to assess sexual orientation, gender identity and expression - impact the findings and the claims we can make from the data.
- Data agreements and mechanisms that include collection of data on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression from youth being assisted by homelessness service providers is important. This would help agencies that serve youth experiencing homelessness to understand their clientele and serve as a reliable data source for researchers and policy makers.
Given what empirical research exists, we still need to better understand:
- Pathways that explain why LGBTQ youth are overrepresented among youth experiencing homelessness. Is it higher rates at entry or barriers to exiting or both?
- Intersectionality in the context of LGBTQ youth homelessness, given the large numbers of LGBTQ youth who are also racial or ethnic minorities. Given what is known about racial differences in pathways to youth homelessness, it is not likely that LGBTQ issues explain most of what we know about the longstanding linkages between racism, family poverty, and youth homelessness- so how do we explain the simultaneous overrepresentation of racial, sexual, and gender minority youth?