A new feature in Rolling Stone investigates the growing number of religious parents who are condemning their sons and daughters to life on the streets. “The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families,” offers plenty of heartbreaking stories to make its case. But what really caught my eye were all the enormous numbers the author throws around.
Take, for instance, this paragraph:
Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population. The Center for American Progress has reported that there are between 320,000 and 400,000 homeless LGBT youths in the United States.
How could that be?
According to a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development – which calculates homeless data by using numbers from U.S. shelters, which report on how many people are staying in their facilities and how many were turned away –there were 610,042 homeless on any given night in the United States in 2013, a drop of almost 4 percent from the year earlier. So does that mean that more than half of all homeless are gay teens?
Actually no, because within that 610,042 homeless, 222,197 were members of a family unit staying together. So if we were to simply take the assertion offered in Rolling Stone without context, we would have to accept that nearly every unattached homeless person was an estranged LGBT youth. Obviously, that can’t be right.
Well, the Center for American Progress study mentioned in Rolling Stone piece –which is itself just an aggregation of a few other studies – concedes that any measurement of the homeless youth population in the United States is unreliable, but puts the population anywhere between 1.6 million and 2.8 million. So, the entire population of Nevada or Kansas. That’s a lot of people.
How did they land on this number? Most of the studies used by CAP measure the this population by adding up everyone who has been homeless for at least one night at some point within the past 12 months. Obviously, it’s a disaster for many of those kids, but it’s also a preposterous way to measure the impact of homelessness in general. A kid running away from home for one night, or even for one week, does not face the same struggles as someone who is chronically homeless.
It’s also worth mentioning that 90 percent — seven of ten in one study – of those who were homeless were 18 to 24 years old. I certainly don’t think that’s ok, but it would be absurd not to mention that there’s a difference between a 12-year-old runaway and 20 year old. Unless, of course, you were attempting to overstate the depth of the problem.
And how about these odious “highly religious” parents? Though it is undoubtedly a problem – and considering what I saw growing up, it’s doubtful to me that the problem is just with “religious” parents – there’s absolutely no evidence in this piece that there is new epidemic of exiled gay kids. The author claims that “one study estimates that up to 40 percent of LGBT homeless youth leave home due to family rejection.” The only report I could find that makes any analogous claim is a decidedly unscientific study offered by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation, which asserts that the number of kids pushed from home for being gay could be anywhere between 20 and 40 percent.
For the most part, both the studies and the piece argue that since more kids are coming out earlier, more fundamentalists are throwing them out. This might be true, though I’m skeptical. It’s equally true, I think, to say that more people are accepting of gay kids than when I was young.
Years ago, the CDC was throwing around imaginary numbers to scare people about obesity, double-counting deaths – a person would die from obesity and lung cancer and be counted twice. I attempted to add all the death totals from all the chilling studies that were around warning us about all sort of killers – salt, second-hand smoke, fatty foods, sugar, etc. Soon enough I had surpassed the total of all Americans that had died in that year. That didn’t mean that obesity wasn’t a problem for some. It means that advocates will often say anything to get attention and that outlets like Rolling Stone will publish anything that feeds their preconceived notions about the world.