What you need to know
The leading cause of homelessness among two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (2SLGBTQ+) youth is identity-based family violence resulting from a young person coming out as 2SLGBTQ+. 2SLGBTQ+ youth make up 20 to 40 per cent of the homeless youth population across North America. Based on the research, many of the risks associated with family violence and abuse are higher for young people who identify as 2SLGBTQ+. There is limited research examining family violence among 2SLGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, researchers in this study engaged a group of 2SLGBTQ+ youth at risk of, and experiencing, homelessness in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and surrounding areas in Ontario, Canada, to examine their experiences of family violence before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is this research about?
Previous studies have reported that family violence and rejection are associated with serious physical and mental health outcomes among 2SLGBTQ+ youth. This includes post-traumatic stress disorder, increased risk of suicide, anxiety, depression and substance use. During the COVID-19 pandemic, family violence significantly increased. Multiple factors are associated with increased family violence during pandemics, including:
- financial difficulties and stress
- social distancing
- quarantine and isolation
- increased exposure to abusive relationships
- closure of crucial community resources
- decreased access to support.
Because of the pandemic, employment and housing situations changed for many youth. They were forced to return to their parents’ homes and quarantine with unsupportive and/or abusive family members. This resulted in high rates of reported cases of family violence.
This is the first study to investigate family violence among 2SLGBTQ+ youth at risk of, and experiencing, homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What did the researchers do?
The researchers conducted a mixed-methods study examining the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on 2SLGBTQ+ youth at risk of, and experiencing, homelessness in the GTA and surrounding areas. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from January 2021 to June 2021.
Youth had to meet the following inclusion criteria:
- self-identify as 2SLGBTQ+
- aged 14–29
- at risk of, or experiencing, homelessness:
- living with unsupportive family or in housing situations lacking security or stability
- having financial difficulties paying rent
- staying at a shelter or housing program
- living without caregivers/parents and unable to secure stable, safe or consistent housing)
- living in the GTA (e.g., Toronto, Durham, Peel, etc.) or surrounding areas (e.g., Barrie, Kitchener, etc.).
Key informants (frontline staff and management) were also interviewed from youth-serving organizations, housing programs, child protection agencies and government shelter operations in the GTA and surrounding areas.
Participants completed three surveys that were distributed over six months. A semi-structured, in-depth, one-on-one virtual interview was also conducted with youth who expressed an interest in participating in an interview and invited key informants.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers analyzed data from 92 2SLGBTQ+ youth and 15 key informants. Youth participants were found to be living in a variety of housing situations, including, transitional housing, public spaces, emergency shelters and with family. The average age that youth first experienced homelessness was 16 years old. The majority of youth reported family violence, specifically identity-based family rejection, as their primary pathway into homelessness.
Pre-pandemic history of family violence
The majority of youth reported difficult family environments prior to becoming homeless. These youth had major safety concerns at home due to experiencing and witnessing ongoing family violence, including emotional, psychological and physical abuse.
Researchers found that multiple sources of family violence led to safety concerns, including:
- mental health issues among family members
- parental alcohol and substance use
- financial difficulties in the family
- homophobia and transphobia.
More than half of the youth reported involvement with child protection services due to long histories of abusive and violent home situations. This was similar to previous research findings on youth homelessness.
Pre-pandemic identity-based family violence
The majority of youth reported experiencing identity-based family rejection and discrimination resulting from their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Nearly 68 per cent of youth experienced verbal abuse from a family member based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Almost 31 per cent of youth experienced physical violence from a family member based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Researchers also found that 2SLGBTQ+ identity-based family rejection was the main reason that led youth to homelessness.
Family violence since the pandemic
Researchers found that 72 per cent of youth experienced verbal or emotional abuse and 39 per cent experienced physical abuse from family, regardless of whether they were living with their family during the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately 38 per cent of youth were living with their family at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, interviews with key informants highlighted how parent-child violence had increased during the pandemic.
Sources of family violence since the pandemic
Youth and key informants linked the increase in family violence during the pandemic to various sources, including:
- increased time together
- heightened financial difficulties
- stress regarding COVID-19 public health measures
- decreased social escape
- decreased access to previous ways of coping.
Nearly 74 per cent of youth who were living with family at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic reported increased conflict linked to privacy and personal space compared to before the pandemic. Similarly, approximately 65 per cent of youth who lived with their family at some point during the pandemic reported increased conflict in their household related to financial reasons (e.g., spending, purchases, paying bills).
The researchers found that overall, family violence occurred due to financial difficulties. Interviews with key informants highlighted that the increase in family violence was due to the increase in time together, isolation, and COVID-19 public health measures. As a result, youth had fewer methods to socially escape, so they were unable to cope in ways they did before the pandemic.
Identity-based family violence since the pandemic
Identity-based reasons stemming from youths’ sexual orientation and/or gender identity were a common source of family violence. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 30 per cent of youth who were living with their family reported an increase in 2SLGBTQ+ identity-based violence and rejection in their household. 25 per cent of youth who were not living with their family reported an increase in 2SLGBTQ+ identity-based violence and rejection in their place of residence. Researchers also found that many experienced challenges escaping their home environments because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Effects of family violence
The majority of youth experienced mental health difficulties since the beginning of the pandemic, including anxiety, depression and suicidality. These were associated with a variety of factors:
- loss of employment
- lack of access to health services
- living in an abusive household
- being unable to secure safe and inclusive housing options.
All participants reported experiencing anxiety and symptoms of depression. Additionally, 55 per cent of youth scored in the range of clinically significant for problematic alcohol and/or substance use. Approximately 79 per cent of youth engaged in non-suicidal self-injury, and 33 per cent of participants reported attempting suicide since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Importance of family relationships
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 48 per cent of youth reported that the quality of their relationships with family members had worsened. Close to 21 per cent of youth reported that the quality of their relationships with family stayed the same. Six per cent of youth experienced improvement in their relationships with family.
Overall, the findings suggest that youth participants had experienced family violence before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority reported experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ identity-based family violence, which significantly increased for those who were living with their family during the pandemic.
Researchers found that more than half of youth participants (58 per cent) were living with family before the COVID-19 pandemic compared to 38 per cent since the pandemic began. The survey data also revealed that almost all youth participants experienced poor mental health—including suicidality, depression and anxiety—and increased alcohol and/or substance use during the pandemic.
Limitations of the research
The researchers note that their study had several limitations. There was a lack of diversity within the survey sample because the majority of youth who were recruited were connected to support services and did not represent the broader population of 2SLGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the sample size was too small. Therefore, the researchers were unable to analyze data between socio-demographic groups (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation and ethno-racial identity).
Also, because the study design was cross-sectional, the researchers were unable to determine causality. They could not directly link family violence issues raised by youth to the effects of the pandemic.
How can you use this research?
The researchers suggest that all levels of government and policy-makers prioritize 2SLGBTQ+ specialized mental health. There is a need for population-based support services and training for all staff in mental health services. To reduce the impacts of isolation, existing in-person community supports are essential for youth who do not feel safe in their home. Lastly, it is important to increase access to technology by expanding data coverage and providing devices to 2SLGBTQ+ youth in need.
About the researchers
Alex Abramovich1,2,3, Nelson Pang 1, Amanda Moss1
- Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, ON, Canada
- Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
- Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada