Cyndi Lauper’s Forty to None Project comes to Houston.
by David Goldberg
This November, Houston becomes one of the first cities in the United States to participate in Camp True Colors, a fresh take on the classic sleepaway experience designed for homeless LGBT youth. The program is inspired by Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund and its Forty to None Project, and will launch in Texas via Hatch Youth (formerly an acronym for Houston Area Teen Coalition of Homosexuals) and One Voice Texas. Though the camp lasts for just one long weekend, it represents the coming together of many causes in a city that has taken a strong stand on LGBT homelessness.
Annual estimates show that between 500,000 and 1.6 million youth are homeless or runaways, and that a staggering 40 percent identify as LGBT. And as only 3–5 percent of the country’s total youth population identifies as LGBT, it’s clear that our community can’t remain complacent about this LGBT crisis for much longer. Fortunately, Houston has played a key role in the national fight for some time, and according to Jama Shelton (Forty to None project director), this city was chosen to host the next camp for a reason.
“Houston and Harris County have been working on the issue of LGBT homelessness in a way that other communities aren’t,” Shelton told OutSmart during a recent interview. “It was important to [bring Forty to None to Houston] and support that work and bring attention to the efforts that are happening here.” After consulting with the True Colors headquarters in New York and through extensive visits, Shelton and her team became aware of the fact that Houston has at least a dozen organizations that are dedicated to LGBT youth, which they see as a major indicator of the city’s advanced understanding and reach.
Shelton soon partnered with Hatch and One Voice Texas, and held a coalition meeting to address the issue on a local scale. Shelton says she was impressed by the broadness of the assembled parties: “We had cell-phone providers, we had researchers from the University of Houston, we had people from the juvenile justice system, and from the child welfare system. What’s really going to matter and create a successful movement is [getting the people] coming together across domains.”
Impressive community organizing wasn’t Houston’s only draw, at least in Shelton’s case. At the age of twenty-one, the Mississippi native found herself kicked out of her own home—relegated to the status of a gay runaway. Twenty-one years later, she admits that the root of her work came from “getting in a car and moving to Houston,” where she worked with DiverseWorks and Hatch Youth.
But as she became more involved in direct service and care of homeless youth, she also became more frustrated. “I was seeing the same systemic issues and discrimination and problems on the macro level that would not be resolved by the work I was doing.” After moving to New York and receiving master’s and doctoral degrees in social work, she came in contact with Lauper’s burgeoning cause and has been instrumental in its development ever since. As an advocate for the rights of our homeless youth, Shelton, the former runaway turned PhD, stands as a paragon for what care, community activism, and individual empowerment can accomplish.
Shelton’s division of True Colors, the Forty to None Project, uses comprehensive research and interactions in over a dozen cities and with over forty health-care organizations to educate and inform health-care providers, educators, and care organizations. Spurring action from the federal government on the issue of LGBT youth homelessness is also part of the agenda. Her team targets at-risk youth and attempts to resolve entropic family situations before they leave a child homeless. They try to find the best care for those who are already on the street. “There are no other national organizations that work specifically on national LGBT youth homelessness,” Shelton stresses.
Camp True Colors Texas will be the third project of its kind from Lauper’s nonprofit, after successful runs in New York and Minnesota. The aim of the program is surprisingly simple: give disenfranchised teenagers the opportunity to enjoy the same basic coming-of-age camp rituals that many other teens experience. Sports, team building, and communal living aren’t necessarily just blithe ways to shake off the summer heat. Shelton believes that these rites could be an essential boon to a deprived young person. “They may not have engaged in these type of activities because [they lacked] opportunity and access, and because queer kids are often told they aren’t good enough to participate.” As the program develops, direct feedback from the campers will allow Shelton’s team to improve future incarnations.
While Houston has played a huge part in launching a nationwide war against queer youth homelessness, more local action is still needed. Camp True Colors needs volunteers. As One Voice Texas and Hatch Youth come together to make November’s camp a success, it’s essential that they receive support from the community—and Shelton looks forward to seeing Houston come through once again.
“I travel to different cities as part of my job,” she says. “One of the things that stands out in places like this is collaboration—that idea of different people from different parts of the community coming together to make change. That might seem simple, but a lot of cities struggle with it.”
David Goldberg is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.