by Megan Smith
Thanks to numerous favorable court rulings, nearly 60 percent of Americans now live in a state where marriage equality is legal. While happy couples rejoice that their commitments to one another are finally legally recognized in their home states, a glaring statistic still haunts the LGBTQ community: nationally, LGBTQ youth compose around 40 percent of the homeless youth population.
One in four youth under the age of 18 find themselves homeless after coming out to their family, according to the American Journal of Public Health. At the local level, HATCH Youth reports that there are estimated to be 800 to 1,200 homeless LGBTQ youth, with approximately 300 on the streets of Houston each night.
“Certainly, marriage equality is important,” says Kristopher Sharp, an intern for One Voice Texas, a collaborative of public, private, and nonprofit organizations that focuses on policy and implementation projects surrounding health and human-service needs. “It also represents equality and the fact that we’re treated as second-class citizens. But, it takes away the focus on where it really should be. Almost half of the homeless youth population is LGBT, and that should be more pertinent because there are young people who are struggling to meet their basic needs and they’re not going to be able to get ahead. If you can’t meet your basic needs, how are you supposed to be stable enough to even get married?”
But an exciting new initiative out of Houston may drastically curb those striking statistics locally—and, with some success, may become a model for the nation. Houston was one of two cities (along with Cincinnati) to be chosen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to participate in the initiative—dubbed “NEST”—which garners participation from numerous organizations from various fields to help prevent LGBTQ youth homelessness. NEST is not an acronym, explains Dr. Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy for One Voice Texas, but rather is supposed to describe “a safe place for somebody to rest, either temporarily or permanently—that’s their home or place where they can grow up, and then be able to go out on their own.”
NEST is ambitious, to say the least, and has numerous subcommittees to tackle all aspects of the LGBTQ youth homelessness problem—from advocacy for these youth within the foster-care system to educating schools and families about LGBTQ issues to providing stable housing conditions.
But the first step, Barillas says, is to properly define and understand “youth” and “homelessness.” For the purposes of NEST, youth is defined as ages 14 to 24—a bit older than the average person might think. However, Barillas explains, “Even if it’s a youth who’s 21 years old, they don’t always fit into the adult homeless population—sometimes developmentally, and also [because of] their needs and their vulnerability as a population.”
Barillas notes that “youth homelessness” means more than living under a bridge with no other options. “Youth don’t tend to be under the bridges where we find homeless adults,” she adds. “It can be couch-surfing or congregating with other youth in hotels or abandoned houses.”
One Voice Texas is most involved with policy work surrounding the advocacy and housing aspects of NEST, Barillas explains. “There is next to nothing currently being done in the Children’s Protective Services system to create a safe and supportive environment for LGBT youth,” she says. Within the system, if an LGBTQ youth is experiencing harassment, one of the main ways staff will try to abate the issue is to isolate the LGBTQ individual, Barillas explains. “Those staff may have every good intention of protecting that young person, but that now makes the youth feel like they did something wrong, and it keeps them from interacting with others,” she says.
The organization also hopes to help create more transitional and permanent housing solutions for these youth. When serving the adult homeless population, Barillas explains, housing is a top priority, so that a stable living situation exists before any problems that may require social services are addressed. With youth, however, this model hasn’t traditionally been used, she says, and youth tend to be overly reprimanded for their mistakes—mistakes that should already be anticipated. “You may have problems, but let’s first get you the security of having a roof over your head and then solve the other problems from there,” Barillas says. “Realize they’re going to make mistakes, but help solve the issues without punishing them severely for their mistakes.”
“We have to focus on changing the narrative around homelessness,” Sharp adds. “It’s because of a set of circumstances that have led to these people being homeless. No one is just automatically homeless. So you have to look at it holistically and address all the issues—not just people not having homes, but what led them to be homeless. You can’t just put people in housing and then suddenly expect them to have everything figured out, because they’ll just do the exact same thing that led them to being homeless. I think NEST is good at looking at how we can be inclusive of all people and address all the issues all together so people don’t end up [homeless] yet again.”
And for those who criticize the initiative for focusing solely on LGBTQ youth, Barillas responds, “So much of this, if changed, is going to affect homeless youth across the board, and we need to start where we can have the highest impact.”
Providing homeless LGBTQ youth with stable, healthy relationships can be just as important as offering them shelter, says Lura Groen, board member of Montrose Grace Place and pastor of Grace Lutheran Church. Montrose Grace Place, which is a secular nonprofit founded by and run out of Grace Lutheran Church, aims to help homeless LGBTQ youth in the area by opening its doors every Thursday night from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. for a free family-style dinner. There, these youth are able to interact with volunteers—who commit to at least a year with the organization—on a weekly basis. “I think the biggest thing that we provide is safety and acceptance,” Groen says. “The really hard reality is that these youth are finding ways to get their physical needs met in ways that we wish they wouldn’t have to, but they are. There is no way that they can get the psychological social needs met on their own—of having safe, accepting adults who are not rejecting them nor taking advantage of them, being present for them, and what that kind of trusting, loving relationship looks like.”
