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By John Wright
On any given night, roughly 200 LGBT youth may be homeless on the streets of Houston.
Many have been kicked out by their parents due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Often, they’re forced to choose between so-called survival sex (in exchange for food and shelter) or going hungry and sleeping under bridges.
Beginning this fall, however, they’ll have two new options in Montrose.
Last month, the Pink Giraffe House, a drop-in center for homeless youth, opened its doors at 2304 Mason St.
And in late October, Homeless Gay Kids Houston plans to unveil a similar facility at 3611 Montrose Blvd., offering food, showers, laundry facilities, clothing, toiletries, and a safe space for young people to spend their days.
Although the Pink Giraffe House and Homeless Gay Kids Houston will provide similar services less than a mile apart, they hardly view each other as competition.
“We fully expect there are going to be more kids than we can have in the house at one time, so we’re thinking of overflow options, and another drop-in center within a few blocks is an excellent overflow option,” said Barbara Carroll, director of operations for Homeless Gay Kids Houston. “I think there are way more kids out there that need these services than even two drop-in centers can handle.”
Gaétane Pauwels, founder and CEO of the Pink Giraffe House, agreed. “The kids can come here, and then they can go over there and get more services. How awesome is that?”
Deb Murphy, a youth services specialist for the Montrose Center, noted that the center’s Hatch Youth program has been serving LGBT youth for the last three decades.
Murphy welcomed the addition of the drop-in centers, adding that she hopes they join a local collaborative that is working to end LGBT youth homelessness as part of a federal pilot program.
Houston was one of two cities selected for the NEST program, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Montrose Center is the lead local partner.
Murphy said the NEST collaborative has been focusing primarily on “system changes,” such as a toolkit for donors and a policy manual to make existing facilities affirming for LGBT youth.
“I think it’s wonderful that queer kids and their issues are getting the attention they need,” Murphy said. “We look forward to working with new people with their new ideas to help the kids we’ve been working with for 29 years.”
The Pink Giraffe House grew out of Montrose Grace Place, a ministry of Grace Lutheran Church that has long provided weekly family-style dinners for homeless youth. Those dinners are continuing every Thursday night at the Pink Giraffe House, but the youth who have dinner on Thursday can now come back every weekday.
“They love the house,” Pauwels said. “They’re kind of helping us decide what services are going to be a top priority.”
Both the Pink Giraffe House and Homeless Gay Kids Houston will place a heavy emphasis on serving LGBT youth, and neither drop-in center plans to turn anyone away.
“When I have a child that comes in homeless, I don’t ask them, ‘Do you identify as LGBTQ?’” Pauwels said. “You give them services.”
Pauwels estimated that 30 percent of homeless youth who come for the Thursday dinners—as well as the activities and peer-support groups that follow—are LGBT. According to University of Houston researchers, 25 percent of the city’s homeless youth identify as LGBT. Nationally, 40 percent of homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. In addition to family rejection, LGBT youth may end up on the streets due to harassment at school or abuse and neglect in the state foster-care system. Once they’re homeless, LGBT youth face higher rates of discrimination, exploitation, and violence than their non-LGBT peers, including at traditional shelters.
Neither the Pink Giraffe House nor Homeless Gay Kids Houston will offer transitional housing right away. The drop-in centers will have to refer clients to other agencies for that. But Jeff Hoffman, board chair for Homeless Gay Kids Houston, said he hopes to open a housing facility within a few years.
“That’s clearly a much more expensive undertaking,” Hoffman said.
Formed in June 2015, Homeless Gay Kids has raised $160,000 from private donors, almost exclusively in the LGBT community. Hoffman described the drop-in center as “an interim step,” because the organization’s board wanted to do something quickly.
“As we start to work with the kids and gain their trust, we’ll be able to have our own data and build our own business case to make that dream of housing come true,” he said.
Pauwels said the Pink Giraffe House has no immediate plans for housing, but they do have a “crisis room” where one person can stay temporarily. Recently, a 17-year-old female victim of sex trafficking, who identified as LGBT, was referred to the center by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She stayed for five weeks.
“We reunited her with her grandmother in Atlanta,” Pauwels said.
The Pink Giraffe House is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, while Homeless Gay Kids Houston will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week beginning October 19.
Representatives from both centers said they’re in need of donations and volunteers.
Pauwels said Pink Giraffe House is especially looking for retired teachers and other volunteers who can provide remedial tutoring and GED test preparation.
Homeless Gay Kids Houston, meanwhile, seeks volunteers who will commit to serving for a minimum of six months.
“We hope volunteers will establish a mentoring relationship with the kids,” Carroll said. “It’s a very, very satisfying thing to do.”