By Fran Watson
Last year I helped plan a holiday party for some Houston youth. Judging by the laughter in the room, the party was a success. They ate tons of food, opened presents, and decorated a Christmas tree and some gingerbread houses. At the end of the night, one of the kids shouted, “Best Christmas ever!” Throughout the night, I was constantly smiling because everyone was having such a great time. However, there was a moment when a wave of sadness washed over me. It happened as I was watching a baby giggle while playing with some wrapping paper.
I realized I was looking at a second generation of homelessness.
I am the president of Montrose Grace Place (MGP), a drop-in center whose main objective is to create a safe space for LGBTQ homeless youth in the Montrose area of Houston. Because MGP is open each Thursday and Christmas was on a Thursday, we hosted a holiday party for the youth on Christmas night. Members of the community donated food, time, and gifts to ensure the youth would have a great evening. Based on past years’ attendance, there was an assumption that the party would have poor attendance because the holidays usually allow some temporary family reconciliation. Unfortunately, this Christmas was not the case, as MGP was at full capacity, which meant the youth at the party were unable to go to their family home on Christmas night—or any other night.
Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. The main reason LGBT youth find themselves homeless is family rejection and abuse when coming out as gay or transgender. The effect of youth homelessness is detrimental, as the youth must find ways to survive. Many shelters do not allow LGBT youth to occupy beds, and the shelters that do are overcrowded and dangerous. Oftentimes, youth have to turn to illegal means of survival such as dealing drugs or prostitution. The results are often criminal records, physical and psychological trauma, teen pregnancy, and STD infections such as HIV and syphilis.
At Grace Place, we seek to provide a safe space by having volunteers on staff who build healthy, safe relationships with the youth. Each Thursday, the youth and volunteers share a seated, family style meal, where conversations take place and the youth can have a safe consistent place where they can interact with someone who is not there to judge but to listen, talk, and be there. For the past five years, we have done that, and we will continue to do this until there is no longer a need for drop-in centers for homeless youth—LGBTQ or otherwise.
The reality is MGP and other drop-in centers are not enough. LGBTQ homeless need access to safe housing, and it takes resources, community support, advocacy, and legislation to accomplish this task.
It takes a village.
We must remember that as we celebrate the victories of the LGBTQ community such as marriage equality and the passage of some Texas nondiscrimination ordinances in San Antonio, Houston, and Plano, there are young people who are sleeping on different couches every night because they do not have access to a safe home. There are young people who are sleeping on the streets because they do not have access to a safe home. There are young people contracting HIV because their means of survival are very limited.
As a community who seeks to progress forward, we have to make sure we turn around and hold out our hands for our LGBTQ homeless youth. They had the courage to come out, and because of this, some of them have had their foundations ripped from them. As a community, we must protect them.
As a community, we must help to rebuild the foundation.
Fran Watson is a native Houstonian who by day is an Estate Planning and Probate Attorney and a social justice activist by night. She serves as the current president of Montrose Grace Place, an organization serving LGBTQ homeless youth in the Montrose area. Her passion is for equality and to ensure people are treated with dignity and respect.