“To me, when you are in vulnerable situations, it’s always good to know there is someone you can come to and that you’re going to see that person weekly,” Montrose Grace Place board president Fran Watson adds. “You are struggling throughout the week, but you can come on Thursday nights, and you can get not only a hot meal and supplies [for] the week, but you’ll have relationships with people you can talk to.”
Following dinner, the youth who choose to stay are invited to participate in a creative activity—such as writing, painting, drag, or yoga—and to visit the organization’s “clothing closet” for clothes, hygiene products, and more. Montrose Grace Place is always in need of volunteers to plan and carry out these creative activities, Groen says, and explains that these volunteers only have to make a one-time commitment instead of agreeing to a full year of service like the group’s direct volunteers. The night ends with a peer support group in which the youth can discuss the happenings of their weeks—good or bad—and ask for feedback from their peers if they so desire.
With November marking Homeless Youth Awareness Month, Groen says one of the best ways for the public to engage with the cause is to try and change the way we look and think about homelessness. “When our homeless youth are on the street, they are trying to look scary—and that’s because they’re petrified,” she says. “So for people who have homes, when you see a teenager on the street who has a big attitude on, have the compassion to see that that’s their self-protection. Their attitude is not there because they’re actually going to hurt you, it’s there because they’re afraid of being hurt by you.”
Within the LGBTQ community, she adds, there is the unfortunate misconception that it’s okay to pick these youth up at bars. “Someone who is homeless and in need of our care cannot consent to sexual encounters even if they’re 18 or older,” Groen says. “That’s a way that our community is failing these youth. Because I’m not sure that everybody realizes that to our youth, that’s sex work, and that’s harmful and abusive. [These homeless youth are] going home with people in order to have a place to sleep, and I don’t think the people that are taking them home realize that’s not a consensual encounter, that’s an encounter based out of need.”
Montrose Grace Place is also very honored to be included in the NEST initiative. “We are ecstatic that NEST is existing,” Groen says. “And we’re glad to be invited to the meetings and to share the experience of what we’ve seen of youth homelessness in Houston. And if, in 2020, there’s no more need for Montrose Grace Place and we have to shut our doors, that will be a cause for rejoicing.”
Keeping Families Together
Local organization helps prevent homelessness by teaching acceptance.
When Tom Chappell’s adult son came out to him as a gay man 16 years ago, he had no idea it would lead him to joining the fight against LGBTQ youth homelessness. Chappell accepted his son, joined PFLAG, and is still a member to this day. His son’s partner of 13 years, David, was not so lucky—after coming out, he was disowned by his parents and was on his own. “So I became a voyeur of the situation of what homelessness can be and what parental projection can be like,” Chappell says.
After witnessing David’s story and learning more about the LGBTQ youth homelessness problem at PFLAG meetings, Chappell wanted to get involved, but initially could not find any organizations dealing with the issue, he says. “I finally realized that if something was going to happen, I needed to do something about it,” Chappell says.
With the help of other PFLAG members and passionate friends, he formed the Association for Family and Community Integrity, Inc. (AFCI), an organization dedicated to preventing LGBTQ youth homelessness by advocating on their behalf within the family system and in the greater community. Chappell now serves as a board member of the organization.
AFCI, which is heavily involved with the education subcommittee of the NEST initiative, has developed a free class for parents of LGBTQ children of any age that has been offered through Leisure Learning for the past year. The class, titled “What If Your Child Is Gay?,” covers topics such as the coming-out experience, the science of sexual orientation, the consequences of rejection, and how to maintain a healthy relationship with your child. Its goal, Chappell says, is to help parents make sense of the family dynamics that occur when their child comes out as LGBTQ. “You really need to understand your child,” he says. “Because children are now coming out as being gay at 13, 14 years old, and parents are not ready for this. Parents need somebody to talk to, and they’re not ready to go to PFLAG.”
The organization is also in the process of developing three additional courses that will complement the first, Chappell says. They also hope to build a drop-in center for homeless youth in the next couple of years, followed by an LGBTQ-only shelter. —Megan Smith
Get Involved in the Fight Against LGBTQ Youth Homelessness
NEST: If you or your organization would like to get involved with the NEST initiative, e-mail [email protected]
One Voice Texas: For more information on One Voice Texas, or to donate to the organization, visit onevoicetexas.org.
Association for Family and Community Integrity: For more information on AFCI or to volunteer with the organization, visit glbthomeless.org. You can also sign up for AFCI’s newsletter by e-mailing [email protected]lbthomeless.org.
Montrose Grace Place: Montrose Grace Place is currently accepting donations, as well as applications for direct volunteers, volunteers to do creative activities with the youth, and volunteer groups to prepare and serve their Thursday night dinners. For more information or to get involved, visit montrosegraceplace.blogspot.com.