Essentially, Westbrook said, a grassroots movement is being organized in the city to develop a “triage” plan to help LGBT youth who are looking for immediate aid to find a safe space for that night and perhaps several nights. The effort could include housing the youth in a home or hotel while long-term residential plans are finalized.
In Atlanta, the number one place to provide emergency shelter for homeless youth is Covenant House, which provides around-the-clock housing for people ages 17-21 as well as food, clothing and other necessities.
A representative from Covenant House did not return a call by press time.
Another effort is underway by the L.O.V.E. Coalition, registered as a Georgia nonprofit corporation, to find a building by next year to refurbish and provide emergency shelter 24 hours a day specifically for LGBT youth ages 18-24, said Executive Director Stephon Collins.
The L.O.V.E. Coalition is working with YouthPride on the shelter, Collins said.
Terence McPhaul, executive director of YouthPride, did not mention at the town hall forum he was working with the L.O.V.E. Coalition on the project, but did say YouthPride hoped to have an emergency shelter facility open in the next year to two years.
The proposed facility would offer housing for six to 10 young people and also develop a program for transitional housing and then permanent housing, Collins said. He said the coalition has raised between $2,000-$3,000 over the past year for the facility.
The L.O.V.E. Coalition works with homeless youth now and refers them for emergency housing to the Young Adult Guidance Center on Hightower Road in southwest Atlanta, Collins said.
Collins said the L.O.V.E. Coalition’s shelter would likely be located in downtown Atlanta because of its easy access to public transportation and because that is where many homeless youth tend to congregate.
McPhaul confirmed his organization is working with the L.O.V.E. Coalition to provide an emergency shelter for homeless LGBT young adults.
“We [YouthPride] have always done housing, social services. We have a program called YouthPride Home and are always trying to get youth into safe spaces with appropriate resources. We are targeting next year [to open a shelter with L.O.V.E. Coalition] which is part of a comprehensive program. We want youth to become self-sufficient and stay off the street,” McPhaul said.
The Gateway Center is the keystone project of the Regional Commission on Homelessness’ effort to impact chronic homelessness. But Gateway only assists homeless youth who are in custody of their parents, typically their mothers, said Vince Smith, the center’s executive director.
“If an unaccompanied minor younger than 18 comes here, we refer them to Covenant House and StandUP for Kids,” Smith said. “That’s a special niche, that population. Many of these young people are coming out of foster care or DFACS and fall into this group and have special needs. We need partners to speak to these needs.”
LGBT agencies doing enough to help homeless teens?
Westbrook and others want a place specifically serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. When he looked to YouthPride and CHRIS Kids, places he was told specifically serve homeless LGBT youth, he said he realized the agencies do not provide emergency shelter 24 hours a day.
For the past six months, Westbrook said he’s been going out on the streets with people including Art Izzard of the Queer Justice League and a street outreach counselor for StandUP for Kids, looking for LGBT homeless youth. Locations include under bridges, behind Dumpsters, and the adult fantasy store Inserection on Cheshire Bridge Road.
StandUP for Kids is another organization that conducts street outreach but can only provide food and other resources to homeless youth while trying to help them find housing.
“It’s not pretty. It’s really not pretty,” Westbrook said of the plight of homeless LGBT youth in the city.
Westbrook targeted CHRIS Kids and YouthPride in his complaints that not enough is being done to help LGBT homeless youth in the city.
While CHRIS Kids raises “hundreds of thousands of dollars” each year from LGBT people who believe their donations are going to helping LGBT youth, that is not the case, he said.
“The community thinks you are taking care of all our queer homeless youth and it’s not happening, plain and simple,” Westbrook said. “Our community does not realize there is that gap.
“We’re not here to place blame on anybody,” he added. “But CHRIS Kids does not serve our homeless queer youth. Their main focus is foster care … and DFACS. There’s a big difference between a kid that is in a foster care system with a roof over his head…than a kid sucking dick behind a Dumpster to get $10 to get into Inserection to stay warm.”
Inserection rents video booths by the hour.
CHRIS Kids had several representatives at the meeting, including CEO Kathy Colbenson; Beth Keller, director of development; and Cindy Simpson, COO and director of program development.
Simpson stood up to Westbrook’s charges and said the agency does indeed serve LGBT homeless youth. But she also agreed more needs to be done.
“Let’s get this straight about DFACS kids versus homeless kids. We [currently] have 11 children under 5. We have eight parents, seven who were homeless and brought their children. We have 28 foster youth and 22 homeless youth,” Simpson said. “But you are correct, we don’t have a triage, we don’t have an emergency shelter.”
Because CHRIS Kids receives funding through the federal HUD program as well as the Atlanta Housing Authority, it must follow guidelines in finding homes for young people, Simpson said.
Colbenson said in an interview following the town hall forum there is no denying there is a crisis in Atlanta and across the nation of homeless youth.
“I think there’s a crisis for those ages 17-24 and LGBT kids are disproportionately represented in the numbers of homeless youth,” she said. “The problem is there are not enough places. CHRIS Kids can’t do enough, Covenant House can’t do enough, YouthPride can’t do enough because there are not enough resources.”
Colbenson said she and her staff had several meetings with Westbrook to try to explain how their public funding impacts how they are able to provide housing to homeless youth.
“We have four emergency beds but when we are called they are always full. There are constraints we have based on our funding sources,” she said.
YouthPride has no resources and is unable to help find emergency shelter for queer youth, Westbrook alleged at the town hall forum. However, McPhaul argued with Westbrook in a lengthy exchange, saying the agency does in fact help homeless youth but because of its funding through state and federal grants it must follow certain protocols.
McPhaul pointed out the fact Westbrook and others have housed homeless young people in Flex, a gay bathhouse, and that is not something his agency can do.
“We have standards of care we have to follow. We have 5,800 visits each year. These issues are not new to what we deal with. We have hundreds of people coming in each year with housing issues,” McPhaul said.
The Sisters are working with the Stratford Inn, an extended stay hotel in downtown Atlanta, to provide emergency housing for LGBT youth found on the streets at night.
Westbrook said an “aggressive community grassroots” outreach will get underway to every gay-owned business to show their business is a safe space while also providing the hotline number for homeless youth. Volunteers are needed in all aspects of the effort, including a “couch surfing” program to help homeless youth as more permanent housing becomes open, he added.
Background checks of volunteers willing to take in the youth will be conducted to ensure they are safe staying with adults, Westbrook stressed.
The Saint Lost and Found program will focus on helping queer youth, he added, but if straight youth come seeking help they will not be turned away and options will be provided to them, Westbrook said.
Top photo: Dozens of people packed the Rush Center on Nov. 2 to discuss ways to end LGBT youth homelessness. The Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence announced a ‘Saint Lost and Found’fund for emergency shelter. (by Dyana Bagby)