Sheltering in Place is an Impossibility for Atlanta’s LGBTQ Homeless Youth

Turn on the news. Scroll through Instagram. Go to the grocery store. No matter where or what you’re doing, the impact of COVID-19 is inescapable.

Anxiety is high. Emotions are out of control and wits are nearing their ends. On top of it all, we’re struggling to keep pace with the latest health mandates and precautions that seem to change by the hour. It began with “wash your hands” and evolved into social distancing, until we were all resigned to our respective homes to “shelter in place.”

But for many—approx. 3,200 youth in Atlanta experiencing homelessness— “sheltering in place” is an impossibility.

And as an organization that exists to serve Atlanta’s homeless youth, and homeless LGBTQ youth in particular, this means our work has never been more important.

According to health experts at the CDC, unhoused people are among the most at risk of infection, as they’re not able to comply with most, if any, of the social distancing and prevention guidelines. Within the unhoused population, homeless youth are a large majority. LGBTQ youth then represent over twice the overall youth in reports of unstable housing, research published in 2019 by Laura Baams, Bianca D.M. Wilson, and Stephen T. Russell shows.

To make matters more complex, a recent report released by The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ youth in crisis, outlines the serious implications the COVID-19 crisis might have over the psychological health of LGBTQ youth. The nonprofit cited physical distancing, financial strain, and increased anxiety associated with the pandemic as being among the most worrisome problems.

My staff and I have done all in our power to keep the doors of Lost-n-Found open—an action that many other homeless support centers have not been able to do.

Over the last two months, I’ve been faced with some of the most difficult decisions of my career. I’ve been challenged daily to define and defend what safety and protection mean for our staff and the clients we serve.

The pandemic has threatened to derail the progress of our organization and the progress being made by our youth, but we’re determined not to let that happen.

For me, this work is personal. I’m not only the director of an organization that supports homeless LGBTQ youth. I am an LGBTQ survivor of homelessness. I know all too well the daily fears that come with not knowing where you will lay your head at night or when you’ll take a shower again. I also know the fears I’ve faced during this pandemic—fear of illness, lack of job security, isolation.

Yet, even to me, the thought of experiencing both homelessness and a pandemic at once is unimaginable. But to our youth, it’s the reality.

To ensure we could remain open safely, we worked directly with public health officials to adapt our facilities and procedures for compliance, including testing of every client as soon as the resources became available to do so.

Because of this, we’ve not had to turn away any youth during this time. We’ve opened our doors daily and without condition. We’ve also committed to sheltering all of our youth until the crisis ends.

As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Lost-n-Found, like the rest of the world, is assessing the damage and working to find a path forward. Obviously, that will depend on our ability to garner additional resources.

I am encouraged. Our young people will have that effect on you. They remain some of the most optimistic and determined individuals I’ve ever known. I also feel sure that this organization will attract the necessary finances.

Whenever I look at the numbers and get discouraged, I think of our youth who are depending on us for their survival. I think of Aerglo. Aerglo is 20 years old. She lives in our transitional house and is on the path to self-sufficiency.

She had been living in her car for months before finding Lost-n-Found just weeks before the pandemic hit. She’s employed, working on the pandemic front lines as a nurse technician at Emory Hospital.

Aerglo gets emotional when she talks about her experience at the house and her house manager, Chimere. “I know she’s really there for us. Like 100% of the way. If we asked her for anything, she’ll try her best.

At the house I know I have a support system and a safe space.”

I am so proud of our staff. They have been extremely diligent, resourceful and, if possible, even more compassionate and invested in the livelihood of our youth than ever before.

The road ahead will have its challenges, but the resiliency of our staff assures me that we will prevail.

Many of our traditional revenue streams have been impacted, including our greatest source of revenue, the Lost-n-Found Thrift Store. To make up for the significant shortfall, we’ve applied for public and private grants that have helped get us through. We’re also counting on the community’s usual strong support—plus some.

The youth we serve must be ready to forge ahead once the pandemic lifts.